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Archaeology at the Oldham County History Center

 By Helen E. McKinney


Oldham County History Center

In a high-tech world of computers, iPods and GPS’s, we think we have all of the information we need at our finger tips. So why has no one ever discovered what happened to the settlers of Roanoke Island who disappeared in 1587?

Over 150 men, women and children were sent to Roanoke, off what is now the coast of North Carolina, to begin a colony under the leadership of Capt. John White. White sailed back to England for supplies, but due to the war between England and Spain, wasn’t able to return to Roanoke until 1590.

When he reached the island everyone was gone; vanished without a trace. All that remained was the word ‘Croatan’ carved on a tree. No other visible sign remained of what came to be known as The Lost Colony.

Archaeologists have been looking for the colonists since the 1607 Jamestown voyages. They have analyzed clues, tested hypotheses and collected artifacts, all in an effort to complete the story of The Lost Colony.

It is this intrigue, like piecing together a puzzle, which fuels an archeologist. It is their job to interpret the past, trying to answer the questions no one else can answer, to determine what history books cannot tell us as factual information.

Within our own county, the Oldham County History Center has an exciting archaeology program and several related activities throughout the year. The discoveries made through this program enable participants to put their findings into a historical context, connecting the past to the present in a very hands-on method.

On Sunday, Sept. 22 from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., the public is invited to take part in a public archaeological investigation at the Gatewood Plantation site in Trimble County. The site is the last location in Kentucky that abolitionist, slave and newspaper editor Henry Bibb (1815-1854) lived before escaping to freedom in Ipswich, Canada.

Henry Walton Bibb was born on May 10, 1815 to Mildred Jackson, a slave owned by David White who had property on Drennon’s Creek in Henry County, Ky. Bibb’s father was a white man, James Bibb, who was also a state senator. Because his mother was a slave at his birth, Bibb was also considered a slave.

Bibb has ties to Oldham County through his first wife, a mulatto slave named Malinda who lived in Oldham County. In 1842 Bibb managed to flee to Detroit, Mich. and in his absence, Malinda was sold as a mistress to a white planter. Knowing he had lost her forever, Bibb focused on his new career as an abolitionist, traveling and lecturing throughout the United States.

In 1849 he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself. The book documented his experiences as a slave in Oldham, Trimble and Shelby counties. It became one of the best known slave narratives of the antebellum period.

Bibb married a second time to Mary E. Miles, a Cincinnati schoolteacher, and they lived in Canada where they established a school for African Americans. In 1851 Bibb founded the first black newspaper in Canada, Voice of the Fugitive. Bibb died before his time, at the age of 39 on August 1, 1854.

During Bibb’s lifetime, one-third of the population of Oldham County was comprised of the African American culture. The African American community was one of the first predominant cultures in the area and contributed greatly to the economic success of the county.

But what was their life really like? What did their daily routine consist of? These were real people with real stories to tell; only their stories were not recorded on paper. Traces of their lives were left behind, often buried beneath the dirt where a dwelling once stood.

On July 19, 2005 the Oldham County History Center was awarded a $5,000 grant from the Kentucky Heritage Council to conduct a feasibility study to investigate the various options for developing an educational program to honor Henry Bibb. This led to the exploration of the archaeology site at Gatewood Plantation.

In 2009, the Oldham County Historical Society received a grant from the Kentucky Lincoln Bicentennial Commission through the Ky. Heritage Council to continue archaeological programs throughout the year onsite. Many public digs have been held at the site which has unearthed a vast collection of artifacts.

A special summer program hosted by the Oldham County History Center is the Archaeology Institute for High School Students, ages 14-18. This is a very popular week long opportunity for students to participate in hands-on archaeology investigations at the Gatewood site. They are given the chance to see how archaeology reveals secrets of our human past in order to help interpret the present generation.

These on-site investigations are conducted under the direction of archaeologist Jeannine Kreinbrink. She is well-known for her investigations ranging from the pre-Civil War slave period through the Civil War (1861-1864).

Ms. Kreinbrink is President/Senior Archeologist at K & V Cultural Resources Management, LLC, and also an Adjunct Lecturer at Northern Kentucky University. She serves on the Board of Directors of the James A. Ramage Civil War Museum at the Battery Hooper site in Fort Wright, Ky.

Ms. Kreinbrink was instrumental in directing the deconstruction and reconstruction of the slave pen barn, the centerpiece exhibit at the Freedom Center Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The purpose of these public digs is to discover artifacts and information at the Gatewood Plantation site that will further documents Bibb’s narratives. These narratives can be accessed at www.docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bibb/bibb.html.

Additional archaeological programs for 2013 include an artifact washing and sorting day on Nov. 10 at 1 p.m. This program is free and will take place at the Oldham County History Center.

Registration is required for the Public Archaeology Investigation on Sunday, Sept. 22. For more information contact the Oldham County History Center at (502) 222-0826 or look for our booth at the La Grange Farmers Market on Saturday, Sept. 21.

Visitors will get a preview of what the History Center’s archaeology program is all about. In honor of September being designated National Archaeology Month, visitors will be able to view and identify actual artifacts from the History Center’s collection, learn about Henry Bibb, and see the tools used in an archaeological dig.