Alice L.L. Ferguson: Digging with the Gang

Alice Ferguson art
Painting by Alice L.L. Ferguson. Source: Stanford in Washington Art

In 1922, Alice Lescinska Lowe Ferguson (1880-1951) and Henry Gardiner Ferguson purchased a ramshackle and overgrown farm in Maryland as a weekend and summer retreat from their Washington D.C. home.

The farm, called Hard Bargain, was on the banks of the Potomac River across from George Washington’s Mount Vernon home. There, Alice and Henry lived with a cast of characters out of a children’s book. There were Elizabeth and Jane the cows,Solomon and Fear Naught Matchless Lady the pigs, Prince and Bonnie Jean the horses, and Pogie the bull, who liked to twirl a  wheelbarrow on his head, then graduated to pushing farm vehicle down hills. Their dog, Caligula Sin Verguenza (roughly, shameless Caligula), lived up to his name, terrorizing many of the farm animals.

Alice L.L. Ferguson

Local collectors had long known about the presence of arrowheads in some of Hard Bargain’s fields, and Ferguson allowed them to continue to surface collect artifacts. The Fergusons picked up many artifacts themselves, so much that they eventually built a little shed to display all the artifacts and natural curiosities that they found on their land. An artist and traveler, Ferguson “had been in New Mexico with Dr. Hewitt while he was excavating the Puye and had seen many of the excavations in South America and Spain but it never occurred to me that I could do any digging myself.” (A. Ferguson in H.G. Ferguson 1963:iv)

“We thought it would be great fun to sit on a dump heap and watch somebody dig knowledge out of the ground,” but the professional archaeologists they tried to interest in their site were all busy working on sites in more exotic, or at least far away, lands. One day, however, a “group of lads” snuck onto her land without permission and dug a trench through her alfalfa field, absconding with their finds. The teenagers also carried with them a rifle they used to take potshots at various mailboxes and other things that did not belong to them. The Fergusons (and their neighbors) were furious, but also intrigued. They and the “gang” (a mixed assortment of friends and acquaintances who came to the farm on weekends to hang out, drink, play volleyball, help with farm chores, and drink) began haphazardly digging for artifacts beneath the alfalfa.

“In those days I dug, too, but as time went on I spent more and more time sitting on the dump heaps, watching them burrow and getting a little morose about it all. The more they dug…the more convinced I was that the site was really important and not a proper plaything for anybody.”

In the decade or so since purchasing Hard Bargain, Alice Ferguson had continued to create her art, designed and had built a new farmhouse and other farm buildings, oversaw the farm operations, and become an honorary firefighter in the village. Now, in her mid-fifties, she set out to learn how to be an archaeologist.

In the summer of 1935, six men were hired: three black men to remove the plow zone soils, and three white “intelligent lads of college age” to identify and excavate any features that were uncovered.

Over the next six years, Alice Ferguson supervised the excavation of the Accokeek Site (18PR8),  which actually includes at least three different loci and several occupations. The size and scale of the excavation expanded greatly. Friends from the U.S. Geological Survey (her husband was a geologist there) helped with laying out a grid and mapping the site. Additional diggers, many of them local high school boys, this time presumably without their firearms, used shovels to remove the plowzone and reveal stockade lines, pits, and other features. These were excavated by hand and most of the features were photographed. A series of ossuaries (burial pits where disarticulated human remains are reburied) containing the remains of almost 800 individuals were excavated, as were 39 dog burials and over 150,000 artifacts. The little log cabin museum on the farm expanded to five buildings. There were side benefits to her archaeological finds: once, when the tobacco buyer came around to appraise their harvest, he asked to see her museum. After getting a tour of her finds, he offered a much higher than expected price for the farm’s tobacco crop.

As the finds piled up, many professional archaeologists and other scientists (several associated with the nearby Smithsonian) provided guidance or visited the site, including Aleš Hrdlička, T. Dale Stewart, William Ritchie, Donald Cadzow, Henry Bascom Collins, Jr., James Griffin, John Hack, and Charles O. Turbyfill.

The largest locus contained two separate prehistoric stockaded villages. While the older component, called the “previllage” dates to the Early-Middle Woodland, Ferguson identified the more recent occupation as a Piscataway village that John Smith had visited in AD 1608 named Moyaone (pronounced Moy-OWN). This occupation, however, contained no European artifacts and is now thought to date no later than about AD 1550, so is unlikely to be the historically known Moyaone.

Digging at a nearby location, Claggett’s Cove, revealed another stockade village with a smaller ossuary. This site does contain some European artifacts, and Ferguson calls it the Susquehannock Fort, associated with an AD 1674-1675 occupation by the Susquehannock Indians. The third location, Mockley Point, had human burials and artifacts dating from Archaic to Woodland times.

The advent of World War II essentially brought an end to her archaeological fieldwork as she focused on actual farmwork. With the war’s end, Alice Ferguson looked to write up her report on Moyaone, but as her health deteriorated, she was unable to finish the necessary revisions. Alice Ferguson passed away in 1951.

Alice and Henry Fergusons’ “combination of wealth, social standing, generosity, sincerity, unconventionality, intelligence and glamour left a lasting impression” (Sams 2015) on their friends, colleagues, the rural Maryland landscape, and on Mid-Atlantic archaeology. After her death in 1951, money from her will was used to create the Alice Ferguson Foundation and to fund a fellowship awarded to Robert L. Stephenson, who completed the artifact analysis (“counting and classifying innumerable strawberry boxes of uninspiring potsherds,” according to Charles McNutt [1995:77]), which was published in 1963 (Stephenson and Ferguson 1963). Several new ceramic ware types were defined from the site, including Mockley, Pope’s Creek, Accokeek, Potomac Creek, and Moyaone, which were important in developing a ceramic chronology in the Mid Atlantic. The ceramic typology developed by Stephenson, although modified by more recent research, is still used today.

The Accokeek Site was later listed as a National Historical Landmark and part of Ferguson’s farm was donated to the National Park Service to form Piscataway National Park. The Park is across the Potomac River from George Washington’s home and serves to protect Mount Vernon’s viewshed from modern development. The Alice Ferguson Foundation and Hard Bargain Farm are still in existence.

Quotes from Alice Ferguson are taken from her memoir, Adventures in Southern Maryland, republished by the Ferguson Foundation and available as an ebook through Amazon.


Dent, Richard J., Jr.
1995 Chesapeake Prehistory: Old Traditions, New Directions. Plenum Press, New York.

Ferguson, Alice L.L.
1941 Adventures in Southern Maryland.

McManamon, Francis P., Linda S. Cordell, Kent G. Lightfoot, George R. Milner
2009 Archaeology in America: An Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport, CT.

McNutt, Charles H.
1995 Robert L. Stephenson: The Plains Years. Plains Anthropologist 40(151):77-80.

Sams, Daniel
2015 Wagner House. Maryland Historical Trust, Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties Form Inventory No. PG:83-32.

Stephenson, Robert L., and Alice L.L. Ferguson, with sections by Henry G. Ferguson
1963 The Accokeek Creek site; a middle Atlantic seaboard culture sequence. Anthropological Papers, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, No. 20.