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Foundation Matters

Looking into the Lives of the Enslaved at the Nathaniel Russell House

Posted: June 4, 2018

When Nathaniel Russell constructed his house in 1808, the property contained an enormous three-story Federal mansion, kitchen house, carriage house, work yard, and garden. Russell moved in to the house in the spring of 1808 with his wife and two daughters (aged 19 and 17) and eighteen enslaved men and women. Until recently, the areas inhabited by the enslaved people were used for offices or storage; however, last year we began an intensive study of the kitchen house to learn more about the lives of those living and working in the kitchen, laundry, and living quarters between 1808-1865.

Since very little about the daily lives of the enslaved survives in written record, it is often only through forensic evidence and archaeology that we are able to piece together what life was like. Even microscopic traces of paint can tell us volumes about a room from 200 years ago. Ed Chappell (architectural historian), Susan Buck (paint analyst), and David Hoffman (historic contractor) worked together to carry out forensic investigation in the kitchen building.

We began our study of the kitchen house by assessing the structure, and realized that the upstairs living quarters were drywalled in the early 20th century, and we could hear voids behind it when we tapped along the walls. David used a very small reciprocating saw to cut a hole in the drywall, and we were astounded by what we found underneath: behind the drywall, perfectly encapsulated, was the original plaster walls of the first period slave quarter, complete with original limewash. We were amazed, since features like this don’t often survive 200 years of renovation – but as we removed drywall we realized that practically everything in the room was original to the period of enslavement: plaster, woodwork, paint finishes, window sashes, doors, everything. As the drywall came down the room transformed, and we were looking at the same walls from the early 1800s.

It was an incredibly emotional day, thinking about how everything we could see was built by the enslaved, from the bricks and mortar to the plaster and paint, and these surfaces hadn’t been seen for at least 100 years. This was a living space for enslaved people, and probably the only place in the house they could have a moment of peace, if any. It felt like a sacred place, to say the least.

As we rounded the corner and continued to remove drywall, we discovered TONS of debris packed in between the studs and baseboards. Well, all that debris ended up being the remains of several undisturbed rat’s nests. Before you are grossed out: finding a rat’s nest is like Christmas morning for preservationists. We were literally jumping for joy. Rats tend to gather items from a 50-foot radius and pack it in there. Thankfully, rat urine is a preservative, so even if the nest is hundreds of years old, the things in it tend to stay intact over many years and are like tiny time capsules.

We wasted no time pulling everything out of the walls, carefully packing it, and labelling where it came from. We spent several days painstakingly combing through the debris and removing artifacts. We found buttons, stockings, marbles, straight pins, a portion of a waist coat, a veil from a bonnet, tons of bones from butchered animals (they were likely stealing these from the kitchen one floor down). We found a small lidded paper box containing a cake of makeup.

The most exciting finds, however, were two fragments of paper. One was a miniscule bit of newspaper with the name ‘Cruikshank’ on it – my colleague was quickly able to search the historic newspaper database and match it with the digitized original, which dated to November 1833. It was incredible to know that everything we were looking at was from such an early period. The most intriguing artifact retrieved from the nest was a tiny fragment of a reading primer. This one made us all tear up when we realized what it was. Perhaps someone living above the kitchen at the Russell House got their hands on a reading primer and were possibly learning to read and write? A compelling thought when you consider that reading and writing was illegal for enslaved people in South Carolina at the time.

Work in the kitchen house is still ongoing, and the newly discovered spaces are incorporated into the house tour. Please visit, and watch this space for updates!

Pictured above: Ed Chappell and Susan Buck examine the south wall of the kitchen house.

24 responses to “Looking into the Lives of the Enslaved at the Nathaniel Russell House”

  1. Kandy Higley says:

    Such exciting news and who would think rat’s nests could be such treasure troves!

  2. Jacquelyn Vancina says:

    This is so interesting. Please be sure to provide regular updates on the findings.

  3. Ada says:

    How exciting! Thank you for the work you do.

  4. Jane Jilich says:

    This wonderful news. To me part of preservation is understanding the day to day life of the people who lived there. These types of artifacts are priceless.

  5. Linda Mitchum says:

    Love history no matter how small and insignificant. Thanks for sharing and keep us posted.

  6. Giselle says:

    Loved reading about this! My son naps and I read up on historical sites 😉

  7. Beth Kempe says:

    This gets me so so excited. Please keep us up on what more you find. I love archaeology and preservation, and here’s to more rats’ nests!!

  8. Cheryl Brown says:

    Awesome find. So it is safe to say that all enslaved with not illiterate.

    • Holland Williams says:

      The majority of the enslaved were in fact illiterate. Between 1829 and 1834 Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North and South Carolina and Virginia all passed anti-literacy laws. In South Carolina, teaching slaves to read and write was punishable by a fine of 100 pounds and six months in prison. Some of the enslaved were taught to read and write despite the laws, yet not necessarily with an altruistic purpose. Sometimes cooks, for example, were taught to read so that they could follow recipes.

  9. K says:

    Outstanding! Keep up the good work!

  10. Nicole says:

    Planning my visit!

  11. Courtney says:

    Don’t go in the woods!

  12. Glynn Brown says:

    interesting insights into life and construction methods at that time.

  13. Zane says:

    Do you have any citations for rat urine being a preservative? I cannot find anything else about this online.

  14. Linda Sneed says:

    Years ago after touring the Nathaniel Russell House I ended up in the kitchen house area and felt sad about the total lack of mention of the enslaved people who must have lived and worked there. I had to ask! The guide said I would have to go up the back stair and find a storeroom. I did so. It was a small room with a low doorway with a few boxes in it. This felt incredibly sad and has been haunting me for years. It makes me happy to read that these slave quarters are being restored and respected. Now I am planning to return for another tour! Thank you for your efforts!

    • Holland Williams says:

      We look forward to your visit! You can read more about the items we are finding in the enslaved quarters on our Instagram account @historiccharlestonfoundation

  15. Diane Russell Fisher says:

    Linda, I agree with you. I have been disgusted by the fact that when I do visit the south and take plantation tours, because I want to see the slave quarters, I am often told they were torn down. Seriously?? It’s history!!!! But as usual, it’s black history, so no one cared. It hurts. I am glad these historians do care. I am thankful. By the way, my maiden last name is Russell, my paternal grandfather was born in Charleston, SC, as was his father, who I understand had been a slave in Charleston. There is a good chance that my ancestors were owned by Nathaniel Russell.

  16. Hannah Shultz says:

    So exciting! Just read along with the MFM podcast as Lauren wrote in about your discoveries. I visited the Russell house in 2016 and was surprised there wasn’t more info on the enslaved people who lived there. So happy to hear of this discovery. SSDGM!

  17. Lin Wright says:

    There are no colors that I can use to paint a picture of how I feel after reviewing some of the comments. My last name is not Russell, but it could have been. We have such a long way to go and I have such a short time to affect change.
    God bless.

  18. United Nations Peace Ambassador NGO ECOSOC Dr. Angela J. Nealy, B.S., M.S., Ph.D. says:

    Please contact me. Great Grandfather who was a slave. He ran away with the slave owners daughter. Margie Russell was her name. I have a photo of the two of them on their farm in Lost Creek, Indiana. My Great Grandfather was on my Mother’s side. He walked 1000 miles.


    United Nations Peace Ambassador NGO ECOSOC Dr. Angela J. Nealy

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