Raw Roots

Excavations for plantation artifacts - and the real truth - are unraveling the genteel gloss covering Texans' old notions about the slave era here

Levi Jordan's son-in-law, James McNeill, was designated as manager of the plantation. When the Martin boys tried to collect their inheritance from him, he claimed that all the money had already been spent on their care. The boys sued and gained the main house and surrounding land. That triggered a continuing feud. "For the Martins and McNeills, it was like the Hatfields and McCoys," says Cotton, a special-education teacher in Angleton.

Her cousin Gini Raska, a teacher and McNeill descendant, says it was only a rift. "It was more like social ostracism than an out-and-out feud," she says. "Our family had lost touch with the Martins, and there was a prejudice against them that was passed down." She lives near the Jordan mansion and not far from Cotton, but it took the mutual interest in researching the family to bring them together. The first joint family reunion was held at the Jordan place in 1987, and there was still some clannishness that kept some family members from socializing with others.

As Raska rummaged through old family documents, she discovered scattered papers from the diary of Sallie Jordan, one of Levi Jordan's eight grandchildren. Entries begin in 1858, when Sallie was a Baylor University freshman, and they cover nine years of life at the Jordan plantation. The diary, one of the most remarkable memoirs of the Texas antebellum years, recounts hardships that even prosperous white families endured. There were ruinous fires, killing storms and epidemics, including a yellow fever plague that would eventually claim Sallie just two years after the Civil War. Her frank, sometimes emotional prose shows her to be a strong, sensitive individual who was both very much bound by her time and longing to transcend it.

Abner Jackson found it necessary to buy more and more slaves.
Courtesy of Lake Jackson Historical Museum
Abner Jackson found it necessary to buy more and more slaves.

She describes a runaway slave named Mose who was returned in shackles, bleeding from bites by the tracking dogs. "The tears rose indignantly to my eyes, when Mose was led up that evening ragged and bleeding," she wrote. But she then parrots the idea that as an escapee, Mose was responsible for his troubles: "I could say or do nothing," she wrote, "for he brought the trouble and pain upon himself."

In a later entry, she expresses a more enlightened sentiment. As she recounts a meeting called to try suspected abolitionists, she recalls the baffled indignation that she shared with her brother Calvin: "Calvin and I yesterday almost agreed that we sometimes felt like crying out against slavery."

Sallie's pain and ambivalence help to balance the fact that her family "was responsible for the enslavement of people who worked on the plantation," Raska says. "You don't have a good feeling about knowing your ancestors participated in that process. But I don't feel I've inherited a responsibility for the sins of previous generations. It's easy to look back and say they should have known better. But on the other hand, you have to judge people by the time they lived in."

Cotton, now the executrix of the Jordan estate, says the last of the Martins left the old mansion, and by the 1960s it became rental property.

"It's amazing that the house is still standing," she says. It survived several hurricanes and at least one big fire. "We thought about selling it," she says. "It's such a financial responsibility, and nobody in the family had the money to restore it. It's not the kind of place you knock down and make into a Wal-Mart." Dorothy Cotton thinks there must be a reason the old mansion survived, and that reason lay under the ground behind the house.

Back in 1986, University of Houston archaeologist Ken Brown was an academic mentor for Cotton's son -- and a man in search of a historic site to excavate. Cotton, almost on a lark, suggested her own backyard -- that is, the back of the Jordan place.

She was also interested in getting the plantation listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and she was hoping there might be something of significance there. Nothing was left above ground by the old slave quarters that had once housed more than 300 people. But as Brown walked the grounds, recalls Cotton, he could tell immediately where the quarters were located, adjacent to a grove of huge oak trees not far from the house.

Brown and his crew started the 1986 dig that was scheduled to last two summers. But not long after he and his students unearthed the first spadefuls of dirt, they realized that they had happened upon one of the most significant national repositories of African-American artifacts from the plantation era. It would take nearly 14 years to finish digging and put together the pieces of the puzzle to analyze the meaning of this remarkable legacy.

For Brown, it was like a scene from science fiction, where the inhabitants of a town suddenly disappear, leaving everything behind, almost to the extent of a kettle left still boiling on the fire. For some strange reason, the inhabitants of the Levi Jordan cabins had left behind items that logically they should have taken along with them: eyeglasses, children's toys, even money. These people had left in a hurry. The researchers found padlocks from cabin doors that were still locked.

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