A Summary Report of Archeological Excavations at the La Rua St. Historic Well.
This phase of archeological field research at the historic La Rua St. well is complete. The project, funded by the Pensacola Historical Society, was designed to conduct historical research and recover archeological materials from the well to determine the time period of its construction and recommend additional phases of study.
The fieldwork was initiated in the summer of 2005 and completed in June of 2006. Periodic field trips were made during this period. Standard professional field techniques were used in the excavations. The well fill was hand-dug and screened, when possible, through ¼ inch wire mesh and bagged by provenience. Photographs and drawings of the well were completed and included this report.
The original scope of work was far exceeded in the fieldwork. Much more time was spent, many more artifacts were recovered, and the cost far exceeded the original budget. The well was determined to be much deeper (approx. 39 feet) than originally speculated. Additional funds were not available at the time so it was decided to spend the field time necessary to excavate to the well bottom and write this summary report rather than a detailed final report.
Funds would be sought later for additional research and a comprehensive final report.
Historical research is an integral part of a project such as this one with the disciplines of archeology and history complimenting one another. During the historic well study several archives were examined for possible clues to the time period of the well. Local informants were also approached for oral history of the neighborhood. Lot records were also examined as well. A literature search was made concerning the 18th century fort in the area as well as the 19th century occupation of the surrounding area. Numerous maps, drawings, and photographs were found, some of which are included in this summary report.
The 18th Century Fort
The location of the well is approximately 200 feet from the reconstructed wall of Ft. George, built ca. 1780 by the British as the core fort for a series of defensive measures for the town of Pensacola. The fort was attacked in 1781 by the Spanish army of General Bernado de Galvez. The British surrendered when the powder magazine of the fort exploded. The battle is considered influential in the American Revolution and the fort site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Is the historic well on La Rua St. a part of this historic fort?
19th Century Residential Area
A residential community developed in the project area during the 19th century. The community became known as North Hill and, as the Pensacola economy boomed during the late 1800s, the community was filled with large homes of wealthy, influential families. It is interesting to note however that an 1885 insurance map shows no structure built on the property containing the historic La Rua St. well. Apparently, no structure was built there until the late 1880s when Pensacola port physician Dr. J.S. Heron built a large, elegant, Victorian style home on the property adjacent on the northeast to the historic La Rua St. well. Is the historic well associated with the 19th century Heron home?
Archeological Fieldwork and Lab Analysis
The Discovery of the Historic Well
The historic well was discovered by the property owners while trying to catch an animal that had been digging holes in their back yard. A small hole that was spotted was thought to be the entrance to a den. As the hole was being widened it was discovered that there was a larger hole present, too large for an animal den. A light was shown through the 12”-18” diameter hole and a circular brick structure was seen that was some 12 feet deep.
Archeologist, Caleb Curren, was contacted through family friends. It was decided to excavate a 1×1 meter test unit directly over the well opening and expose the top of the well. The test unit was begun but had to be covered until other volunteers could be found to complete the excavation.
Some months later the Pensacola Historical Society proposed that they fund the completion of the excavations. David Dodson contacted Curren and it was agreed to continue the well excavation. Three levels were dug and screened through 1/4” wire. At the base of the unit the top tier of bricks from the well were exposed and recorded. It was learned from the property owners that the soil above the well was probably fill spread over their backyard from the digging of the basement of their house. The lady of the house, whose father had it built in 1905, grew up here and remembered the Victorian house of Dr. Herron next door but she did not remember a well or the mention of a well by her family.
The Excavation of the Well
The excavation of the interior of the well began in the summer of 2005 and continued at intervals until June 2006. Safety as well as professional archeological techniques were considerations. A scaffold was constructed over the well for sending and removing artifacts and soil. An extension ladder was placed in the well for entering and exiting of the excavator. Only people experienced in rock climbing and caving were allowed to enter the well (Dodson 95% of the time). Extreme caution was used in preventing loose brick or objects from falling onto the excavator below. Hard hats and headlamps were used by the excavator and a safety line was strung down the well. A box fan was periodically placed in the well for ventilation. A heavy wooden cap was constructed for capping the well when excavations were not underway.
The excavation of the interior of the well was based on natural stratigraphic zones encountered in the vertical column. The zones were obvious as the excavations continued downward. Some zones contained dense artifact concentrations in dark sandy loam soils. Some zones contained sparse amounts of artifacts and large amounts of coal and coke.
The material from each zone was sifted through 1/4” mesh wire screens when possible. Often times however the soils were too moist and dense to pass through the screens so trowels, hoes, and rakes were employed to recover the artifacts. This method proved effective and even the smallest of artifacts were recovered. It is estimated that the recovery sample amounted to approximately 90%.
Materials from each zone were bagged and labeled separately and returned to the office for processing. A sample of the artifacts was selected for washing and photographing for inclusion in this summary report. General observations were made concerning the time period and class grouping of the artifacts and are included in the Results and Recommendations section of this summary report. The artifacts are currently in storage until additional funding can be obtained for detailed analysis.
The primary research question of this phase of the project was the time period of the construction of the La Rua St. well. This can now be answered with a high degree of certainty, however, there is an amount of uncertainty still remaining due to the fact that the bottom of the historic well was not reached during this phase of excavations. The safety risk to the field team became too great at a depth of over 32 feet when a 6 foot long crack was discovered in the north side of the undulating well wall. Before terminating this phase, a hand held auger was used to core down 6 more feet into the well seeking a culturally sterile zone. Such a zone was not encountered. Fill soil and artifacts were encountered through the entire 6 foot core column making the depth of the well approximately 39 feet below the present ground surface.
Based on current data, the La Rua St. well ceased to function as a water well and became a refuse pit at some time in the late 19th century. It was not completely filled when it was capped during this period. Upon preliminary examination, the entire excavation column contained artifacts from the late 19th century. It also currently appears that the well was filled with very similar artifact types, perhaps indicating the well was filled relatively quickly, possibly within a few years.
The total number of artifacts recovered thus far numbers in the many hundreds, many in excellent condition. The artifact classes include personal, architectural, domestic, animal bone/shell and others. It is interesting to note that no military class items were recovered from the well thus far. Observations of the brick and mortar from the well proved interesting. The artifacts were boxed by provenience. Funding is needed to clean, analyze, table, and interpret the materials. Until funding is obtained, the artifacts remain boxed and stored.
There are two hypotheses concerning the origin of the La Rua St. historic well. The first is that the British built it the late 1700s associated with Ft. George. The second hypothesis is that it was built in the late 1800s to provide water for a nearby residential structure. The following is a comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of each hypothesis.
The historic well was constructed by the British as a water source for Ft. George.
- The well is within the confines of Ft. George.
- British made partial bricks were used in the construction of the well.
- The British stated that they used a spring at the base of North Hill as their water source and a map of the fort supports this statement.
“An outer attached earthenwork or ‘hornwork’ stretched southwestward from the fort for a distance of approximately 600 feet. It sloped downhill and was constructed primarily as a means of protecting the fresh water supply at the base of the hill.”
(Baker 1975 from Simons 1981:50).
- Some of the bricks in the well have oyster shell mortar on them (like mortar used in Ft. George bricks) but the mortar and bricks appear to be reused. The mortar used in the well is a sandy, soft mortar.
The historic well was constructed for a domestic residence built in the late 1800s.
- The artifacts from the well date from the late 1800s.
- While the bricks in the well are British-made, the mortar of the well has no oyster shell mortar used by the British.
- The well is adjacent (SW) to the Victorian style house of Dr. Herron. Although the house was razed in the late 20th century, a photograph shows the position of the house.
- As stated previously, the British stated that they used a spring at the base of the hill as their water source and also figured this on a map of the fort.
- The bottom of the well has not been reached as yet. British artifacts may be found in the lower levels of the well.
- The British may have used cast-off partial brick from the fort and used them to construct the well using a different type mortar than the fort.
- A detailed artifact analysis is yet to be completed. Some of the artifacts may not be from the late 1800s.
There is a considerable amount of research that could still be conducted concerning the historic La Rua St. well. No matter who built the well we have, beyond a doubt, a closed in-situ cluster of artifacts in the well from a residential household of historic Pensacola. Actually, it is not just a history of the well that is dealt with in this case. It is, rather, an opportunity to study the cultural history of an upper class neighborhood of a late 19th century Gulf coastal town. Numerous research questions should be considered.
- How was the well built?
- What specific groups of artifacts were found in the well?
- How did the artifacts relate to the social, personal, and economic lives of the household, the town, and 19th century America?
- When and why did the well become obsolete?
- How did the presence of the well relate to the lumber boom of the period?
- Are there other such wells in the North Hill neighborhood?
- Why are the bricks from the well British-made?
- Was part of Ft. George still standing when the well was constructed?
- What can the animal bones and shells from the well tell us of the food habits of the period?
- Why is there not water in the well today?
- How far has the water aquifer been depleted since the well was functioning?
These are but a few of the research questions that the well site could answer. Funding needs to be obtained to complete the excavations, analyze the artifacts, and complete the report of findings.
by: Caleb Curren and David Dodson
to: The Pensacola Historical Society
This is one of a series of field notes for archeological researchers. The notes are free. Pass it on if you please.
The following people and organizations provided volunteer time and / or financial contributions to the historic well project:
- Pensacola Historical Society
- Tower East
- Jerry and Marjorie Hargreaves
- Margaret McKinnon Dodson
- Josh Tereszkiewicz
- Andrew Holmes
- John Nix
- Russ and Kathy Justice
- James and Cindy Bielinski
- Jerry Gill
- Brad Kindergan
- Steve Newby
- Cecil Taylor