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Lott House Q&A "Brooklyn's Eighteenth-Century Lott House"

Having visited the site once, what was the next step?

Alyssa Loorya: Soon after our first few visits we began to collect material on the Lott family history. A genealogy was compiled, and we began to collect copies of maps and original documents.

Old maps of the Lott property and of Flatlands would give us clues as to what was formerly on the property and in the town of Flatlands. Maps could also give us clues as to how the land was used in the past. Historic maps would detail the size and location of the Lott barns and any other standing structures. These could be overlaid with modern maps to determine which, if any, of the former structures fall within the present-day property boundaries.

One descendant, Robert Billard, has many original documents that he transcribed while researching the family genealogy: Johannes' will, Johannes' wife's probate, and a land deed showing Christopher (Hendrick's brother) aquiring more land in Flatlands. We have also sought out census records. Federal and state census records were regulated and fairly detailed at certain times. They have been able to tell us who was living in the Lott House during the year of the census. The census information includes gender, age, and often occupation.

Arthur Bankoff: We began collecting references to the Lott family and the property from secondary sources--history books on Brooklyn, the Landmarks Preservation Commission's reference file, newspaper articles about the house--and letting them direct us to the best primary sources--old maps, photos, diaries, living family members, and census records. Some of this was available in the Brooklyn College Library, which has a good collection specializing in local history. Other material was in the Brooklyn Public Library or the New York Public Library. A whole mess of material is stashed in the Brooklyn Historical Society collections, packed away and out of our reach for the next few years at least while they renovate. How frustrating it is to imagine that some of the facts we struggle to string together may be plainly addressed in a closed archive in our own backyard.

With the historical society closed, we've had to rethink our investigation; original source documents are a key part of historical archaeology. To compensate, we make use of analogy, allowing ourselves to be guided by what we know from other similar sites. We are lucky to be backed by the expertise of a department that has been excavating in New York City for over 20 years. In that time we have worked on a number of sites in Brooklyn, including other farmstead sites, and retain some of those collections in our laboratory. With limited access to documentary resources, it has been difficult to prioritize and plan: should we first collect all the family wills and probates and then perhaps the maps? Where to begin?

In the research we've done so far we have obtained some maps and land transfer deeds. We have unfortunately come accross only one will and two probates, crucial documents in analyzing the past lifeways of a family.

Chris Ricciardi: We quickly made plans to begin test pit excavations as part of the 1997 Brooklyn College Summer Field Program. However, these plans fell through at the last moment (about a week before the dig was supposed to begin) because of a legal snafu between the Hendrick I. Lott House Preservation Association, the Historic House Trust, and the lawyers for the Lott family. Plans to begin excavations in September and October also fell through because of these legal issues. So we hit the books.

Arthur Bankoff: We were looking for anything that would help us get closer to who was living in the house at what time, how many family members and non-members (servants, slaves, farmhands), how much property the Lotts owned, bought and sold, what they were producing, and so on.

In a sense, our first stage was getting to know what information was out there, what might we be able to get, and what was lost. We went in many different directions with this general objective in mind. We talked to neighbors who had known the last Lott relatives who lived in the house and were lucky to find interest among the people who lived on the block, who had been instrumental in saving the Lott House when nobody was living there. They had kept watch, scaring off vandals and repairing the fence, to make sure that the structure survived. Some, like Peggy Accardo who lives across the street, had led neighborhood cleanups of the trash that collected on the site. Peggy also had collected old photos and clippings relating to the house, and made them into a very presentable book, which was a useful starting point for tracking down other photos and maps.

You might think we would have interviewed the family first, but we didn't; the family directly involved with the history of the house no longer lived nearby. Or so we thought. Actually, it turned out that one of the best resources for family lore and oral history was Catherine Lott who is, not coincidentally, the wife of Gary Divis, the lawyer for the Hendrick I. Lott House Preservation Association. She remembers fondly her aunt Ella, the last person to live in the house, and tells many stories of her father's childhood and how the house and the family were then. She also has some pictures and family documents which relate mostly to her immediate family and the house in the beginning of this century.

Chris Ricciardi: Most of Catherine's stories relate to the everyday activities of life at the house: gathering seafood to eat from the local creek (which ran about two blocks away from the house), kids playing on the property. And she told us how her father and aunt used to jump out the second-floor window of the stone kitchen using umbrellas as parachutes--her dad broke his arm twice! Without this anecdote, we wouldn't have been sure the stone kitchen had two floors; it's hard to tell from the old photograph, and the archaeology is inconclusive. And we would not know that the Lotts had a full sized tennis court in their front (southern) yard (see right). Catherine has also provided us with family recipes (most begin, "Find a cow. Kill it," [Click for example.]) and some heirlooms. She even showed us blue transfer-print plates, given to her by her grandmother and her aunt. The pattern on these plates matches the pattern on some sherds that we found during excavation!

The woman in the photo is a Lott family friend named Edith Brainerd. The dog's name is Bob. (Courtesy Brooklyn College)

But, most importantly, Catherine has shared her family photographs. Now we have faces to go with the names of people we've been reading about in dusty archives. But Catherine is not in possession of important family papers. Unfortunately, the Lotts who retain title to the house and presumably have many of these documents have not allowed us to view them, or even confirmed their existence.

[image] Excavation has turned up quite a variety of sherds. (Courtesy Brooklyn College) Click here for some examples.

Arthur Bankoff: Family documents have been a problem, as they seem to have disappeared or been discarded when the house was cleaned out some ten years ago. We have asked the Lott heirs whether they have any papers (especially diaries, receipts, lists of furnishings, shopping lists or such things which will allow us to look into the family's daily life and personal habits over the last 200 years), but so far have not received an answer. The boarded up Brooklyn Historical Society is where any wills and family papers donated for public use might be stored, so we'll have to wait a few years for those. We contacted professional and amateur historians, some of whom have wonderful collections of memorabilia and important Lott papers, as well as old photographs like the one from 1917 of the Lott House and surrounding string-bean fields where servant girls, probably Italian immigrants, pick beans.

(Courtesy Catherine Lott) [LARGER IMAGE]

We also looked up the tax records and other public records in the municipal archives. Finally, Chris, Alyssa, and Edy Coleman, an archaeology graduate student at CUNY, went to the State Historical Museum in Albany to check the records there. They had some luck, particularly with state census records, where they found information from different periods on the number of servants kept by the Lotts (never more than 15) and the value of the family's agricultural resources.

Chris Ricciardi: Since Alyssa and I are graduate students, we could not do this search full-time. So over a six-month period we scoured for as much information as possible. Although we obtained as large amount of information as possible (until the Brooklyn Historical Society reopens), there is still a lot more to be done. We still have to get down to the Library of Congress in Washington and back to the libraries in Syracuse and Albany to continue our work. True documentary studies never end, since I'd say it's impossible to get every single bit of information that is out there.

Arthur Bankoff: After all this leg-work, we do have a pretty good idea of the extent of the family holdings, of their wealth (as shown in probate and tax records), of the genealogy and their official paper trail. We are still trying to get closer to their personal lives, to make these people of two centuries ago into living beings once again.


Discussion Questions:
What innovative avenues might be explored considering that the historical society is boarded up?
How are documents best incorporated into the work of an archaeologist?

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