Ephraim Sprague House Archaeological Site

A Time Capsule from the 18th Century


Carbonized food remains

Carbonized food remains from the south cellar including oats, potatoes, corn or maize, and a hickory nut. Click image to enlarge.

A great deal of information on the foodways of the Spragues was learned from the archaeological excavations and associated documentary research. At the bottom of the south cellar were large masses of carbonized oats (Avena sativa), corn (Zea mays) and potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), which had burned during the house fire in the 1750s. In the 18th century root vegetables in general were called “sauce” and all grains were often simply referred to as “corn.” For example, in Ephraim Sprague’s will he bequeathed to his family his “corn of all sorts, meat, sauces of all sort, with two swine now a fatting.” What we now call corn or maize was in the 18th century typically called “Indian corn,” because it was adopted from Native Americans.
Sauce pit

Sauce-pit feature found in the south cellar floor during excavation. After it was emptied of vegetables, the Spragues filled it with household refuse, including broken pieces of a red earthenware milk pan and kaolin tobacco pipe stem. Click image to see a drawing of this feature.

Large and deep cellars were used to store a variety of foods, such as barrels of salted beef, pork, cider, and all sorts of fruits and vegetables. Cellars kept food stores dry and secure. They needed to be warm enough to keep food from freezing during the winter and cool enough not to spoil during the summer. Dug into the floor of the Spragues’ south cellar was a series of seven root-vegetable or sauce pits. Similar sauce pits were found outside of the 1712-ca. 1770s Daniels Site in Waterford, Connecticut. After a sauce pit was dug, it was lined with a light and dry material like straw, or sometimes with boards, and the root vegetables were placed inside and covered. Some pits were filled with sand, because rodents such as mice can’t tunnel through it (it collapses). The sauce pit was then mounded over with dry seaweed, hay, dirt or manure for insulation, particularly if it was outside. In his 1790 manual of farming and husbandry, Samuel Deane of Dedham, Massachusetts, described how to store potatoes in the ground:

There is no difficulty in keeping them [potatoes] through the winter...in a cellar that is free from frost. Caves dug in a dry soil, preserve them very well. They should be covered with two feet of earth over them. If they are in danger of frost in a cool cellar, they should be covered with a little salt hay.

During the winter months small holes were cut into the sauce pit to extract the root vegetables when needed. A pit was not reused in consecutive years because organic residues left in a pit would cause the next year’s crops to rot over winter; so, when emptied, pits were often filled with household trash.

Milk pan fragments

Cross-mended red earthenware milkpans and pots/butter pots. Click image to enlarge.

A large assemblage of animal bone was recovered from the Sprague Site. It appears that the most important animal for the Spragues was cattle (Bos taurus), which provided beef, milk, durable leather and horn, which was used to make a variety of objects such as spoons and cups, and of course, powder horns. The importance of dairy products in the Sprague household economy is further reflected in the recovery of three milk pans. Much of the heavy farmwork, such as plowing, harrowing and hauling, was done with teams of oxen. Also of importance was pig (Sus sus) for pork. Beef and pork were preserved by salting down chunks of meat, such as in Ephraim’s “cedar meat tubb,” and then packing it in barrels with brine. Sheep (Ovis arie) provided mutton and wool. Remains of domestic birds found at the site include chicken (Gallus gallus), which provided meat and eggs, and geese (Goose spp.). Along with meat, grease and eggs, geese also provided down for bedding and quills for pens.

Firearms-related artifacts

Gunflints, lead shot, musket balls, a lead gunflint wrap, a fragment of a brass side plate with dragon motif and the finial to a bayonet scabbard. Click image to enlarge.

When the Spragues arrived in the Hop River Valley ca. 1705, the region was a vast wilderness and wild game and fish were abundant. The largest game-animal bones found at the Sprague Site are from black bear (Ursus americanus), which provided meat and fur used for bedding. Bear grease was eaten and was considered to have medicinal properties for treating aches and swellings. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) provided venison, “buckskin” for clothing like men’s breeches and moccasins, and the antlers were made into a variety of useful tools and receptacles. The Spragues also hunted and trapped a wide range of small mammals for food and for their furs, including beaver (Castor canadensis), muskrat (Ondatra zibethica), grey fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), and raccoon (Procyon lotor). The discovery of numerous striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) bones at the site is further evidence of the Spragues’ hunting skills as this animal’s foul scent-gland defenses can temporarily blind a hunter or his dog. Other small mammals included woodchuck (Marmota monax) and the Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).

Colonial hunter

Hunter depicted in a 1799 drawing by Richard Brunton, an inmate at Newgate Prison in East Granby, Connecticut.

Wild game birds were also eaten by the Spragues, including turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), loon (Order Gaviiformes), bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) and the now-extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Various small perching birds (Order Passeriformes) and woodpecker (Order Piciformes) bones were also found. While small birds are not eaten today and are widely protected from hunting, in colonial America, as in Europe, they were made into pies or stews.

Fishing-related artifacts

A lead net weight, a lead line sinker and two fishhooks. Click image to enlarge.

Evidence indicates the Spragues took from local rivers and ponds snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), American eel (Anguilla rostrata), sucker (Family Catostomidae), freshwater catfish (Family Ictaluridae), and freshwater bass/sunfish (Family Centrarchidae); these were caught with hooks and lines, in nets, and in weirs. Despite living far inland the Spragues also had access to salted and dried saltwater fish such as summer flounder (Paralichthys spp.) and cod or hake (order Gadiformes). Saltwater shellfish were of little importance in the Spragues’ diet; however, numerous shells from freshwater mussels (Eilliptio complanata) were found, likely harvested from the nearby Hop River.
Fragments of kettles and hooks

Cookwares. Fragments from a cast-iron pot rim, a cast-iron kettle rim, several kettle hooks and a leg to a large pot or kettle. Click image to enlarge.

By the mid-18th century the foodways of the New England colonists had changed considerably from those of their Puritan forbears. Now colonists ate a remarkably rich and varied diet of European and American grains and vegetables. They had livestock, poultry and wild game, as well as exotic foods like chocolate, rum, spices and sugar from the West Indies and tea and spices from East Asia. Most families in 18th-century Connecticut were not merely subsistence farmers eking a living from hardscrabble farms, but were participants in a global economy; their small surpluses of grains, salted meats, cheese, cattle, horses, lumber and other products were sold to purchase imported goods. Most manufactured goods, such as window glass, iron tools, hardware and cookwares, fine ceramics and table glass, guns, and books were imported from Europe and shipped to Connecticut’s ports of Hartford, Middletown, New London, Norwich, and New Haven.

Spoon fragments. The spoon handle on the top left is ca. 1650-1700 knopf-head spoon, found in the north cellar. Next are two “dog-nose” spoons of the period ca. 1702-1713, a rounded end type of the early 18th century, a spoon bowl, and on the bottom is a nearly complete “Hanoverian” type which dates to the period ca. 1715 to 1800. Click image to enlarge.

Puritans and the other early colonists typically ate simple one-pot pottages and stews with spoons and communal bowls and cups. By the mid-18th century the Spragues and many other families in New England were eating with round-tipped table knives and two-pronged forks on individual plates. Ceramic plates, however, were uncommon this early; the Spragues ate from pewter plates like the four listed in Ebenezer’s probate. Tea-drinking was also just becoming popular and a complete white salt-glazed stoneware tea set was discovered in the south cellar of the Sprague house. Most of the pieces had been burned in the fire, but included two teapots, six tea bowls (cups), four saucers and a creamer. Other eating vessels included large ceramic tankards and cups. Older types of ceramic vessels were also found, including a yellow slipware posset pot with two handles (a communal drinking vessel) and a large delftware punch bowl. These are ancient vessel forms that were passed around the table for everyone to share. Meals were prepared by roasting over the open fire, simmering stews and chowders in cast-iron kettles and baking meat or fruit pies or puddings in earthenware pans and dishes. Much of the basis our modern-day foodways were developed during the time of Ebenezer Sprague, which can be seen in the artifacts recovered from the site.

Other Foodways Artifacts:

Knives and forks

Set of table knives and forks. Most had been lost in the house fire.

Tea set

Part of a cross-mended white salt-glazed stoneware tea set that burned in the house fire.


Cross-mended white salt-glazed stoneware scratch-blue creamer from the tea set. It is 4 ½ inches tall.

Posset pot

A burned and cross-mended two-handled yellow slipware posset pot. It is 5 ½ inches in diameter and 5 ¼ inches tall.

Punch bowl

A burned and cross-mended polychrome delftware punch bowl. It is 9 inches in diameter and 3¾ inches tall.

Baking dishes Baking dishes

The front and reverse of several red earthenware baking dishes and a pan. The backs show the distinctive black scorch marks from food-residue staining around the back of the rims. Meat and fruit pies and puddings were common foods on the supper table in 18th-century Connecticut. In AMERICAN COOKERY, published in Connecticut in 1796, author Amelia Simmons gave recipes for “chicken pie,” “foot pie,” “tongue pie,” and “apple pie.”

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