By Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
The funny thing about history is you never really know what’s going to stand the test of time; or what importance it might have in the future.
Was that receipt burned along with other dated documents a record of a mundane transaction? Or evidence of an interaction that might hold some significance in the future?
Of course, some things are far sturdier and lasting than fragile bills of sale. Homes and buildings of brick and stone – these should last a good deal longer than paper and ink. But even stone isn’t immune to the march of time, and so even the locations of significant events can be lost to history.
That is, until they are unlost.
Such was the case with Lansdowne Hall, and one local historian’s work at uncovering what was nearly lost to progress and growth.
Gerald Dyson, history professor at Kentucky Christian University, knew that there were significant stories to be told of Grayson and Carter County’s involvement in the Civil War – but placing the locations was the question. Where exactly did these significant events take place?
That’s what Dyson wanted to know, and set out to confirm beginning nearly a decade ago.
“The way I ended up finding this place was I ran across newspaper accounts of this back in, I think the first time was 2014. That was kind of a side thing for years, to try to piece together evidence. I’d find bits and pieces here and there and I’d go down rabbit holes at one in the morning on my computer, trying to find stuff. And I would occasionally talk to people and get things figured out.”
“Eventually,” he continued, “I put a handful of things together that made me think we were pretty close within a certain area. Now, then, the question was exactly where. Then, one day, I found seven musket balls in one place; and I was like, ‘I think we have a winner.’”
He said he’d never found a musket ball anywhere in Carter County, in all his years of metal detecting, before finding seven in the location of the presumed skirmish. After that they looked at aerial photos to see if they could see the outlines of buildings.
It wasn’t easy, because as the site has been redeveloped over the years, things became obscured, but when they began digging they found items from the appropriate period.
“Unfortunately the site is pretty disturbed, because of the development, and it was graded to put houses on and things like that,” Dyson explained. “But there were still things that were there. We found, for instance, probably half a dozen different types of 19th century pottery. We actually, this last semester, me and my students did some of what they call pottery reading to date and categorize the types of pottery.”
What makes Lansdowne Hall important in terms of Civil War history – the skirmish there between Confederate sympathizers and local home guard forces loyal to the Union – isn’t the only bit of historical significance attached to the site though.
“Lansdowne Hall was actually built by a different name,” Dyson said. “We think it probably went by the name Waterside when it was built. It was actually built by the family of William Carter, as in Carter County. His wife was Susan Shelby Carter, the granddaughter of Isaac Shelby, the first and fifth governor of Kentucky. So they’re big names.”
From its birth, though, the homestead was connected with slavery.
“We actually have a bunch of letters from her (Susan Shelby Carter),” Dyson continued. “She actually named some of the slaves who lived at the site, which is very interesting.”
But, he added, “Some of those letters are also very sobering; talking about whipping slaves, selling their children off.”
Details, Dyson said, that could “make you sick,” but were an important look at the conditions which so severely divided the nation.
The house changed hands and came into the possession of the Lansdowne in the decades before the Civil War would erupt.
“Andrew Jackson Lansdowne buys (the property) in the early to mid 1850s,” Dyson continued. “He is a Kentuckian, but he is a rebel.”
Though Kentucky was a slave state it never left the Union, and Lansdowne’s Confederate sympathies didn’t sit well with all of his neighbors. When they caught wind he was harboring other sympathizers intent on joining up with the Confederate Army, they confronted the landowner and the would-be rebel soldiers.
“He probably had done this multiple times, but we just know about the one that blew up in his face, where he was sheltering (sympathizers),” Dyson explained. In the same way that there were homes on the Underground Railroad who gave shelter and provisions to escaped slaves heading north to freedom, he said, there was the opposite for Confederate sympathizers in the north who wanted to join the Confederacy.
“You have way stations coming south, places where guys from Ohio or Indiana who want to fight for the Confederacy… can stop. You can water your horses. You can get a hot meal. And this was one of those places, it seems like,” Dyson said.
“So, in late September of 1861, about 25 or 30 of these guys, who are from Northern Kentucky… they stop at Lansdowne Hall. They’re fed and lodged by Andrew Jackson Lansdowne, and somehow the Carter County Militia hears about it. We don’t know how that happened. It could be a network of slaves or it could be one of their neighbors saw something suspicious and talked. But, anyway, the Carter County Militia comes down to investigate and they determine they’re these Secessionist in there. They tell them to throw down their guns and come out. They don’t. And in the end I think there are three killed and a couple wounded.”
Dyson said, “about half” were captured and the other half escaped.
While not necessarily the first, Dyson said it is one of the earliest Civil War actions of any kind in the state.
“So, this is before Kentucky’s official neutrality, and before any of the serious battles in Kentucky,” Dyson said. “And it caused a widespread panic here.”
There were concerns, he said, that Confederate forces were going to come and occupy Grayson and detachments of Union troops were sent from around Portsmouth, Ohio as well as militia from Maysville to back up the Carter County Militia.
It also prompted a mobilization of Unionist forces in the region in another way.
Even though the Confederates never tried to occupy the area, “Unionist in northeastern Kentucky… volunteer to join up anyway,” he said.
Lansdowne was briefly imprisoned, but was released after pledging loyalty to the Union.
This, of course, is known and recorded history.
What was not known was the exact location, or any details of the site; until now. His work on revealing that has earned Dyson recognition from his peers in the form of an Education Award for Preservation from the Kentucky Historical Society.
“The main historical thing that I emphasized in terms of preservation were enslaved people who lived there,” Dyson said. “We know that there were, around 1860, there were about 10 slaves who lived there, and there were enslaved people who lived there from the time the house was built all the way up until the end of the Civil War.”
There were also the connections with the Carters and Shelbys, and the Civil War history.
“And while the excavation that we did can’t tell us, like, ‘Oh yeah, here we have a piece of pottery with Susan Carter Shelby or William Grayson Carter inscribed on it,’ we can say we’re essentially certain that we’re in the right place because of, for instance, huge cut stones that we found that probably weighed 800 pounds a piece… huge cut, worked limestone,” Dyson said. “You can see the tool marks on them. Pottery that fits the dates of occupation at the site. We even found some butchered animal bones… and some things that are connected (to the home).”
Including, he said, “at least one remnant of a higher status object… a silvered pewter drawer handle.”
Other than the musket balls, it was the cut stone that was most telling to Dyson.
“I’ve never seen stones like that around here,” he said. “When I found those, I was like, we’re out in the right place. This is it.”
He said his next step is to try and have a historical marker placed by the state.
“It won’t be on the site itself, but it will be on Seven (KY Route 7) which sits just below the site,” he said.
Dyson also emphasized that he wasn’t alone in the work. He’s a history professor, and a lot of his students worked with him on the project. In addition, he said, he had to work with an actual archaeologist on the project.
“John Wineland was our principal investigator,” Dyson said. “It’s a fancy term for the archaeologist working the site. He’s the guy with the actual archaeological qualifications.”
He also thanked KCU and Foundation for the Tri-State for their help in funding the work.
“It’s gratifying to be recognized with the award,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m acutely aware that I’m the one getting the award, but if it hadn’t been for about 20 or 30 other people, it’s not possible. I didn’t move six tons of dirt by myself. That didn’t happen.”
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