Group seeking 'archeological gold' at Virginia church site

By Brice Stump
Posted 11/3/21

There’s historical gold in Fitz Godwin’s back yard in Assawoman, a rural neighborhood near Atlantic.

It was the color of grass that held the telltale clue that something special was …

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Group seeking 'archeological gold' at Virginia church site


There’s historical gold in Fitz Godwin’s back yard in Assawoman, a rural neighborhood near Atlantic.

It was the color of grass that held the telltale clue that something special was just inches beneath the soil. Historians have long known that the Assawoman (originally spelled Assawaman) Anglican Church was built here in 1680.

Soon after the Civil War the church was in ruins and collapsed, quickly becoming a “lost” church. Finding it evaded the curious for almost a century.

Then one morning in February, Godwin made a significant chance discovery in his back yard. “We had all this rain and I hoped something may have washed to the surface.” He didn’t find any artifacts but noticed a strange precise pattern indicated by changing colors of grass.

Using a steel probe, Godwin walked the yard pushing the sharp tip of the rod about 10 inches into the moist soil.

“Boom. Boom. Boom. Every foot, as I followed the line of greener grass, I hit something hard.”

What could have been an outbuilding or even an early home site turned out to be significantly more important — Godwin found the foundation of the 1680 church.

He was excited and called fellow members David and Nancy Page of Parksley, member of the Eastern Shore Chapter of the Archaeological Society of Virginia, to share the news.

“I told them I thought I had discovered the foundation of the church. They said they’d be here within the hour. Sure enough they got here and we immediately dug.”

They measured the four lines and came up with a rectangle 45- by 75- feet. Digging at a corner, they confirmed it is a brick foundation, 28 inches wide.

Thanks to the work of the late Ralph T. Whitelaw, the measurements of the 1680 structure were revealed in his monumental two-volume tome Virginia’s Eastern Shore — A History of Northampton and Accomack Counties, published in 1951. They fit perfectly with those Godwin discovered.

The east end was the “business end,” Godwin said, where the chancel was located. The front door of the church was at the opposite end.

News of the discovery traveled fast and within days, David Givens, director of archeological excavations at Jamestown, was on the phone with Godwin for more details.

Deploying radar

So important was the discovery that Givens used his vacation time in June to investigate the site. “I definitely wanted to come out here and help locate this church. This is an especially important site for this area and for me, because I don't often get to see 17-century churches and this is an opportunity to study the evolution of churches in Virginia. I’m a ‘dirt surgeon’ and I got to get out in the field and see my patients,” he said, laughing.

Using ground penetrating radar (GPR) to verify the underground foundation details, Givens was excited about findings. “There’s no doubt that this is the 1680 church,” he said.

“The GPR confirmed that the remains of the  Assawoman Church of England are in my back yard,” Godwin said with pride.

 There was another surprise discovery awaiting archaeologists and historians.

Givens’s GPR system revealed 22 “grave shafts.” Though it has been suspected for years that the churchyard contained graves, none are known to have been marked with stone, and the number and location was also unknown.

As a group of 14 volunteers reviewed the GPR file on a TV monitor, the digital signature of lost graves appeared on the screen.

“It was clearly evident, even to a layman’s eye, that there are 22 graves in the north-east corner of the church yard,” Godwin said “There are certainly more, as we only surveyed one corner of the overall site.”

Givens was especially interested in the site as he wanted to know if there were graves within the foundation walls. That was an important issue for Givens and was joined by Michael Clem in evaluating the site. Clem, director of Archaeology of Eastern Va. Knowing that  graves are within foundations in period churches in Williamsburg and Jamestown, and they wanted to know if the practice was also routine on the Eastern Shore. Surprisingly, preliminary evidence indicates there are no graves within the foundation.

Yet a precedent exists. Historian Jenean Hall of Onancock found an entry in the 1637-39 court records of Northampton County that reads; “Itt is thought Fitt and soe ordered by this Courte that Mr. William Cotton Minister shall forthwith bee payed and satisfied out of the estate of Capt. John Howe deceased, by the overseers of said estate for his Funerall service, and his grave in the Chauncell.”

The church was located west of Cheriton on the bayside. As for the entry, it is the only one yet discovered noting a burial in the floor of a church of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. 

“We need to do another GPR survey and go over places we haven't been yet. GPR might be considered the medical MRI equivalent in archaeology, and as important as this equipment is, it still comes down to archaeological excavation at a site. GPR is just another tool in our kit.

“It’s a lot of work to survey this entire area, and will probably require someone walking eight miles yo push and pull the unit over the site. We are working in one direction, so when you get to the end you have to walk the machine back, move over a few feet and go again, to survey our 100- by 100-foot area,” Given explained. “This really is fun and I’m glad I'm spending my vacation here. The Eastern Shore is wide open for exploratory archaeology.”

Archaeologist Ed Otter, of Salisbury, is intrigued and excited by the discovery.

Otter, president of the Eastern Shore Chapter of the Archaeological Society of Virginia, said he will ask to be involved in excavations and projects at the site, and offer his professional skills, particularly with investigations of graves.

Are there really 22 graves?

“Ground penetrating radar is not 100 percent foolproof,” Otter said. “There are so many factors that  influence survey results. That they had so many ‘hits’ is promising, and I’m hoping some turn out to be graves. It seems very promising.

Historical significance

Tentative plans are to excavate down to a grave, to confirm its presence, but not into it.

“No doubt this is a unique site. Each site tells its own little story, adding another piece to the overall history of the Shore,” he said. “Certainly, for members of the Episcopal church, this has considerable historical significance. Archaeologically, this is a great find, to locate the remains of an 1680 church and related graves.

One grave, Whitelaw suggests, will almost certainly be identifiable. In his will of May 1, 1696, John Stratton directed, “I will that my body be decently buried in the Church Yard of the upper Church and within five foot of the Church doore …”

As for William Taylor, Godwin is pretty sure his grave is also here, but where?

“If there were tombstones here, where are they?” Clem asked.

Doug Furman said the stones may have been “pushed off into the woods on that hillside.”

His mother still lives in the house where he grew up, just yards from the church foundation.

“My bedroom was right over the site where ‘old glazed bricks’ were discovered when the house foundation was being dug in 1985.” Those bricks, according to Furman’s father, were said to have come from the floor of the church.

Furman said the site was once an asparagus patch and hungry goats kept the place clear of weeds and underbrush.

“It was a field and the last time it was plowed was in the 1980, then goats were kept here”.

With a country boy’s curiosity, Furman was always exploring. “All my life I heard about a church being out here. When I was a boy I crawled every square inch of that hillside lookin’ for bottles. Found a lot, along with airplane doors and pieces of a rocket. Tons of stuff back in the woods, but no tombstones. I’m pretty sure the people who once lived here years ago also dumped their trash back there,” he said.

What made this foundation discovery so serendipitous — if not remarkable — was Godwin’s role, beginning a year ago, relating to the recent placement of a state historical plaque noting the approximate site of the church.

In March of 2020, Sue Boggs, of Temperanceville, asked Godwin for help in having a marker placed honoring her ancestor, William Taylor.

“It was the 400th birthday anniversary of William Taylor, and Sue wanted to do something to honor his life and asked me for suggestions,” the retired lawyer said.

Godwin told Boggs a lecture series on family graveyards would serve that and other purposes, or perhaps a granite marker commemorating his birth could be set in the Boggs graveyard lot at Assawoman United Methodist Church, just a mile north of here.

Boggs, and her cousin, famed decoy carver Grayson Chesser, of near Jenkins Bridge, another Taylor descendant, were lukewarm on both proposals. Boggs wanted  a historical plaque erected. Godwin explained there had to be something historically significant associated with Taylor to justify the state erecting a road-side plaque.

Taylor, born in England, Godwin learned, came to Accomack County from Jamestown. Within years he owned considerable property in the Assawoman area. Besides being prosperous, the Taylors married into the most prominent families of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, including the Teackle family. It was Littleton Dennis Teackle, of Accomack County, who built the famed landmark in Princess Anne in 1801— Teackletonia, or what is now known as Teackle Mansion. Taylor’s landholdings included the property on which the church would stand.

It was Taylor who had deeded the land on which the church was built.

Seeking a state marker

That deed and the significance of the church was the link that could justify a state marker, Godwin told Boggs.

There were challenges ahead.

In June of 2020, Godwin drafted the application for the marker.

While dealing with Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, to have the plaque become a reality, Godwin learned that “every sentence on a marker” had to be documented and verified. With the required criteria met, the application paperwork was beefy — almost two inches thick for the six sentences.

 “First thing I learned is that an individual can not file for a marker. It has to be an organization, so I filed it under the Francis Makemie Society.”

Godwin, chairman of the Francis Makemie Society, guides the group in the preservation and maintenance of Makemie’s home and grave sites near Jenkins Bridge. Makemie is known as the “Father of American Presbyterianism”

Godwin, figures into yet another coincidence. His property is about 1,000 feet away from a stream, just west of the foundation site, where  Makemie operated a grist mill about 1706.

“Makemie was a businessman. His wife was Naomi Anderson the daughter of a prominent politician of the day, and had a sister, Comfort. She married Elias Taylor, who was William Taylor’s son. I think, through the wives chatting, Makemie became familiar with the property. The stream could power a grist mill, and there’s a tremendous-size pond that feeds the  stream.”

The remains of a wide man-made bern that surrounds part of the pond, Godwin said, is still there along with boards  that diverted the water through the mill, centuries after the mill ceased operation.

The wording on the plaque notes Makemie owned the mill near the church.

While Page and Godwin h were scouting for the appropriate location of the marker noting the general location of the church by spring of 2020, Fitzhugh, 76, noted a for-sale sign in the yard of a former tavern.

He was so taken by the 18th-century architectural appeal of the house that he asked for a tour.

Though he owned a late Victorian house in Onancock, which had been his home for 20 years, and had no desire to shop for another,  he inexplicably wanted this Assawoman landmark. “I’ll take it,” he told the listing agent.

By the fall of 2020, Godwin was working on the house, moved in on Christmas Day and signed the deed in January 2021.

The foundation of the church shares space with Godwin’s house on a five-acre parcel.

A good deed effort to help a friend with a history related project had suddenly changed his life.

And there were more curious revelations.

“Sure, I was astonished that the ‘lost church’ was literally in my yard. And then I learned that the ideal location of the marker, which we thought would be in my neighbor’s yard, was in fact also on my property.”

When it rains, it can sometimes pour.

The discoveries at Assawoman is part of a  tale of coincidences and peculiarities

Godwin’s house, said to have been built in 1775, is across the road from one of the most  famous homes on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It is the picturesque Arbuckle House, built in 1774, once the home of James Arbuckle.

Arbuckle was a judge and his portrait hangs in Ker Place in Onancock. Not just any old painting — it is an original work by famed American artist Charles Wilson Peale.

Peale found himself a guest at Arbuckle’s while on the run escaping debts incurred in his saddle making business in Annapolis in 1765. In exchange for the hospitality afforded him, the artist painted two portraits, one of the judge the other of his wife and son.

During his stay Peale would have certainly visited the church within a walnut’s toss from Arbuckle’s house.

Few places on Virginia's rural Eastern Shore have so much history packed in an almost one-acre area. Arbuckle House, the former tavern, and the site of the church, are all within 100 feet of each other and the mill 1,000 feet from the old tavern.

At one point, all four sites are believed to have been “up and running” at the same time, a small, but bustling, neighborhood.

The placement of the marker is the latest of history-making events in the area.

By late July, the state set a historical marker alongside the country road that weaves through fields and woods, with dips and turns. It’s a much-traveled route for drivers beating the clock to get between two points. Hundreds pass the site daily.

August ceremony

In mid-August, about 50 attendees listened as Godwin spoke at a special ceremony to unveil it. David Wray of near Westover, in Somerset County, was recording the event as a digital video. At 11 years of age, he was the youngest member of the audience by at least 50 years.

His grandfather, David Pollock, serves on the board of directors for the Francis Makemie Society. Pollock attends Rehobeth Presbyterian Church, established by Makemie, which is across the road from the ruins of the often-photographed Coventry Parish (Anglican-Episcopal) Church. Built in the late 1700s, it’s  just yards from the original church site dating to the late 1600s.

Pollock said he asked the boy to take photos of the event. “I did it because he's not good with a camera,” the youngster said. He was using the camera belonging to his grandmother, Barbara. “Two years ago we discovered he had an interest in photography and an eye for it, so we let him use the camera.”

His favorite subject to photograph his pet chickens, a far cry from his obligations documenting the plaque unveiling. The images are a “bit choppy” his grandfather said. The junior videographer  said he was nervous about shooting in front of an audience and he wasn't accustomed to holding the camera still for such an extended period..

Choppy or not, his 15-minute video was the only one made that day of the program and unveiling.

It was important, as Rev. Robert Coniglio, pastor of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Jenkins Bridge, showed the audience the chalice used at the Assawoman church in the mid-1700s.

It was a bit of history being made, too, when folks got to see the artifact, as this was believed to be the first time that the coin silver chalice, made in London in 1749, had been back to the church site in perhaps 245 years.

And there’s more than just history here, there’s mystery and intrigue. How did the chalice, the only surviving artifact of the Asswoman church, end up in Jenkins Bridge, within walking distance of the home of Makemie’s daughter, Naomi?

Whitelaw had the answer.

“Long after the church fell into  ruins, it was found in the fields on the plantation of Thomas Cropper, where it had been used by the slaves for a drinking cup.”

According to Whitelaw, the cup was given to Emmanuel as it was the sole surviving Episcopal church of the Accomack Parish in 1762.

“It was the principal church of Accomack Parish,” Godwin explained. “There were three churches in the parish, this was the oldest. There was one north of here referred to as the ‘new  church’ which became the community of New Church, and one south of here near what is now Gargatha.”

It was the Revolutionary War, Godwin said, that broke the political power and financial support of the Anglican church in the colonies. “They were tax-payer supported, from the rector’s pay to the construction and maintenance of the churches and glebes,” Godwin said.

As for the Asswaman church, its demise seems to have been fast after the Revolutionary War.

“In a letter written April 11, 1890, Edward Wharton Taylor said that he had been baptized in the church, went to school there, and saw the church fall down 60 years ago,” Whitelaw noted.

As to the fate of the thousands of handmade bricks in the church, Godwin suggested they may have been cleaned and “repurposed” over the years for other structures in the area.

A few dozen were eventually incorporated into a cross design in sidewalk at Emmanuel’s in Jenkins bridge,

Givens is hoping to return to the site in November and conduct an investigation of one of the grave shafts.

As for Godwin and his friends and Otter, the excitement and anticipation is building.