Jesse Metzler Thesis: A Multi Property Documentation Form for Underground Railroad Resources in Indiana County

Written by Jesse Metzler

A fascinating aspect of the history of Indiana County is its link to the Underground Railroad. Individuals interested in history have likely noticed the PA Historical Markers scattered around Indiana County that describe the anti-slavery efforts of the population. One such marker is situated near the corner of Philadelphia Street and South Sixth Street and tells Anthony Hollingsworth’s story. Hollingsworth was one of the known freedom seekers who traveled through Indiana and was the victim of a kidnapping by bounty hunters. Hollingsworth ultimately received legal assistance from the abolitionists of Indiana and eventually settled in Canada.

The Indiana Courthouse circa 1856, the site of the Hollingsworth’s kidnapping trial. Source- Blairsville Area Underground Railroad 2021

There are Underground Railroad sites dispersed across Indiana and Blairsville, including historic buildings and potential archaeological sites. However, there is no definitive inventory of Underground Railroad related properties in Indiana County. The impetus for this thesis was an interest in researching a viable method for recording and preserving a delicate portion of the historical record.  This thesis examines the utility of the National Register Multi Property Documentation Form (MPDF) as a tool for preserving Underground Railroad resources in Indiana County by analyzing three case studies. These case studies are based on MPDFS submitted for Underground Railroad resources in three states: Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio. Examining the MPDFs for these states indicates that cultural resource professionals can utilize them to identify and document Underground Railroad sites.

This thesis’s field component focuses on a historic property

An interpretative sign describing the life of John Graff. The marker is a part of the Blairsville Area Underground Railroad’s driving tour.

in Blairsville linked to the Underground Railroad. The John Graff House was constructed for John Graff during the early nineteenth century. Graff was a prominent entrepreneur, politician, and philanthropist who held abolitionist ideals.  Graff was one of the reported abolitionists of Indiana County who reportedly assisted individuals that utilized the Underground Railroad. Local history suggests that Graff constructed a tunnel under his property that ran to the bank of the Conemaugh River, allowing for discrete travel in and out of Blairsville.  The Graff Property was the subject of a Historic Resource Survey Form (HRSF), which included an architectural survey of the house. A ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey was conducted to ascertain the presence of a tunnel on the property. The HRSF was intended to serve two functions, including the documentation of a known Underground Railroad related property and a potential starting point for developing an MPDF for Underground Railroad resources in western Pennsylvania.  MPDFs offer CRM practitioners the ability to develop a framework for identifying and documenting historic properties and archaeological sites. There is considerable potential for an MPDF to aid in preserving the Underground Railroad resources of Indiana County.

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Nathan Bokros Thesis: Investigating a Wagon Shop

Written by Nathan Bokros

GPR survey to detect anomalies that could indicate the presence of the historic wagon shop

A field can hold much more than grass or corn. There can be much left on the surface or within the soil, like a projectile point, a foundation wall, and even a scatter of broken ceramics, all of which can reveal a story of past human experiences. My thesis focuses on a 19th century wagon making shop that was and still is located within a farmer’s field. The issue, however, is that there are no surface remains or scatter of artifacts on the surface that would indicate a wagon shop was once there. The family who lives on and near the property say that there used to be a wagon shop (or blacksmith shop) at a location in the field where there are three brown stones on the surface, which are said to be the foundation stones of the wagon shop.

So now what? Should the who field be surveyed using shovel test pits (STPs)? Should only the area around the stones be excavated? What if the wagon shop was in another spot in the field or if the stones have been moved since the 1800s after the wagon shop closed down? My answer was to use ground penetrating radar (GPR) to survey the field within three 30 x 30 meter grids. The idea here is to see what is underground without having to dig STPs by using radar waves and a computer to note differences within the soil that may indicate places where potential features like foundation walls or hearths may be. Looking at the data collected by the GPR, see Figure 1, one can figure where it would likely be best to place a larger excavation unit based on patterns and unusual spots collectively referred to as anomalies. The use of GPR rather than STPs saves a lot of time and effort, which is very helpful when there is limited time and help in the midst of a global pandemic.

Results of the GPR survey

Excavation Unit 1 wall showing stratigraphy

Based on the GPR data, three excavation units were planned with Excavation Unit 1 (EU 1) placed to bisect a strong circular anomaly found within the middle of Grid 1, EU 2 placed to bisect the rectangular anomaly found within the bottom right of Grid 1, and EU 3 placed where there was an unusual anomaly in the bottom left of Grid 1. Interestingly, no unusual anomalies were found in the ground near the surface stones. The other two grids had anomalies that were more reflective of the furrows made by plowing, so opening an excavation unit within those grids would not be helpful in finding the wagon shop. Two excavation units have been completed so far, though nothing that could be connected to the wagon shop has been uncovered, only a few pieces of modern refuse. Figure 2 shows the stratigraphy and the lack of features and artifacts of EU 1 that was characteristic of EU 2 as well. With one more excavation unit to go and a possible fourth excavation unit planned near the surface foundation stones, there is still a chance to find something related to the wagon shop or at least eliminate possible location for it.

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African Diaspora Archaeology

The past few years, and especially 2020, saw the reemergence of massive racial equality movements (i.e., Black Lives Matters).  The last time this type of movement was of such large scale and presence was in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement.

Map showing how worldwide African diaspora is because of the vast spread of the slave trade.

Not only did this movement help to move racial equality forward, but it also allowed for the rapid development of African diaspora archaeology.  One of the first African diaspora excavations was at the Kingsley Plantation in Florida conducted by Dr. Charles Fairbanks.  While his methods were not of the New Archaeology style that was emerging during this time, he was responding to the desires of the African American population to be included in the archaeological and historical record.  African diaspora is the study of the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, and post-emancipation society.  Like most archaeological investigations, it uses an interdisciplinary approach encompassing archaeology, anthropology, architectural history, landscape studies and more.  One of the most important aspects of African diaspora that is too often forgotten is the interpretations, oral histories, and information that can be gained from working with the descendant communities.

African diaspora is heavily rooted in politics.  The capture, treatment, and injustices suffered by the subjects of this archaeological discipline were imposed by a white supremacist political ideology.  Fairbanks’ excavation was conducted without a lens of politics (at least for the most part) because he tried to simply state the facts and provide science-based interpretations.  However, because the racism and extreme ideologies exist today, it is important to view archaeological research with some degree of political slant.  This will help guide interpretations and presentation of data in order to prevent extremist interpretations and combat negative stereotype perpetuations.  If only the data were given to a group of people, each one would have a different interpretation, some good, some bad, and some just plain nutty.

By nature, archaeologists bring the past into the present.  We rediscover forgotten memories of the past, such as the presence of slavery in northern area like Long Island, the lives of the enslaves populations,

Ruins of the slave houses at Kingsley Plantation

and the struggled of post-emancipation former slaves.  Our work can also help to explain the present through the past.  Christopher Matthews brought up an excellent point in his 2008 article in the African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter.  He pointed out that while many homesteads and structures that were occupied by whites in the past are still be occupied and used today, but the structures and communities from African American past population are no longer visible, let alone being used (Matthews 2008: 3).  If the struggles of these people in the past are hard to find, how can their current struggles be made visible? History is an important part of reform and activism.  We can map the ideologies that formed racism and how that people are all the same.  By involving descendant communities in the interpretation of their own history, we give them a voice they might never have had and the authority to take claim of their past.


Preventing African diaspora from being seen can only hard activism, treatment of descendant communities, and perpetuate false and inaccurate history.  It is still unclear how the current political climate will impact archaeology as a whole and African diaspora archaeology.  I hope it will bring more light to these excavations and provide more incentive to include the descendant communities.  Only time will tell.


Matthews, Cristopher, N.

2008   Archaeology, Obama, and the Long Civil Rights Movement. African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter 11(4): Article 3, 1-8.

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John Wesley Gilbert 1st Black Archaeologist

As many of us in the archaeology field are aware, there is a large disparity between the white (European ancestry) archaeologists and African American and descendant group archaeologists.  This is a pretty whitewashed field for one that studies so many different cultures.  Many organizations including the Black Trowel Collective and Society of Black Archaeologists are trying to diversify archaeology through outreach, education, and financial support. On the homepage of the Society of Black Archaeologists, there is a panel hosted by Ayana Flewellen on Archaeology in the Time of Black Lives Matter.  I highly recommend listening to it.  The link is here. In honor of Black History Month, this post will highlight a major figure in archaeological history, classical archaeology, and black history.

Photo of Gilbert Source:

John Wesley Gilbert (1864-1923) is considered the first black archaeologist in America and holds a number of other firsts.  He was the first black person to receive a master’s degree from Brown University in 1891, first black professor at Paine College, and the first person to map Eretria in Greece. Because of his passion for ancient languages, he attended the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (still active today) with a scholarship.  This was where he discovered, excavated, and mapped the ancient city of Eretria. When he returned to the US, he became a professor at Paine College.  He criticized the European based textbooks and education system, seeking a new system that would allow African American students to thrive.

Gilbert faced many struggles to even begin his

Gilbert and Pickard with an unknown Greek man at Eretria Source:

education. He was born into a slave family in who were freed after the Civil War.  He lived with only his mother in Augusta, GA who worked as a domestic servant and Gilbert attended segregated public school.  He began his high school education at the Augusta Institute for black ministers and teachers.  Eventually, he attended Paine Institute where he was mentored by minister George William Walker who helped Gilbert attend Brown University. He became the first black student and one of the first 50 scholars to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens where he explored Greece and along with John Pickard excavated and mapped Eretria and the tomb of Aristotle.

Gildert’s map of Eretria Source:

This highly accomplished man not only paved roads for future African American archaeologists but also provided valuable information about classical Greece and spent his life inspiring and teaching others, specifically a wealth of languages.  Among his students were Channing Tobias and John Hope who would become leaders of the NAACP. His accomplishments also extend past archaeology.  Between 1911 and 1912, Gilbert went on a mission trip to the Belgian Congo where he translated the New Testament from Ancient Green to Tetela.  He was also an active patriot during World War I.

With this very impressive history and achievements in archaeology, I would have expected to have learned about Gilbert in the classics-based ungraduated archaeology program.  While I do not remember all the archaeologists I learned about during that time, I am pretty sure that Gilbert was not mentioned or possibly only mentioned in passing.  This is a shame and should be fixed in the future.  I even attended an excavation hosted by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, where his major accomplishments were done and heard nothing.  One of the main ways to encourage others to pursue fields such as archaeology is to provide role models.  While anyone can be a role model, those that are most effective are often the ones that come from similar backgrounds as the up-and-coming archaeologists.  Female archaeologists inspire female students, indigenous archaeologists inspire indigenous students, and black archaeologists inspire black students.  The more visible minority groups are and the more their accomplishments are appreciated the more inspiring their story.

For more information:

John Wesley Gilbert: The first African-American Archaeologist

John Wesley Gilbert (1863-1923)

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