Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rehoboth archeological discovery holds clues to Delaware's earliest settlers, slaves

Courtesy of the Smithsonian

An archaeological discovery unveiled Wednesday in the City of Rehoboth Beach sheds light on a part of Delaware’s 17th century history.

In 1976, members of the Archaeological Society of Delaware led by archaeologist Dan Griffith, were looking for areas damaged by resort development, when he came upon a site of clusters of shells and white clay tobacco pipe fragments in West Rehoboth.

The team came back to the site in 2006, after Griffith was told development could threaten it. Six years later, they found 11 burial sites associated with plantation owners, the “Avery family.” The archaeologists determined the burials were from the late 1600s – eight people of European descent and three of African descent.

“The burials we were not looking for. We were tracking down a 17th century homestead,” said Griffith, a board member of the Archaeological Society of Delaware and the head of the discovery of the Avery’s Rest recovery project. “We were looking for houses, wells, refuse features that would indicate the kinds of objects the Avery family were using in the 1670s and early 1680s.”

The discovery shows Delaware was a multicultural frontier. It adds context to the history of the state's early settlers.

The plantation’s original owner was John Avery, a judge who moved into the area of northern Rehoboth Bay in the 1670s with his wife, Sarah. The two of them lived until 1682, when John Avery passed away. In 1698, John Avery’s youngest daughter and her husband moved to the area.

The three burials of African descent are some of the earliest remains of slaves in Delaware.

Griffith said the discovery shows Delaware was a multicultural frontier, and it adds context to the history of the state’s early settlers.

“There were Swedish, there were Dutch, there were Finnish, there were African and there were Native Americans living side by side in the 1670s interacting day by day,” Griffith said. “So it was really a multicultural frontier. And that was the beginning of Delaware.”

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has been looking deeper into that, and has already confirmed the gender, age and ethnicity of the burials. Doug Owsley, the division head for anthropology at the Smithsonian has been studying the DNA of the remains to piece together the Avery plantation’s story. 

“This is so rare a discovery in terms of the preservation, in terms of the background information - you’re really dealing with frontier Delaware. These are the first wave of English settlers coming into Delaware,” Owsley said.

So far, Owsley said archaeologists can infer a lot about the character of those who lived on the Avery plantation.

“Hardworking folks – you see that in terms of the development of the muscle attachment on their phones. You see lots of back trauma where they’re carrying heavy loads. I see evidence of infections in them,” Owsley said.

Archaeologists also found their teeth to be in very tragic conditions – noting their diet included a lot of corn.

“Although they have tooth problems and they have teeth that were abscessing, they also were trying to take care about them,” Owsley said. “We have historic record that indicates that John Avery was skilled in part and trained in part as a barber surgeon – trained to extract teeth.” 

The burial remains will stay at the Smithsonian.

Delaware’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs is working with the state’s historical and archaeological societies on an exhibit of  Avery’s Rest. Director of Historical and Cultural Affairs Tim Slavin says he's hopeful the story will spawn a lot of interest among Delaware residents.

"We've just expanded by 11 - the number of people in our Delaware family. We've found these 11 people that we lost to history. We have 11 new stories," Slavin said.

Originally published on Wednesday, December 6, 2017.