Ransom Williams Family Recovered Artifacts
Reconstruction-era African American family's story told through the remains of their farm
In 2003, while surveying a piece of land for a new portion of State Highway 45, TxDOT consulting archaeologists stumbled across an old, crumbling chimney near the Travis-Hays County line. Historians soon learned the chimney was part of a farmhouse that belonged to Ransom and Sarah Williams from 1871 and 1905.
The Williams Farmstead was significant because Ransom and Sarah were African American and in the aftermath of the Civil War, discriminatory labor practices kept most Black families from earning enough money to purchase land. Despite these challenges, Williams bought a farmstead in 1871. The archaeological remains of the farmstead reveal what life was like for one African American family that worked its way up the social and economic ladder.
The objects left behind at the farmstead show that the Williams family did much more than scrape by. They were successful enough to have money to spend on toys for the children, costume jewelry, manufactured dish sets imported from England, and mass-produced patent medicines and extracts.
Ransom supported the family by raising horses and farming 45 acres in southern Travis County. This is evidenced by the amount of horse-related gear found at the farm site. Williams registered his horse brand, "RA," in Travis County in April 1872. A fragment of a brand found on the Williams Farmstead matches the brand he filed with the county. Equipment for weighing and baling cotton was also found on the site. This shows that Ransom was raising cotton as a cash crop, a step beyond the subsistence farming of most small farmers.
Unlike many sharecroppers who purchased much of their food, Ransom and Sarah Williams grew and raised their own. Sarah then stored food away in a root cellar under the house or in stoneware crocks like the one seen here. As manufactured canned foods became available, Sarah took advantage of the convenience to supplement the family’s diet. The type of tin cans found on the site were used after 1880. This aligns with the years when Sarah might have relied on food tins to ease her food-related chores while pregnant and busy raising multiple small children.
The Williams’s valued education and made sure their children attended school. While Ransom and Sarah Williams were both illiterate, census records indicate that Will, Mary, John, and Emma could read and write, and the remaining siblings almost certainly attended school as well. Archaeologists found several writing slate fragments and slate pencils at the farmstead, which the children likely used to practice their lessons. An education was one way that parents could ensure their children's social status and futures.
After Ransom died in 1901, Sarah and some of the children continued to live on the farm until about 1905. Sarah then moved to an African American community in East Austin. Without the construction of State Highway 45, the story of the Williams family may have been lost to history all together.
Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory, The University of Texas at Austin
Time Period: 1866 - 1936
This artifact is currently on view.