Researching the History
History books often focus on the buildings that people lived in. Archaeologists working in a city are much more interested in people’s backyards. This is where, in the days before garbage collection, people often disposed of their rubbish. Sometimes these discarded bits and pieces formed a scattering across the yard that archaeologists call sheet refuse. Other times, people threw their rubbish into backyard holes such as disused privies and wells. Before sewers were connected, almost every city backyard had a privy, basically a hole in the ground with a seat and an outhouse built over it. When the sewers were finally connected to a house, the privies weren’t needed anymore. The disused hole became a convenient dumping spot for the household’s rubbish. When archaeologists excavate a privy or well, they can analyze the artifacts to get a snapshot in time of the people to whom they once belonged.
Historic documents allow archaeologists to identify backyard areas within the project area that are likely to contain archaeological deposits, for example, the parcel in San Francisco at 540 Folsom St. on the block bounded by Folsom, Clementina, First and Second streets. Drawings and photographs of San Francisco during the Gold Rush showed that a small gabled house was built on the lot as early as 1854. Maps by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company that prepared precise plans for cities all over America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, show that the house was still existing in 1887 and that it had an outbuilding along its rear fence line.
Records from the U.S. Census, which was conducted every ten years, together with city directories that gave people’s addresses, show that the Peel family lived in the house from 1856 to 1879. Jonathan and Mary Peel arrived in California from England at the height of the Gold Rush in 1852 with their son. Jonathan Peel was a successful brewer. He died in 1871, but his wife, Mary continued to live in the house at 540 Folsom until 1880. A photograph from the mid-1880s shows that the house still existed although three-story flats now loomed over it from either side. Later the house was occupied by the Hanks family before it burnt in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake. DIG DEEPER: When Historic Documents Don't Agree...
The historical research told us that the Peel house at 540 Folsom St. had been occupied from the Gold Rush years until the early 1900s. After people had lived there for that long, there was a very good chance that archaeological deposits would be located in the backyard area. The research further showed that even after the Peels’ house had been destroyed in the 1906 fire it had never been replaced by any other buildings that might have destroyed those deposits. This made the backyard area at 540 Folsom St. a prime candidate for excavation to see whether any archaeological material could be found. Accordingly, in the Research Design and Treatment Plan it was identified as a Historic Sensitive Area and archaeological testing was recommended.