Unprecedented history unearthed at freed slave’s Travis County farm

Updated April 18, 2015

Diggers at the Ransom Williams Farmstead in remote southern Travis County found two unusual items that they for a while called “mystery artifacts.” The small, notched metal slabs obviously served some specific purpose, but none of the archaeologists or historians who looked at them knew what they were.

Or why they would be among the 25,000 objects dug up at the staggeringly copious farm site that belonged to a freed slave whose family lived there from 1871 to 1905.

The solution came in a roundabout way.

“I was in Lubbock having lunch with my father and showed him a picture of the artifact,” says Doug Boyd, chief archaeologist at the site, which sat virtually untouched for more than 100 years before a planned highway brought the wooded area above Bear Creek to wider attention. “Another elderly gentleman there recognized it as an item related to cotton but called it a ‘buckle.’ When I got home, I searched the Internet for cotton bale ‘buckle,’ but then discovered the correct term was cotton bale ‘tie.’ ”

With that information, Boyd quickly found the exact match for the item on Google Patents — Patent No. 31252, issued to J. J. McComb for his “Cotton Bale Tie” on Jan. 29, 1861. Boyd sent the information to archaeologists at Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory who had stabilized the trove of artifacts excavated from the farmstead.

“They were thrilled because they had recovered a whole batch of these items wired together from the shipwreck of the USS Westfield, a Union gunboat that sank in Galveston Bay in 1863,” Boyd says. “So the ties found at the Williams farmstead not only provided proof that Ransom Williams was growing cotton, but our discovery helped the A&M archaeologists interpret the history of a ship that used to capture Confederate blockade runners and confiscate their cargo, including cotton bales.”

A unique find

Texas is pocked with archaeological sites. Few have proved as rich as this hardscrabble farm. Previously reported by this newspaper: In 2003, a Texas Department of Transportation surveyor discovered an old chimney while working on the right-of-way for the planned Texas 45 Southwest corridor, located not far from the border of Travis and Hays counties.

That lucky find triggered a decadelong investigation by a team led by archaeologist Boyd, vice president of the Austin-based cultural resources management company Prewitt and Associates, which was hired by TxDOT to determine the site’s significance. The Texas Antiquities Code requires such studies.

The highway couldn’t be stopped, but Boyd and his team, which included historian Terri Myers and archaeologist Maria Franklin, who teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, had time to excavate the site thoroughly, comb the public records and interview the descendants. Thus, they could piece together the unprecedented story of freed slave Ransom Williams and his wife, Sarah, almost certainly a freed slave, and their children.

All the artifacts, most of them fragmentary, were saved for posterity. A few things made the site all the more exemplary.

Few intact Texas sites tell the lives of any African-Americans from this period. Also, Williams, only a few years after emancipation, had accumulated enough resources to buy more than 45 acres as well as a corral full of horses. Later, the family could afford delicate jewelry and imported dinnerware.

And, nobody lived on the land after the Williams brood moved into the city, so diggers could be certain that almost anything found there belonged to the family.

Boyd and Myers first visited the site — located in a glade among ancient and younger trees, reached down muddy backways off Bliss Spillar Road — in August 2005. Most of the field work was done between 2007 and 2009. Franklin joined the team in 2008, reaching out to the African-American community for descendant stories.

UT anthropology graduate student Nedra Lee contributed crucial pieces to the puzzle. Among other tasks, she examined the African-American newspapers from the late 1800s housed at the Briscoe Center for American History. These provided context about the freedmen’s communities in Travis and Hays counties. She finished her dissertation on the project in 2014.

The group’s final archaeological report will be published in a month or two.

It is already the subject of a meticulous chapter on the Texas Beyond History website — designed for the general public and archaeologists but including resources for fourth- and seventh-graders who are studying Texas history in public schools — put together by Susan Dial and her team at UT’s Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, where the artifacts will eventually live. (Go to www.texasbeyondhistory.net.)

“I have been doing archaeology in Texas for over 30 years,” Boyd says. “And the Williams farmstead project is the most exciting and rewarding research that I have ever participated in. The collaborative nature of the project, the multiple facets of research, the quality and dedication of the research team, and the direct involvement of the African-American descendant community were the keys to the success of this project.”

Imagining the Williams family

Evidence collected on the historical website suggests that when news of emancipation arrived in Texas on June 19, 1865 — celebrated far and wide as Juneteenth — Ransom Williams was a slave of the Bunton family, which ran a plantation at Mountain City in Hays County.

Born around 1846, Williams, who might have previously used “Bunton” as his last name, purchased the Bear Creek farm in 1871 in the wilderness of the John G. McGehee League for $3.55 an acre. He married Sarah Houston in 1875, and they had nine children.

“Williams was one of the first inhabitants of the league,” the historical website explains. “Except for his neighbor, John Wilkins, Williams was entirely isolated in 1871; there were no roads, no bridges, no farms, and no easy access to dry goods or mills.”

Hays County tax records show that Williams acquired a good many horses and registered his horse brand with Travis County in 1872.

Ransom Williams died in 1901, but his wife and some of his children continued to live on the farm until 1905, when many moved to East Austin, part of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the countryside to cities. Renters farmed the land after that, but there is no evidence that people lived on the property after 1905.

Like many former slaves, Sarah and Ransom Williams were illiterate but sent their children to nearby segregated rural schools and made sure they read and wrote at home. Although they were surrounded by a white farming community, they sidestepped the Jim Crow-era violence that threatened blacks at the time.

Myers says that Ransom Williams is not listed as “Colored” in a late 19th-century rural directory of the area. He is listed as “Mulatto” elsewhere in public records. It is also possible that he was related to his former master, Bunton, which might help explain his apparent material advantages over other freed slaves.

The remaining rock chimney and foundation stones showed the probable location of a wooden house near giant oaks, where the Williams family likely harvested honey from bee colonies housed in their trunks. Also on the farm was a possible outbuilding, a big trash dump and — currently in ruins — limestone rock walls.

“You can just see Ransom plowing the fields and bumping into these rocks,” Boyd says as he traces one of the walls. “Then coming over here and dumping them.”

Historic and modern aerial photos indicate that some cleared fields currently on the site are very old. They were probably used for corn and cotton, while the wooded area was used for livestock pastures. Items found on the farm demonstrate that the Williams family participated in the consumer culture of the time, probably through mail order catalogues, and also interacted within an informal economy among area African-Americans.

Conflicting records and missing documents make a complete portrait of Ransom Williams impossible. His name rarely shows up in census records. We know that the family’s social life was tied to African-American churches, schools and other groups in Antioch Colony near Buda — the largest all-black enclave close to the Williams farm — and the smaller Rose Colony in Manchaca.

“While this project chronicles the life of a single freedmen farm family in Central Texas,” the historical website records, “in a larger sense, it represents thousands of other African-American farm families all across Texas whose stories cannot be told.”

What became of the family

Sarah Houston Williams lived to be about 70 years old and was listed as “Negro” and a “Widow” living in San Marcos when she died on March 11, 1921.

Before her marriage, the 1870 census indicates she was a 15-year-old living in Austin. She also had worked as a live-in servant in the Albert Roberts household. After an exhaustive search, historians found no evidence that she had been a slave of Sam Houston despite her last name before marriage.

So why did they leave the farm? The historians point out that Ransom Williams had done back-breaking work, first as a slave, then as a freedman farmer, for decades. In 1901 he was 55, an old man for that time. Droughts hit Texas during that period, likely making agriculture even more difficult.

Then, too, African-Americans were moving into the cities, in part for safety, but also for the amenities of urban life.

Sarah Williams was 50 when her husband died; their oldest children were Will, 25, Charley, 23, Mary, 19, Henry, 18, and Mattie, 16. They also helped raise two younger siblings, John, 12, and Emma, 8. Will married Clara Franklin and moved to Creedmoor, and they had their first child by 1903. Charley might have died or moved away from the area by 1906, and Henry died in 1911. Two other siblings are missing in later records and might have died very young.

Ransom and Sarah’s children had sold off the land in pieces by 1941.

To find out more about their descendants, Franklin and Lee interviewed 27 people, almost all with deep roots in Hays or Travis counties. Their oral histories, recorded on the Texas Beyond History site, are revealing. Three are direct descendants of the Williams family: Jewel Andrews, Lourice Johnson and Corrine Harris.

“The individuals we interviewed for the oral history project were generous with their time,” Franklin says. “And so willing to share their family histories and experiences with us. They truly enriched the project.”

More than half of the interviewees had grown up in farming households as landowners, tenant farmers or sharecroppers. They talked about how the rural families were mostly self-sufficient. Women took care of the house and children but picked cotton as well. Many took in laundry from white families, or cooked, cleaned or cared for children. Yet their descendants remember happy childhoods surrounded by caring families.

Despite all the renewed interest in this history, the grave of Ransom Williams has never been found.

Sharing the puzzle

“This project was like a great mystery or puzzle to be solved,” historian Myers says. “Early deed records were obscure, and we couldn’t identify the site with any particular landowner. The high point of the project, for me, was finding the brand of Ransom Williams, one of several possible owners, in the county marks and brands records. His brand was an ‘RA’ that had a little flourish on the letter ‘R.’ A few days later, the archaeologists found the actual brand on the site. It matched the county record perfectly! We had our man! From there, we were able to trace his descendants to present-day Austin.”

Andrews is a great-granddaughter of Ransom and Sarah Williams. She lives in East Austin and visited the site with Boyd and Franklin on Aug. 11, 2011.

“I will never forget the look of amazement on Jewel Andrews’ face as Maria and I gave her a tour of the farmstead where two generations of her family once lived,” Boyd says. “The history of the Williams family and their Central Texas farmstead is not one you will find in any Texas history book.”

Once the pieces of the puzzle fell into place, Dial knew that its story belonged on the Texas Beyond History website.

“The project concerns a time and people that have largely been forgotten in Texas history,” she says. “We have learned from teachers that the subjects of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow in Texas are difficult to teach; many people are unaware of the scope and impact of slavery in Texas and the defining challenges faced by freedmen.”

She has been gratified by the army of collaborators from different groups that worked on the project. Although the project is officially over, she suspects that some of the participants will continue searching for clues and more information about this family.

“It gets in your blood,” she says. “For example, Doug just recently found Sarah Williams’ grave in an African-American cemetery in San Marcos, after many weekends of scouting other locations. I think everyone else had given up on ever finding it.”