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The Dunboyne Sugar Plantation

Updated: Jun 13

We’re baaaack Xplorers!

We are back with the third of four major mitigations projects in the ever-changing weather of Louisiana (not excluding two ice storms, seven hurricanes, one tornado, a bit of flooding, and, of course, multiple heat waves). (Thank you field crew for always weathering through rain or shine!)

Nevertheless, we are excited to bring you even more insight into what we do at TerraX because this week we are talking about something a little sweeter. It’s time for your weekly TerraX deep dig with a spoon full of the Dunboyne Sugar Mill Mitigation! (It helps the medicine go down.)

Quick reminder — as mentioned in our last mitigation breakdown at the Point Pleasant site, mitigations are just Big (with a capital B!) projects that are all about recovering the maximum amount of data as possible through various excavation techniques, thousands of photographs, and the detailed collection of all the records, artifacts, and samples that we can get our hands on! For a more in-depth refresher, take a look back at our initial breakdown of the mitigation process in The St. Amelia Plantation. For our weekly readers who have heard this all before, grab a spoon, and let’s dig right in!


The “su-su-su-sugar-town” (some light music for some light reading) known as the Dunboyne Sugar Mill is nine acres in total and is located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, approximately 1.8 miles northeast of Bayou Goula. Fun fact: According to research done by our very own historian Emma Pepperman, all but a random handful of sugar cane plantations in Louisiana were located on the Mississippi River or along Bayou Lafourche and Bayou Teche and their distributaries due to the need for irrigation.

A pencil sketch of a sugarhouse like that at the Dunboyne Sugar Mill

The Dunboyne Sugar Mill was in operation from 1827 to 1907 and has since been demolished and graded (Definition: the reshaping and leveling of land for irrigation) for agricultural use. The site that our team at TerraX excavated the main sugarhouse of the Dunboyne Plantation. At Dunboyne, a total of 147 features were uncovered and exposed by hand excavation. (That’s some serious digging!)

TerraX Principle Investigator (PI) Paul Jackson says, “The main focus of the (Dunboyne) mitigation involved understanding the floor plan of the sugarhouse and how it changed over time as new technology was introduced.” Paul explained, “It is unclear how many buildings were on site at the time of purchase;” however, the “now-steam-powered sugarhouse may have been built upon an older animal-powered one.” The sugarhouse was then expanded from an “I” construction to a “T” and later an “F.” (Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds.)

Kevin Rolph, one of our dedicated archaeologists on the mitigation, explains, “The ‘I’ construction would have looked like a capital ‘I,’ and as time progressed, the sugar mill had to change with new technology, so another section was added to the ‘I,’ making it resemble a capital ‘T.’ A final expansion was added again, changing the ‘T’ to a capital F.” (Like Sesame Street for Archaeologists!) “These construction changes considerably altered the structure's footprint over time,” Paul concluded.

Aerial view of the full excavated footprint of the sugarhouse with rooms and features labeled

All in all, the team uncovered sixteen individual components (areas A-O) to the sugarhouse including two boiler rooms, an office, a curing room, and the engine/grinding room. Over time, evidence of technological advances is shown through the additions of the previously mentioned alphabetical layout and repurposed rooms. For example, “The first boiler room (Area D), was probably used as a boiler room during the ‘I’ phase and was later repurposed during the ‘T’ and ‘F’ phases for a variety of purposes.”

The physical footprint of buildings such as sugar mills can provide an extraordinary amount of information to archeologists. For sugar planters to continue to profit year after year, they had to keep up with sugar making technologies. As the sugar industry in the United States exploded during the nineteenth century, so did farming technologies. New machines to make the sugar making process more efficient became more and more necessary for planters to succeed.

In the early 1800s, a successful sugar plantation likely had an animal-powered three-roller mill. If a planter chose to build a structure for this mill it would have been I-shaped. By the 1840s, those same planters would have needed a steam powered mill to keep up with demand. Steam powered mills required a lot more space than the mule or horse did, so planters had to decide whether to build a new sugar house, renovate the old one, or raze and build on top of the old house. Many, you may presume, renovated their existing buildings. Archeologists can see this change by looking at the difference in bricks used in the foundation. If the same bricks are used throughout the whole foundation, that suggests that the entire building was built at once. If a set of bricks is used in the main part of the building but not the side rooms, that suggests that a planter chose to renovate the existing building to make room for his new machines.

Aerial view of the excavated features of the engine room of the sugarhouse

We can also see evidence of renovated foundations within the building. By looking at how the foundations were altered and in what ways, we can tell what type of boiler, furnace, or kettles were likely added and when. "Seeing how technology changed through time helps us understand all kinds of things about lifeways, labor, and industry functioned in the past, and we get really excited about that because that’s what we do!

Sweet Finds in Sugar-Town

Okay, now let’s get to the good stuff! (As Paul says, “The artifact assemblages are what one would expect at a sugarhouse.”) Take a look at some of the tools and artifacts discovered at the Dunboyne Plantation in these pictures – isn’t this stuff incredible?

A collection of ferrous artifacts from the Dunboyne Sugar Plantation including a machinery part, hardware beam, gear, and fork

Emma says, “In addition to raising questions about archeological remains, Dunboyne held a wealth of historical data.” While several of the site's features are dated to the antebellum and postbellum periods, a large number of industrial components and a variety of architectural materials from 1775 to 1899 were also discovered, and we could even narrow down the construction dates for some features to be between the 1840s to 1880s. These features included brick foundations, water lines, and wooden posts associated with the main sugarhouse as well as artifacts involved with the sugarmill production process.

“The production dates for the material collected vary significantly from 1720 to present, but the mean production dates tighten the range of materials closer to the recorded time of use of the facility from 1835 to 1910,” Emma clarifies. “However,” Paul adds, “what is most surprising is the large amount of kitchen and faunal material that was found on site.” The kitchen material alludes to difficult conditions that enslaved people and eventually waged workers were experiencing in the sugar house. The kitchen/faunal material was the result of the workers not being able to rest during breaks for lunch and were required to eat at their work stations.

A collection of artifacts from the Dunboyne Sugar Plantation, including bricks, numerous pottery pieces, and glass bottles

It was surprising to find so much material that showed us what and how the people who lived here ate due to the fact that, although artifacts such as bottles and a fork were found across the structure, there was no kitchen or food preparation area identified in the mitigation. Paul says simply, there was “no one location being the center of eating or drinking activity.” This suggested to the TerraX team that the food was prepared off-site and brought to the sugarhouse. Historical evidence suggests that enslaved laborers often shared responsibility for cooking and distributing food to the entire group. If we could excavate the enslaved quarters area, we would likely find evidence of communal cooking and eating. Furthermore, evidence of food in the sugar house suggests food was prepared with labor in mind. What foods could be eaten in short breaks and could be carried to a different location would likely determine what laborers would have eaten in or outside of the sugar house. (Is it just me or is this starting to feel like a narration by David v Attenbourough?)

Sugar Rush!

“Our work at the Dunboyne Plantation revealed a window into the lifeways of many people living on the Mississippi River during the Sugar Rush” says Emma. In addition to uncovering artifacts and floorplans, our archaeologists and historians at TerraX also explored how the sugar house remains gave us insight into the shift in labor dynamics from enslaved peoples to waged workers and their way of life, pre and post civil war. “The production of sugar was a labor-intensive process” says Paul, “Enslaved workers were used not only in the fields but also in the sugarhouses. Following the Civil War and emancipation, plantations used sharecropping and wages. However, this labor shift created a new financial strain, which meant that sugar production was no longer as profitable as it once was.” This is when we see the downfall of individual sugar mills found on thousands of plantations. Instead, we see large corporations begin to buy the unprocessed cane from farmers and process the sugar at one localized factory.

Let’s break this down for just a second. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the entire economy of the South underwent a major shift. It’s sad to say, but for decades, southern planters had been taking advantage of slave labor to have their crops — including sugar — planted, harvested, and processed without labor costs. After emancipation, however, all that changed. Suddenly, planters and plantation owners were struggling financially. In order to rebuild some of their financial stability, those planters had to rely on new systems of labor. They began sharecropping — renting lands to poor and previously enslaved farm laborers in exchange for housing, portions of crop yields, and use of the land. They also began diversifying their farms by branching out into different crops.

This small piece of historical evidence in the plantation’s process gave our team further insight into other types of crops cultivated on the plantation. As another of our historians, Steve, points out — “The Dunboyne plantation dealt with [the shifting economic times] by increasing the amount of corn planted.” It was actually the discovery of a single, broken grinding wheel, likely used for corn, which led the team to their investigation into the possibility of other such crops. (Every little detail counts!) Using only historical evidence, the team was able to conclude that cotton was also a primary crop for some time and that rice became popular in Louisiana just after the Civil War. However, in the end, the additional crop changes were not enough to make the plantation profitable, and its property was sold and liquidated in 1880.

Learning About History Is Pretty Sweet

Dunboyne was representative of a specific slice of industry in the American south, and its history is representative of the massive economic and social changes that took place in the post-Civil War era. By learning about the different crops grown on the property, the types of labor and technologies used here, the fact that food was produced offsite and brought to the people at the sugar mill, we’ve learned more about an important sector of industry in the south. Even though the plantation was ultimately liquidated and sold, the land at the Dunboyne Plantation continues to tell the stories of the people who struggled, worked, coped with changing economic times, and, above all, lived their lives here. We’re just grateful we got to discover what they left behind.

As always, what do you think? If we didn't satisfy that archaeological sweet tooth and you got more questions we’d love to help! Find us on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. We’ve got more mitigations to come!

Until next time, keep learning!

— The TerraX Team


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