by Jeffrey Chitek
New Orleans has a long history by new world standards…an obvious statement. One can find this history in plain site…in the architecture and the streets, in the food and callused hands. The thick river air still reeks of a time past. But many secrets and stories of this old port town lay unseen under our feet…under the sidewalks and in our backyards waiting to share their tale.
Keeping up with my plantation tour research, I recently started following a anthropologist and hobby archaeologist on instagram with the handle @faubourgarchaeology (check him out!) His name is Chris Grant, and along with a team of historians and archaeology enthusiasts, he excavates old trash pits and back yards all throughout New Orleans looking for old Creole and plantation artifacts. He uncovers everything from late 19th century dog skulls to early 18th century porcelain dolls. His instagram feed and enthusiasm drove me to start lightly digging through my own backyard. Please don’t tell my landlord.
To my honest surprise, the corner of my yard appeared to be previously excavated. A pile of old bricks lazily filled this hole about 3 feet deep along the fenced in back corner. Like a total weirdo, I started pulling the muddy bricks out, brushing them off, and organizing them by color. I found a few with some engraving that i dusted off to examine later. I really did not to expect to unearth anything but bricks but hellllloooooo!…a mud-caked chunk of metal. After carefully rinsing it carelessly with a garden hose the object took shape. A HORSESHOE! “Holy shit, i found an old horseshoe in the backyard,” I exclaimed loudly to my dog. My dog, in pure awe of my discovery, pulled out her IPad and started researching the history of our local area
We live in the old 8th Ward between Elysian Fields and Saint Roch Avenue. Looking at 19th century maps of the area, we learned that railroad tracks used to cut down our street, stemming out from the major Elysian Fields junction. “RAILROAD TRACKS USED TO RUN DOWN THE STREET WHERE WE POOP AND RUN AND PLAY JEFF!” blurted out Dessa the dog. “Control yourself and lets try to put a date to these artifacts,” I replied, with an obviously more objective and level disposition. After guzzling a protein drink out of a protein shaker bottle, we googled and bing-ed and asked Jeeves for hours, finally matching a name on one of the bricks to a St. Louis based brick manufacturer founded in 1855. The brickworks burned down in 1875, (not sure how a brick factory burns down) and production shut down. We made the uneducated assumption that the horseshoe must be from around the same era and called it an afternoon.
I’m not sure how to end this short story of discovery, history and nail biting adventure. I guess just try to explore your neighborhood and its history! Connect yourself to the past through your findings! Walk the streets of your city with a sentient projection of what once was. You share footpaths with characters from history and that is really fucking cool!