Hunter Research in Trenton has been on the front lines of researching and documenting the history of the oldest building in the capital city, the Trent House, and, as mentioned in the Trent House story, recently conducted a soil study at the site
When contacted for some comments regarding the Trent House, Richard Hunter, the group’s president and principal archaeologist, shared the following information from a recent study supported by New Jersey Manufacturers and conducted in partnership with Monmouth University archaeologist Richard Veit and the university’s graduate students:
The William Trent House, one of Trenton’s premier historic sites, is a city-owned National Historic Landmark. Also listed in the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places and designated as a City of Trenton historic landmark, the Trent House was originally constructed for Philadelphia merchant William Trent in 1719-21. The house presently occupies a 1.59-acre property in the heart of downtown Trenton, surrounded by State of New Jersey office buildings and infrastructure. It is believed to occupy approximately the same site as the nucleus of the late 17th-century plantation known as Ballifield, established by Trenton’s founding European settler, Mahlon Stacy.
The archaeology of the Trent House property has been sampled on several occasions over the past quarter century, often in conjunction with restoration activity, and always under the oversight of the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office.
It is now well established that the site holds an exceedingly high potential for yielding significant buried remains of both the Stacy and Trent family occupations along with abundant evidence of the property’s other mid-18th through early 20th-century residents, notably: Governor Lewis Morris; Dr. William Bryant, a Loyalist physician, and John Cox, an Assistant Quartermaster General to the Continental Army (successively residents here during the Revolutionary War); the de Woofoin family (French-Haitian refugees); Daniel W. Coxe, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant; and the locally prominent Redmond and Stokes families.
The historic site in its entirety overlies stratified cultural deposits that have yielded substantial traces of Native American occupation from the Late Archaic through Late Woodland periods. A ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey of the south and east yards was performed in 2016 resulting in the mapping of numerous subsurface anomalies that may or may not relate to cultural features.
The 2019 archaeological excavations have succeeded in clarifying and expanding our understanding of the mid-18th-century brick kitchen wing that was located east of the Trent House and attached by means of a “gangway.” The south and east foundations of this structure have been pinpointed, allowing its 20 x 30-foot footprint, as referenced in a 1759 sale advertisement, to be delineated with reasonable confidence.
The well, believed to be the original domestic water source for the Trent House and possibly predating the construction of the kitchen wing, is centrally located on the building’s north-south axis.
The footprint of the 20-foot-long, 14-foot-wide gangway can also be projected, centered on the basement and first floor entries at the northern end of the Trent House’s eastern wall. With this information in hand, one may reasonably begin to speculate on the kitchen’s floor plan and the locations of door and window openings, stairway and fireplace. The two-and a-half-story structure shown in 18th-century depictions of the Trent House had shallow foundations and likely had no basement (although the limited archaeological exposure to date does not preclude the possibility of some form of sub-floor storage).
The kitchen wing appears to have been largely demolished to make way for the construction of a new east wing of the house in the early 19th century, with brick rubble apparently being used to fill the well. The foundations for the east wall and southeast corner of the new east wing are now also well documented. These foundations were set down deeper into the ground than the kitchen wing foundations and their construction resulted in the removal of portions of the kitchen wing footings. Because of its position relative to the footprint of the new east wing (at the junction of two sections of the building), the well is presumed to have been abandoned in the early 19th century and then resurrected as part of the mid-1930s WPA site restoration.
The excavations in the south yard in front of the Trent House found no evidence of structural remains of buildings, despite the recovery of considerable quantities of early and mid-18th-century domestic artifacts.
With this somewhat disappointing outcome, one must conclude that the location of Mahlon Stacy’s home, the predecessor to the Trent House, is still uncertain, although it is very likely — based on the survey map of 1714, the site topography and the distribution of late 17th/early 18th-century artifacts — to lie within 50 to 100 feet of the main block of the Trent House, probably within the presently defined walled property.
Several thousand historic artifacts have now been recovered from the various episodes of archaeological exploration around the Trent House. These materials date predominantly from the 18th and early/mid-19th centuries, with smaller quantities of late 17th and later 19th-century artifacts.
The assemblage bears excellent witness to the wealth and living habits of the property’s occupants, reflecting intensive domestic activity over almost two centuries. There is very little in the way of 20th-century cultural materials, these being confined mostly to the uppermost soil layer across the site, which was laid down in the mid-1930s and, except for limited gardening and tree planting, has remained minimally disturbed since that time.
Throughout all the various archaeological campaigns conducted at the Trent House over the past quarter century there has been a persistent and growing awareness that the historic occupation sits atop evidence of a deep and prolonged Native American occupation from the Late Archaic through Late Woodland and Contact periods.
This has become especially apparent in this most recent round of excavations as the digging in (several excavation units) proceeded through the entire soil sequence into the culturally sterile subsoil.
In the limited area examined, few convincing features have been found in the form of pits, hearths, working floor surfaces or house patterns, but these very likely survive. The site has close to two feet of broadly stratified Native American cultural deposits and has yielded an abundance of lithic debris, mostly reflecting tool maintenance, along with smaller quantities of thermally altered rock and pottery.
The prehistoric component at the Trent House site holds immense research potential, including the possibility of deposits and artifacts from the critical 17th-century period of Native American/Euro-American interaction.
The quest continues to pin down the main focus of Ballifield, the plantation established by Trenton’s founding father, Mahlon Stacy. As a tantalizing and unresolved mission of archaeological exploration, there is ample opportunity for further fieldwork in pursuit of Stacy’s estate and its component buildings.
Hunter Research, Inc., 120 West State Street, Trenton. 609-695-0122 or www.hunterresearch.com.