Prospect Hill, a preserved, abandoned building hidden deep in the woods of Jefferson County, Mississippi, is a connection to the history of Liberia in West Africa and to the lives of descendant communities of over 300 enslaved-ancestors from Mississippi.
Former slaves of Capt. Isaac Ross established the Liberian colony known as “Mississippi-in-Africa”, as called for in his will.
Shawn Lambert, assistant professor of anthropology at Mississippi State University, began an excavation of the site June 18, assisted by James Andrew Whitaker, a cultural anthropologist.
A foundation in the ground adjacent to the big house, barely noticeable, is the primary focus during this first broad excavation. Lambert and Whitaker believe many of the enslaved people worked and lived in what could be a dependency, or kitchen house.
With help from participants from the public, they unearthed evidence on the 23.3 acres dating around the early 1800s to late 1800s supporting their hypothesis about the lives and cultural activity: gunflints, chunks of rock used to generate sparks to ignite gunpowder; leadshots, originally used in muskets and early rifles; a 4- to 7-inch knife-blade; dark, rich green fragments possibly from a wine bottle, white pieces from a ceramic plate, and cut (tapered-rectangular) and square (hand-forged) nails.
“These artifacts don’t just provide insight into the daily lives of the people who lived and the tools utilized in their world, but the environment and landscape of how they interacted with each other,” Lambert told Mississippi Today.
Lambert and Whitaker began the archaeological excavation of the Lorman plantation site to understand how aspects of material and social culture from the slaves’ lives in Mississippi were carried through this transAtlantic reverse migration.
As leader of the excavation, Lambert taught the participants archaeological methods and ethical archaeology to have a more “holistic narrative” of what occurred at Prospect Hill.
Nikki Mattson, a Southeast field representative for the Archaeological Conservancy, participated in the dig because she came across the book “Mississippi in Africa” by Alan Huffman around 15 years ago. She said she was at a place and time in her life where she was questioning a lot of the “deep inherent things” she was taught growing up in the Mississippi Delta, and the book was a pivotal moment for her.
After gaining her master’s degree in archaeology, she applied to the conservancy and found that it owned that property. Mattson said she takes any chance to be involved seriously.
“Even though these artifacts might seem kind of insignificant, little things to some people, it’s really huge,” Mattson explained. “It’s all these little pieces of a bigger story, and that’s exciting.”
Finding materials at the site and combining them with historical records to gain a better understanding of the past, while providing a learning experience, Lambert said.
“I think working at this site and working with the descendant communities can have a positive effect on people who come and work. (We can) realize the history and acknowledge the history that has gone on here,” Lambert said.
He said he believes this type of fieldwork can educate people statewide. By looking at the shapes, colors and textures of found artifacts, he can uncover the history of a place and reveal aspects of life that would otherwise be lost.
“I think archaeology is a powerful tool (that allows us) to talk about history and a history that maybe Mississippi doesn’t talk about a lot,” Lambert explained, “our history of enslavement.”
Whitaker, a cultural anthropologist, began his research in West Africa and talked with descendants and some indigenous people not related to the Mississippi settlers.
This summer, he conducted 12 interviews in Liberia, along with 52 last summer in Monrovia and different locations of Sinoe County, Liberia, (the capital of Greenville, Louisiana and Lexington). His research inspired the idea for this excavation.
“This kind of research uncovers aspects about settlement and the history of Liberia as it relates to the United States,” Whitaker continued, “and also as it precedes those interactions with the United States by a long time.”
Whitaker said he and Lambert are attempting to trace this cultural movement, through this collaborative project with the Archaeological Conservancy and the descendant communities of the enslaved ancestors along with grants funded by the Mississippi Humanities Council and Mississippi State University Global Grant.
“We want to understand more about the lives of the people who never went to Liberia and also the ones who later became the first American LIberian settlers.” Whitaker said. “We’re hoping to follow up this excavation with a second one, maybe one or two years from now, to map the material culture in Mississippi to the material culture in Liberia.”
Through this mapping, they aim to uncover aspects of ancestors’ lives in Mississippi that were carried with them and trace the changes in the social lives of those same people.
“I think using the power of archaeology to connect the past with today is powerful,” Lambert said. “This is the beginning of what could be something a lot larger and much more special for research and this community.”
The excavation continues through June 28.
Revolutionary War veteran Capt. Issac Ross founded Prospect Hill in the woods of former Mississippi Territory around 1808.
Traveling from South Carolina to Jefferson County, Mississippi, Ross brought hundreds of slaves and freed Black people he served with in the Revolutionary War.
Soon, his accumulated wealth allowed him access to more acreage and slaves. He allowed his slaves to read and write, illegal at the time in Mississippi. They also learned skills and trades.
When Ross prepared his will in 1834, he stipulated that his plantation should be sold and the proceeds used to pay for his slaves’ passage to the newly established colony of Liberia in western Africa formed by a branch of the American Colonization Society, the Mississippi Colonization Society, of which he was a member.
He didn’t want families separated, and those who remained at the plantation would work for pay and be considered free men. The will stipulated his plans would be set in motion once his daughter, Margaret Allison Reed, passed away. Ross died two years after the will was drawn up, and Reed shortly after in 1838.
It was left to Isaac Ross Wade, son of Jane Brown Ross (one of Capt. Ross’ three daughters) and the executor of the will, to uphold the will’s provisions. Instead, Wade contested the will’s legitimacy for more than a decade.
He stopped the slaves from gaining their freedom, leading to a revolt. The mansion burned to the ground in April 1846 under alleged suspicious circumstances, taking the life of a 6-year-old girl. Overseers, hearing rumors of the slaves’ plot to kill the family, lynched at least 11 slaves believed to be involved.
A few months later, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ross’s will. About 120 of Ross’ 160 slaves left for Africa, while the others remained in Jefferson County as slaves. In total, the coalition society arranged for 300 free ex-slaves to travel to Africa.
The plantation house was finally sold in 1848, but the African colony received none of the proceeds. The house returned to Wade’s possession in 1850, and he built the present-day house there in 1854.
The home survived the Civil War and Wade’s death in 1891. After Wade’s death, his brother Battaille Harrison “BH” Wade retained ownership of the house. From 1956 onward, descendants of those enslaved occupied the house. And in 1968, others occupied the site until it became unlivable through neglect.
It wasn’t until 2011 when the Archaeological Conservancy acquired the property that the preservation of the historical site started.
The existence of this rare Mississippi plantation site spans over two continents and over 200 years, with history embedded in its grounds.
“We know a lot about what went on inside the big house. It’s the other side of the story we want to know (such as) the enslaved people who built it and kept it running and the people who have ties to it,” Jessica Crawford, the Southeast Regional director of the Archaeological Conservancy, told Mississippi Today.
The Archaeological Conservancy primarily works on archaeological evidence buried in the ground. However, Crawford convinced her board of directors to consider Prospect Hill because of the site’s significant history.
As of 2023, Crawford said she is talking to architects to draw a blueprint to preserve the house. She also talked to a private donor who is willing to pay for the proposed plan.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to keep it standing. I don’t know specifically where we will start yet,” Crawford said.
Parts of the house are rotting from previous rains. Plaster on the walls is cracking and falling onto the rotten wooden floor, making it dangerous to walk on. The original porch has not been rebuilt. Termites are eating away at newly constructed wood. In addition, the site lacks water due to lack of community water in the rural area.
“We don’t plan to restore it to some grand plantation house. We want floors so it’s better and safer to walk on,” Crawford explained. “We eventually hope to use it for things like public archaeology events, like this one, and public outreach events like an open house.”
In 2012, one year after the Archaeological Conservancy acquired the site and 3.1 acres, the organization acquired an additional 20 acres. There were many projects to focus on, but replacing the roof was a major concern. The 2017 roof installation was a critical step in preserving the home’s flooring.
“I used to have probably 25 kiddie swimming pools in there catching water every time it rained and that roof absolutely saved it,” Crawford continued. “It’s still dry when it rains, and it wasn’t (dry) for a long time.”
Crawford raised money through donations and grants separate from the organization’s regular funding sources to pay for the new roofing and stabilization of the roofing, which cost $114,611.
The Conservancy obtained a $50,000 emergency preservation grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and raised additional needed capital from donations.
“This place was saved from falling on the ground by a bunch of people. It wasn’t just me, it was a lot of people who cared and came out and gave money and gave time. People volunteered out there so much,” Crawford told Mississippi Today.
“The story of this place is a small picture of what the larger world around us is like. There are a lot of stories there that need to be told. (The enslaved people) names should be known.”