Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Artifacts in Focus: A Little Bostwick History as Seen Through a Bullet

Bullets are a common find on archaeological sites, especially in rural or formerly rural areas such as Bladensburg. Their recovery suggests something of how radically the landscape of Bladensburg has changed, from a sparsely occupied hamlet to the urban bustle it is today. Civil War-era bullets are also common. Several were found at the Magruder and Market Master’s house suggesting the likelihood that troops may have camped on the grounds.

While excavating on the grounds of Bostwick this summer we found a bullet unlike others we had seen before. (for more on the Bostwick excavation: http://bladenarch.blogspot.com/2009/06/introducing-bostwick-house.html#links). It was a large-caliber rifle bullet, copper-jacketed and grooved. Its appearance suggested to us that it dated to the late nineteenth century at the earliest. It just so happened that a member of the Bladensburg Police Force, specifically the firearms training officer, came to visit us out in the field that day. We decided to show him the bullet to get his professional opinion as to its origins. His assessment was that it was between .46 and .48 caliber, and belonged to a big game hunting rifle. He estimated its age to the early part of the twentieth century. It turns out that James Kyner, who purchased the house in 1904, was an avid big game hunter. For anyone who has been into Bostwick, the sight of the many large trophy heads on the currently empty walls is not easily forgotten.

The Historic American Buildings Survey report describes Mr. James Kyner as an adventurous man who made his fortune building railroads in the west. He was also a Civil War veteran, losing his leg in the conflict. Bostwick has come to absorb and reflect the aesthetics of its long succession of owners, and Mr. and Mrs. Kyner are no exception in this regard. Besides the trophy heads, the interior walls are decorated with cabinets and wallpapers that were fashionable at the time. A large colonial revival porch was added to the front of the house by the Kyners’. Numerous brick outbuildings were also, at this time, demolished. In 1937 Kyner wrote a biography of his long and fascinating life called “End of Track”. In it he recounts his experiences growing up in the Midwest of the late 19th century, the adventures and difficulties of railroad work and his latter life as a politician. Bladensburg is mentioned very briefly at the end, where he fondly describes the peace of his retirement home:

“…going east with my wife and very young daughter, I bought an old colonial home just outside the District of Columbia, within six miles of the White House. The old house appealed to me in part, perhaps, because the date high up one of its tall chimneys is 1746, which antedates my own arrival in this world by just one hundred years.
Here, with seven acres of garden and orchard and lawn to interest me, I have stood aside for the past thirty years and let the world go by. Busying myself with bees and dogs, with chickens and with a horse or two, modernizing and reconstructing this old, old house of mine, I have played no part that could be felt so very far beyond the pillars at my gate. I have seen, as from a seat in a theater, the drama of the world. Here and there it touches me, of course, but mostly it does not.” (Kyner 1937: 276).

Through his narrative we can understand one of the many ways the landscape of Bladensburg has been conceptualized by its occupants. Here is an amazing photograph of James Kyner I received from Susan Pearl showing Mr. Kyner standing in front of the large hearth at Bostwick:

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