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Hilderbrand House

Over a 12-week period between April 1998 and April 1999, Weaver & Associates conducted archaeological testing and data recovery at the Benjamin Hilderbrand House (40Sy615), a middle class nineteenth century plantation complex in Memphis, Tennessee.

The investigations were inter-disciplinary. In addition to the archaeology, archival research was conducted, and HAPS/HAER documentation was collected on the Hilderbrand/McTighe House. Our research design focused on a number of issues pertaining to plantation archaeology, including spatial organization through time, consumer behavior, subsistence patterns, material correlates of ethnicity, and the evolution of social relations between Hilderbrand and his slaves.

Benjamin Hilderbrand acquired the property in ca. 1836. While little documentation has been found on the Hilderbrands, there is even less archival information on the African-American slaves who worked and lived on the plantation. We do know from census records that Hilderbrand owned 19 slaves in 1850. By 1860, there were 29 slaves, quartered in 5 houses. By comparing the relative ages and gender of the individuals listed in the slave census, it appears that there were at least five slave family units present on the plantation. The Hilderbrand family lived on the property until Benjamin’s death in 1879. A number of other occupants lived on the property up until 1987, when the Memphis-Shelby County Airport acquired the house and grounds.

In addition to Hilderbrand/McTighe House, six other structures were identified archaeologically and from aerial photographs. Of particular importance were two large cellar deposits, designated Feature 20 and Feature 33. These features were uncovered in the back yard area, and were probably associated with houses occupied by Hilderbrand’s slaves.

The suite of artifacts recovered from the cellars is in many ways typical of other slave cabins excavated in the southeast. One of the most interesting artifacts is a well-preserved antler handled dagger with elaborate scrollwork on the hilt. A large X was carved into the pommel, or base, of the antler handle.

A pierced 1834 half dime found at the site is nearly identical to a half dime pendant found in slave context at the Hermitage Plantation in Nashville. Another coin, a badly eroded trade token, is partially drilled on both sides—indicating the production of coin charms within the Hilderbrand slave household.

Probably the single most significant artifact found during the investigations at Hilderbrand is a small hand charm recovered from a flotation sample. The Hilderbrand hand charm is about half the size of a penny and measures ten millimeters tall by seven millimeters wide; it weighs less than a gram. The charm is one dimensional, and appears to be stamped copper or brass alloy. This is the fifth known example of a hand charm to be found in the Southeast U.S. Three come from the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s plantation in Nashville. The fourth example is from the Calvert House in Annapolis, Maryland. These artifacts may have been common, but their small size and fragile composition make them difficult to recover archaeologically. "Mojo hands" were reported to have been able to ward off the evil eye, and sickness was often attributed to the curses or ill intentions of others.

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