Abbott Farm: A Product of Optimal Features

By: Ben Johnson

Abbott Farm Map-page-001
Map of the Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark and surrounding terrain (Drawn by Author).

A great number of variables go into determining whether a location will attract people to live or work.  The Abbott Farm site, really a large cluster of sites formally known as the Abbott Farm National Historical Landmark (AFNHL), close to Trenton, New Jersey is a prime example of how the presence of a number of favorable factors resulted in this location being one of the most important archaeological sites on the East Coast.  The site is named for Dr. Charles C. Abbott, a 19th Century amateur archaeologist whose farm was at this spot.  He as well as adjacent farmers kept coming upon artifacts in their plowed fields.  Dr. Abbott vigorously explored his land over a number of decades, accumulating well over twenty thousand artifacts.  Due to a vague similarity between some of the stone tools he found and ones he was aware of in Europe that were tens of thousands of years old, he mistakenly thought his farm site proved that same degree of antiquity in the Western Hemisphere.  His acting on this belief through decades of digging and writing made him one of the first Americans to broach the fundamental question of the age of prehistory in the Americas and to generate a great wealth of artifacts from this location.  Today we know that the oldest artifacts from the site date from about thirteen thousand years ago, although it was most intensely inhabited by the Lenape Indians between 3000 B.C and 1600 A.D., for whom it was a mix of seasonal and cyclical habitations.  The archaeological record validates Abbott Farm as a highly significant source of complex information about the use and reuse by successions of Native American populations.

ISS Neg# 22-page-001
1936 trench excavation at Abbott Farm. Men at work on a skeleton of a boar. Indian Site Survey Negative # 22.

Like many other archaeological sites, it’s situated on a body of water, in this case, the fresh water of the Delaware River, at a point a few miles above where the water turns brackish from the sea .  The major benefits of a body of water are as a means of transportation and for fishing.  While to some extent still true today, hundreds and especially thousands of years ago there was an abundance of migratory fish (shad, salmon, sturgeon, etc.) as well as non-migratory fish species and shellfish in the river.  The river is more than deep enough to permit travel by canoe and at this location is only about four hundred yards wide, allowing easy crossing for food acquisition or trading.  In addition, a number of fresh water creeks meander casually through the tract before emptying into the Delaware, contributing to a large tidal marshland, a virtual incubator for a wide variety of plants and animals yielding ample food resources.  In spots along the streams there is clay for the making of pottery and the river flatlands provided space for not only easily beaching canoes but for drying nets and processing fish.

Abbott Farm 003
View of Watson’s Creek from lowland portion of Abbott Farm site.

Another factor contributing to the use of the site is the fact that within a mile on the eastern side of the river is a bluff averaging 40 feet in height and roughly paralleling the river.  The bulk of the habitation sites apparently occupied an area of roughly 700 acres extending no more than 900 feet from the bluff edge, which were inhabited by groups of various sizes for a number of different purposes but not on a continuous basis.  The edge of this upland contains a number of springs, providing easy access to drinking water.  This was a largely wooded elevation which provided relative protection,  drainage adequate for habitation, as well as rich resources for a hunting and gathering society.  Also, the soil was of good enough quality to permit farming, which occurred no sooner than about A.D. 900, late in the time spectrum of the site.   The vast majority of productive excavations have been conducted in this upland portion of the site, although the oldest recovered objects have been in the marshland.  At the base of portions of the bluff cut by streams is exposed clay, another source for making pottery.  This resource was extensively exploited by inhabitants since a large quantity of pottery, items used for cooking and storage have been found dating primarily from the Middle Woodland period (A.D. 1-900- A.D.).

ISS Neg# 153-page-001
Potsherds from 1936 Abbott Farm excavations. Indian Site Survey Negative # 153.

In addition to the local presence of material for pottery, area deposits of argillite made it feasible for site dwellers to fashion various implements and weaponry.   A significant outcropping of this type of stone is found within six miles of the site as well as other instances of this resource along Assunpink Creek and other major nearby streams.  Abbott Farm has yielded a great abundance of such stone artifacts, with a minor presence of objects made of other stone types.

Abbott Farm also benefited from its geographic location, one which allowed easy access to trade and exchange routes, consisting of the Raritan and Hudson Rivers to the northeast, to the north the Delaware River, to the west into eastern Pennsylvania, and to the southwest to the Chesapeake Bay area, just to name the major and more immediate courses of direction.  While there is no strong evidence that Abbott Farm was a regional center of trade and exchange for Native Americans, it could well have served that purpose on a more local level during the Middle Woodland period.

Finally, located in central New Jersey, the site is in close proximity to the geological fall line constituting the Piedmont zone to the north and the Intercoastal Plain to the south, thereby providing easy access by natives to an unusually diverse variety of flora and fauna that significantly aided in their sustaining a hunter/gatherer mode of living.

Abbott Farm does not appear to have consisted of a large permanent settlement over thousands of years but rather was a site exhibiting a complex pattern of various degrees of usage over a great expanse of time for which there is ample scientific evidence that people returned time and again to this location.  Archaeological excavations done periodically over nearly the last 150 years document the importance of this site, arising in great part from its host of advantageous environmental, geological, and geographic features that attracted people to its abundant resources.

Abbott Farm 015
Visit to Abbott Farm (2015). The site’s bluff edge can be seen to the left.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cross, D., (1956). Archaeology of New Jersey, Vol 2

Kraft, H. C., (1986). The Lenape: Archaeology, history and ethnography. New Jersey Historical Society. Newark, NJ.

Kraft , H. C. (1993).  Dr. Charles Conrad Abbott, New Jersey’s Pioneer Archaeologist. Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey, No.48.

Stewart, R. M., (1994).  Rethinking the Abbott Farm Oral Tradition, Context, and Historical Perspective.  Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey, No.49.

Cavallo, J. A., (1984).  Fish, Fires, and Foresight:  Middle Woodland Economic Adaptations in the Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark.  North American Archaeologist, Vol 5, No 2.

Chermayeff, J. C. & Associates LLC, (2009).  Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark Interpretative Plan. Mercer County Planning Division.

 

 

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