Archaeology at the Thomas P. Kennard State Historic Site

[The following blog post is the second in a series of posts highlighting archaeological sites that relate to Nebraska’s Statehood or date to the period around 1867! This series will run through September in celebration of Nebraska Archaeology Month and our state’s Sesquicentennial!]

Kennard - Lincoln 360

Thomas P. Kennard House seen from first Nebraska State Capitol Building (c. 1871) – note the rear wing. Nebraska State Historical Society, SFN5293.

In 1869, Nebraska’s first Secretary of State Thomas P. Kennard joined Governor David Butler and Auditor John Gillespie in constructing large personal residences in Lincoln. These impressive structures, designed by Chicago Architect John K. Winchell, were intended as a demonstration of confidence in the state’s new capital city, and to encourage others to invest in Lincoln. Located on the north half of Block 153 along H Street between 16th and 17th Streets, the Italianate style Kennard house is the only one of these structures that remains standing today. Believed to be the oldest house within the original plat of Lincoln, the house was designated as the Nebraska Statehood Memorial in 1968.

1968 Archeological Excavations

1968 Archaeological Excavation at the Kennard House – Ron Kivett at work. Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology 25LC15-13.

That same year, ahead of the official dedication open house on October 5, the Nebraska State Historical Society conducted some preliminary archaeological excavations in the backyard of the Kennard House to explore what remained of the original rear wing of the house, seen in early photos of the residence but demolished in 1923. The 5’x5’ test units, dug in advance of possible rear wing reconstruction, revealed an intact foundation along with architectural materials and household items such as medicine bottles and ceramics. Despite the findings, 25 years passed until further exploration of the rear wing and Kennard House back yard continued.

1968 Excavation - sewer pipe, foundation

1968 Excavation – Foundation (foreground) and 1888 Sewer Line (background). Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology 25LC15-49.

1968 Excavation - Foundation, Bottle

1968 Excavation – Foundation, Zehrung and Dunn Medicine Bottle (1880s). Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology 25LC15-31.

In 1992, renewed discussion of reconstruction led to additional archaeological investigations at the Kennard House. With the primary aim of identifying original construction materials and methods to guide future reconstruction efforts, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Anthropology Department held an archaeology field school at the site, led by Dr. Peter Bleed. The excavations also sought to uncover artifacts that could yield information on the lifestyle of the Kennard family and their servants, as well as subsequent occupants of the house, which went on to function as a boarding house, a fraternity house, and a single-family residence at various times.

1992 Excavation

1992 UNL Archaeology Field School Excavation – Dr. Peter Bleed (left). 25LC15 Site File.

Between May 18-July 9, 1992, a group of 17 undergraduate students and a number of volunteers excavated 82 square meters of the back and side yards of the Kennard House. The location of the units was based on remote sensing data produced by UNL physicist John Weymouth as a guide to possible buried features at the site. Structural remains uncovered during excavation include the foundation wall of the rear wing, a hand dug well, a cistern, a ‘Hooker and Orr’ plumbing feature (dating to July 1888), and a number of clay tile and ferrous metal pipes related to various plumbing episodes over the years.

kennard cistern

Cistern at Kennard House, 1992 Excavation. Nebraska State Historical Society Archeology, 25LC15 Site File.

In addition to the buried structural features found at the site, architectural remains such as portions of painted wall, window panes, hinges and other hardware, linoleum fragments, roofing materials, and light fixture components were recovered. These materials can be used to determine original design details of the Kennard House, as well as style changes made during more recent renovations. Although the plans for rear wing reconstruction never came to fruition, these details would prove invaluable in the event that reconstruction is ever again pursued.

As intended, the archaeological excavation also uncovered a large amount of household artifacts related to the residents of 1627 H Street. Information about food consumption (cut animal bones, food/beverage bottles), food preparation/service (platters, bowls, cups), health (medical and personal care bottles and jars), and recreation (toys) can all be gathered from the material culture identified from the Kennard House excavations. While a number of the best preserved artifacts appear to post-date the Kennard occupation of the house (1869-1887), many of these were likely deposited prior to or circa 1923, when the rear-wing was demolished during renovations. As a result, these materials still provide an important record of life in Lincoln at the turn of the nineteenth century. In addition, despite the later dates of materials in deposits held by features like the cistern, a portion of the collection does appear to date to the earlier occupation of the house by the Kennard Family, and could provide greater insight into the lifestyle of ‘the father of Lincoln’ and his family, with the completion of additional (and much-needed) analysis.

Today, the Kennard House interior is open by appointment, with features from the 1992 excavations marked in the backyard for visitors wishing to take a self-guided tour. Just as restoration of the house is a continuous process, so too is the archaeological investigation. While UNL students continued their experience into the fall of 1992 with artifact cleaning and processing in the lab, much of the analysis on these materials remains to be completed. In addition, with approximately only 25% of the site tested, other portions of the property may warrant future archaeological investigation, should the circumstances arise. For the time being, however, the site continues to be well-preserved under NSHS-ownership, faring better than much of the original plat of Lincoln, which has been paved over or built up in the 150 years since Nebraska became a state. This allows the archaeology of the Kennard House to remain safe underground, providing us a continued window into the past of the earliest days of Lincoln and Nebraska’s Statehood – a perspective only the archaeological record can provide.

 

References:

Bleed, Peter and Stanley Parks. “A Preliminary Report on the 1992 Archeological Excavations at the Kennard House – the Nebraska Statehood Memorial 25LC15.” July 29, 1992.

Buecker, Thomas R. “The Father of Lincoln, Nebraska: The Life and Times of Thomas P. Kennard.” Nebraska History, Volume 95, Number 2 (pgs. 78-93), Summer 2014.


About the Author – 

Courtney Ziska is an archeologist at the Nebraska State Historical Society – State Archeology Office.


Interested in learning more about the Thomas P. Kennard Historic Site?

Attend the Archaeology Free Family Fun Day at the Kennard House on Saturday, September 9 from 1:00-3:00 p.m.! See artifacts from the 1992 excavation and learn more about what historical archaeology can tell us about our recent past, including Nebraska Statehood. Take a tour of the interior and play period games, celebrating the Sesquicentennial. Depending on current renovation work being completed at the house, visitors may also get to examine open archaeological excavations in the backyard for the first time in 25 years!

Take a tour of the Thomas P. Kennard State Historic Site, including the self-guided tour of the archaeological features exposed in the backyard. Visit https://history.nebraska.gov/visit/thomas-p-kennard-state-historic-site for more information.

Share the ‘Teaching with Historic Places’ lesson plan on the Thomas P. Kennard House: Building a Prairie Capital with a teacher or a student you know, and help others learn about how Lincoln became the state capital and what it looked like in its earliest days! https://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/149kennard/149kennard.htm

Read “The Father of Lincoln, Nebraska: The Life and Times of Thomas P. Kennard” by Thomas R. Buecker, published in Nebraska History, Volume 95, Number 2 (Summer 2014)

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