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Archeology students dig in Maywood for house of Underground Railroader

By Zoe Barker
On January 17, 2012

Students who commute from the western suburbs may not know that when they pass the town of Maywood on the regular railroad, they are also passing by the home of a ‘conductor' of the Underground Railroad.

As part of DePaul's Urban Historical Archeology Field School, Professor Michael Gregory's fall field experience class began a journey to discover the site of the house of Zebina Eastman. Eastman came to Maywood in the mid 1800's from Vermont. He was a well-known abolitionist and friend of Abraham Lincoln, and served as the Ambassador to England while Lincoln was president.

"Eastman lived at several locations throughout the Chicago area and while occupying these homes prior to the Civil War, he served as a ‘conductor' on the [Underground] Railroad… I've been told that Eastman did harbor runaway slaves, but I do not know at which homes this occurred. The Eastman House site that we are looking for and researching is not part of the Underground Railroad. The house was built in the early 1870s, well after the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation," Gregory said.

Though the house was not part of the Underground Railroad itself, Eastman's position during the Civil War era makes him worthy of study. While the group failed to find evidence of Eastman's home at their dig site, they were able to get a much better idea of the house's location by the end of the project. Gregory is hoping to have access to the property in the spring for his next class.

Gregory had 19 students and two teaching assistants working on the fall project. The same students will likely not return for the spring quarter class, having completed the requirement, but some may come back to check in on the work. "They could come out and contribute for a day if they wanted," Gregory said.

"You could compare it to when a student who is studying a language goes overseas and experiences the language there… [in a field study] we take what they learn in their classes and apply it in the field," Gregory said. "It's a good experience for students who are especially interested in archeology."

"For anthropology students, having a field school is really important, because you can get a real grasp for what archaeology is and see if it's right for you. You can only learn so much in a classroom setting, so it's important to get your hands dirty," said Anthropology student Claire Gardien.

Laurel Appleton, a Junior Anthropology major, said the best part of the experience was working with Professor Gregory and fellow students. "They were the type of people that even when we weren't finding anything for a while in our pit, they kept going. They were so passionate," Appleton said.

The DePaul team worked with The West Town Museum and the Village of Maywood Special Events and Public Relations Commission. According to Gregory, Maywood approached DePaul about having a field experience class excavate in their town, and told them what kind of things they wanted the class to find. "We worked together to get what we both wanted," Gregory said. "We provide the archeology expertise and labor, and they provide us with entry into the community. They pave the way."

"They were so excited to have us; it was amazing to see that. One of the first days of our dig they brought us cookies," Appleton said.

The group mainly found children's toys from the 20th century and roots from old trees. Appleton said the best thing they found was a white and blue piece of ceramic pottery. Pieces of broken pottery can tell them what kind of china or glassware the Eastman's used – Was it expensive or cheap? They also found a human tooth and bullet casing, though they could not link these things to the Eastman's.

Gregory hopes as the search continues to find things from the Civil War era. He said the best find, and what they're hoping to come across in the spring, would be a trash deposit. A trash deposit would contain discarded items which provide insight into the Eastman's lives. Animal bones in the trash would show what cuts of meat they could afford; buttons from clothes would tell them what the family wore.

Gregory said the Anthropology department provided the equipment and paperwork for the projects, and students paid their own way to the site.

"The students did all of the archeology and historical research themselves. They went to the Cook County Court House, they researched who owned the land, and so on -- all the things a professional archeologist would have done," Gregory said.

"A lot of jobs in the archeology field require you to have previous field experience, so this was a great way to get that experience," Appleton said.

The functions of the class are to do research, work on the site, write reports, and bring whatever artifacts they find to the archeology lab at DePaul. When they find relevant items, they will then give the artifacts to the West Town Museum, who will curate an exhibit.

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