On the road in Allisona

— post by Susan London-Sherer, Historical Archaeology/Historic Preservation Graduate Intern

Although the timeline related to the road that we exposed in our excavation unit remains uncertain, the research that I have been doing related to it has been fascinating.  We now know that a road from James Allison’s property was ordered by the court, and that local men were appointed to build this road from 1807 to 1809.  We cannot be certain yet that the road in our unit is indeed part of this particular court-ordered road.  So, it is necessary to investigate further, to consider other avenues…take a detour, so to speak, into alternate possibilities.

If you will remember back to my last blog post, I wrote about the uniform-sized rock that my colleagues diligently shoveled and screened for days.  In researching early road construction, and in discussion with Co-Director Jesse Tune, we came up with an interesting concept that just might apply to the road in our excavation unit, and place a slightly later date on our road.

Map of the First Surveyor's District of Tennessee, circa 1807-1808 Digital Image © 2008, Tennessee State Library & Archives.

Map of the First Surveyor’s District of Tennessee, circa 1807-1808
Digital Image © 2008, Tennessee State Library & Archives.


We came across the name John Loudon McAdam, a Scottish engineer, who developed a new system for road construction in 1820.  The size and weight of each stone was the most important element of McAdam’s technique.  Men sat with small hammers and carefully broke up rocks into different sizes, which were then laid in layers with the largest on the bottom and the smallest on the top.  The largest stones, which comprised the bottom 7.9 inches of road surface, were to be no bigger than three inches in diameter.  The top two inches of the road consisted of stones no larger than .79 inches in diameter.  The road building crew was under strict supervision and the size and weight of their rocks could be checked in a variety of ways.

Sometimes road crew supervisors carried scales with them and made sure the rocks did not exceed a maximum weight of six ounces.  If no scale was available, sometimes supervisors carried metal rings that each rock had to pass through to certify its size.  The road crew also had a third option of guaranteeing the size of their rocks.  If they were able to fit the rock inside their mouths, then it was approved to go on the roadway.  McAdam’s technique also required that the men lay the road one careful shovelful at a time.

Workers break up rocks for a McAdam’s road.   This is where the term “macadam” road surface comes from. Photo courtesy of wikipidia.com

Workers break up rocks for a McAdam’s road.
This is where the term “macadam” road surface comes from.
Photo courtesy of wikipidia.com



If indeed, our road dates to a later time period, specifically after the first macadam roads were constructed in the United States in 1823, a whole new set of questions begs to be answered.  Where exactly were the early residents of Allisona going?  What kinds of places did they want, or need to visit when they traveled along this road?  What kinds of businesses developed in the region due to the construction of the road and the access it provided to the settlers?

As you can see, with each day that passes at the Magnolia Valley site, and with each new discovery that we unearth, our research questions take on new shapes and dimensions.  The more ways that we can confirm human activity on the landscape, the more significant our research becomes.  This journey began when a revealing snapshot of something that “looks like a road” was discovered in the data from our initial geophysical survey.  The road was later confirmed through the controlled excavation of a two-meter by two-meter excavation unit laid out on a grid with the same coordinates as the geophysical survey.  The historical document research revealed a contemporary road-building technique that appears to back up the description of the uniform-sized rocks that covered the road in our unit.  In this case, the detour that I took on the road to discovery led me on a quest to a precious hidden gem of knowledge.



The Road(s) Less Traveled

 — post by Susan London-Sherer, Historical Archaeology/Historic Preservation Graduate Intern

As MTSU’s first Public History graduate student to pursue an internship in historical archaeology, I must admit, I feel like a trailblazer.  As it turns out, I am not the only trailblazer to have spent some time toiling away in the hot sun at Magnolia Valley.  Last week, one of our excavation units in Area A revealed a long-hidden secret. The field school students who began the excavation quickly found themselves shoveling what appeared to be uniform-sized rock, and lots of it!  A very curious find indeed, in the middle of this lovely pasture.  As the excavation moved along, it became evident that the feature we were uncovering closely resembled a road.  With this information in mind, my next step was to do research on some of the earliest roadways in the College Grove and Allisona areas, and to try to discover who built these roadways, and for what purpose.  There is no better place to research Tennessee history than at the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville.

Susan the graduate intern at the State library and archives.

Susan the graduate intern at the State library and archives.

With the help of some great people, I have been able to uncover some fascinating details about the property over the past few weeks.  Steve Rogers at the Tennessee Historic Commission helped me to discover that this property was once part of a 1784 North Carolina land grant in the amount of 5000 acres to Hardy Murfree, Lieutenant Colonel of the First Regiment of the North Carolina Continental Line.  Land grants were regularly given to families of soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War.  A standard amount that appears over and over in the records is 640 acres, exactly one square mile.  Other American patriots were also gifted with land grants, and some began selling off their land without every having laid eyes upon it.  Robert Nelson began selling some of his land in 1788.  John Topp bought some this land and eventually sold it to William Ogilvie and James Allison.  These were some of the earliest documented people to have owned land in the College Grove/Allisona area.  In 1793, David and William Wilson appear in the deed books, receiving land grants for 640 acres and for 2,000 acres.

With early settlers coming to the region, setting up homesteads and farms, roads would most certainly have become a necessity by the early 1800s.  Jay at the Tennessee State Library and Archives helped me fill in some of blanks by leading me to some excellent sources about early Tennessee roads.  Route 31A, also known as Henry Horton Highway, is one of the oldest traveled thoroughfares in Middle Tennessee.  It is believed to follow a route similar to an ancient Native American trail that connected with the Ohio River in Kentucky and then moved southward past the Tennessee River, and into the Huntsville, Alabama area.  According to William N. Lloyd’s article in the Marshall County Historical Quarterly (Winter 1973), “The first white men coming through Middle Tennessee identified the primitive path as the trail to the Fishing Ford.”  The Ford was just south of modern-day Chapel Hill near where the 31A bridge crosses the Duck River today.  Lloyd wrote, “northern and southern Indian tribes used the trail in commerce and war with each other, as well as to travel to the fantastic neutral hunting ground in Tennessee for major sources of meat.”

The Fishing Ford trail map courtesy of College Grove History,  TN State Library and Archives

The Fishing Ford trail map courtesy of College Grove History,
TN State Library and Archives

The exact route that the trail to Fishing Ford followed through Williamson County is not well documented, but the trail appears to have come through the present-day College Grove area and relatively close to our site.

Soon after Williamson County was formed in 1799, county officials began working on public roadways by cutting and clearing old Native American Trails.  This marked the first of three distinct stages of road building that developed the Fisher Ford trail into the modern thoroughfare that it is today.  The second stage was the turnpike era of the mid-1800s, and third was the state road-building era of the early 1900s.  Throughout the time period 1807-1809, the county court appointed local men to construct a road from James Allison’s property in present-day Allisona toward the Fishing Ford.  Among the men appointed were three of the Wilson brothers, Aaron, James, and Zaccheus, along with John Ogilvie and George Allison, some of the earliest settlers to the region.  Beginning in 1810, the court appointed various men to oversee the operation and maintenance of the road that had been built.

I am still researching whether or not James Allison ever owned the 372-acre property that our site occupies.  Currently, there is a gap in the deeds from our original land grant of 1784 until 1836 when James B. Russell sold the first 460 acres of land to the man we once thought was our original property owner, Mr. William McDowell.  Obviously, there is a lot more to the story that still needs to be uncovered.  Could the section of road in our excavation unit possibly be related to the 1807 court appointed road that began on James Allison’s property?  How many times did the property change hands in the 50 years that still remain a mystery to us?  Perhaps the discovery of a long-forgotten road, buried deep beneath layers of dirt and time in a farm pasture, has the ability to open up new avenues of discovery.  At some point in time, people blazed a trail across present-day Allisona, across the property that we are now searching for clues to the past.  Over the next few weeks, we will tirelessly continue to follow the trail.



Following the Paper Trail

— posted by Susan London-Sherer


 Susan London-Sherer holding copy of 1878  D.G. Beers & Co. map of Rutherford County.

Greetings from the Rutherford County Archives! Today is Wednesday, May 14, and we are experiencing our first rain day at the Rutherford County Archaeology Research Project. However, torrential rains, thunder, and lightning can not dampen our desire for knowledge. The field school students are spending the day working in the lab processing artifacts, while I am blogging from the archives.



MTSU Field School Students washing artifacts.


My name is Susan London-Sherer, and I am the on-site historical archaeology/historic preservation graduate intern. While the weather may be bad outside, the archives are climate-controlled and bursting with valuable information that is pertinent to our research. A significant part of my internship involves researching the historical documentation related to the chain of ownership of the Magnolia Valley site. Over the next seven weeks, when I am not working on the survey portion of the project (digging 50-centimeter shovel test holes and screening for artifacts), I will be visiting the archives in Rutherford and Williamson Counties, as well as the county clerks’ offices, in order to trace property deeds.

Although the property is currently located in Rutherford County, the original 1833 home, built by William and Jennett McDowall, was within the bounds of Williamson County. The property became part of Rutherford County during the 1870s when that section of town was annexed into the county. Since the McDowall family, the property has been owned by the McMeekin family, the Bank of Eagleville, the Jackson family, the Bell family, the Massey family, the Crockett family, and eventually, the Tune family. I am excited to get this opportunity to follow the paper trail and see where it leads me in the coming weeks. I am even more excited to share the discovery process concerning Magnolia Valley’s past with my colleagues and the public. Please continue to follow our progress as we attempt to put the puzzle pieces of the past back together, and relay the stories of the rich history of Magnolia Valley.



Original photo by http://www.gomodernvintage.com/. Modified with jigsaw app from http://bighugelabs.com/.