Chinsegut Hill History and Recent Archeological Survey

by Julie Maglio

Chinsegut Hill was at one time the largest plantation in the county. It is situated off of Snow Memorial Highway east of Brooksville. The property consists of 115 acres of ecological preserve, a manor house, and several cabins.

Part of the $1.5 million in state funding awarded to the Friends of Chinsegut Hill (FOCH) to restore and reconstruct the Chinsegut Hill property was used to perform an archeological survey. The survey was performed by The Gulf Archeology Research Institute (GARI) out of Crystal River. The four month project began in the Spring of 2014 and discovered roughly 200 prehistoric artifacts and over 22,600 historic artifacts spanning all known occupations.

Jill Principe, a research associate with GARI recently gave a history of Chinsegut, explained the archeological project and its findings at an Old Hernando History Roundtable meeting.

History of Chinsegut
The following is a summary of the history provided by Principe and the Friends of Chinsegut Hill. The property was first settled in the mid to late 1840's as a result of the Armed Occupation Act which was passed in 1842 to provide incentive to populate Florida. The Act gave 160 acres to the head of any family under several conditions including the obligation to build a house on the property as well as enclose and cultivate 5 acres of land, both within the first year. The land also had to be 2 or more miles away from a garrisoned military post. Col. Byrd Pearson, a lawyer from South Carolina took advantage of the Act selecting to settle the property that is now Chinsegut Hill. Before Pearson built his plantation, the property was Seminole agricultural land. Pearson called his plantation Mt. Airy in which corn, sugar cane and citrus were grown. A manor house and several cabins were built. Principe referred to an 1850 census, in which Pearson was listed as owning land valued at $5000 and 26 slaves.

Principe explained that very little is known about the Mt. Airy plantation. She stated, “What is known of the Pearson home (no longer extant), comes from local oral histories. The cabin was said to have been built by a ship’s carpenter. It was likely a small, single story house; the foundation of which had been framed with hand-hewn, 12 by 12 cypress timber. The siding, also hand-hewn cedar, was said to have been fastened with oak pegs. While the actual location of the house is not known, it is generally believed that the original Pearson house formed the basis for the existing kitchen wing of the present mansion.”

In 1851 Pearson sold Mt. Airy along with 360 acres to Francis H. Ederington. Ederington, his family and slaves settled there a year later. A larger two story home, which is the basis of current Chinsegut Hill Mansion was built. The Ederington family occupied the property through the Third Seminole War and the Civil War. Principe said, “By 1860, Ederington owned 1,760 acres of land, valued at $8,000; and 32 slaves, valued at $20,000, making him one of Hernando County's most wealthy citizens and largest slave-holders." During the 1850’s and 1860’s Ederington added acreage, began raising cattle and expanded his crops.

The eldest Ederington daughter Charlotte inherited the property after the passing of her parents. In 1871, she married Dr. Joseph Russell Snow, a Brooksville dentist and former surgeon in the Confederate Army in South Carolina. Principe stated that “Charlotte and Joseph bought out her siblings’ share of the Ederington family’s estate and made it their own. Naming the property “Snow Hill,” they continued to farm the land and make a number of improvements, expanding the house to include wrap-around verandahs, a screened in dining room, and a finished attic level.”

After a deep frost in 1895, Charlotte's death in 1898, and a tornado in 1899 which reportedly damaged the house and took it off of its foundation, Dr. Snow relocated.

The Manor house was vacant and in disrepair for several years until it was purchased and restored by siblings Raymond and Elizabeth Robins in 1904. Principe explained, “Raymond was a former lawyer and gold miner, turned settlement worker, progressive reformer, and diplomat, who lived mainly in Chicago. Elizabeth, a successful actress, novelist, and playwright, resided in London. In 1904, Elizabeth provided Raymond with $1,800 to purchase the house and surrounding acres. The property was intended to be their winter home. They named it “Chinsegut,” an Inuit word meaning “the spirit of things lost and regained.” However, shortly after purchasing the property, Raymond met and married Margaret Dreier, a wealthy, women and children’s rights activist and labor reformer, who would become president of the National Women’s Trade Union League. As a wedding gift, Elizabeth relinquished half of her interest in the property to Margaret.”

Elizabeth often visited Chinsegut. Her personal writings and photographs are a primary source of what is now known of the property's history.

Raymond and Margaret modernized the home which later became a gathering place for dignitaries and celebrities when Raymond was appointed a “trusted labor and political advisor” in the 20's. During the Great Depression, Robins donated his land to the federal government. Raymond and Margaret continued to live at Chinsegut and manage the property until their deaths in 1954 and 1945 respectively.

After Raymond’s death Chinsegut Hill was leased to the University of Florida and later, to the University of South Florida (USF) who maintained the property until 2009. Four years later, the FOCH sub-leased the property from Hernando County.

2014 Archeological Survey
Beginning in the Spring of 2014, Principe explained that “Our first order of business was to do a literature search regarding the occupations of the property; much of this centered on Elizabeth Robins descriptions of property, historic maps, and aerial photographs.” This enabled the team to better grasp what possibly could be found and where. They established a grid system over the area of the project so they could accurately record artifacts and establish a pint of origin.

The archeologists then performed soil coring tests and a metal detecting survey that focused on areas of interest and worked its way out from there. Principe explained,
“These minimally invasive techniques gave us an idea as to anomalies and changes in the soil, and allowed us to further concentrate our efforts by opening test units.”

The researchers excavated 360 small test units which are normally 2x2 foot squares. Some test units were expanded depending on whether or not historical features were found.

The largest concentration of test units were excavated in the area north of the house. The researchers termed the area “common ground.” They recovered large amounts of historical evidence of “high intensity living” beginning with the first settlers of the property through soil coring, charcoal density analysis, and metal detection. Historic features recorded in this area, included the Ederington servants’ quarters, and disposal pits from both the Snow period and the first occupation of the hill.

The first disposal pit during the Pearson occupation was over 6 feet deep. Principe describes it as containing “a mish mash of charcoal, brick, mortar, and massive amounts of animal bone.” She continues, “The soil was literally saturated with animal fat and oily to the touch. Also located in this feature were two flint glass tumblers that likely date to the first half of the 19th century. It is possible that this pit may have initially been excavated to exploit the clay deposits beneath the soil – perhaps for brick making – then used as a disposal pit.”

During the research team’s investigation, the restoration crew had removed the porch floors. The team was able to layout a series of test units called trenches beneath the porch to discover another significant feature in the southeast corner of the house. They found red concreted clay clusters. Testing revealed that these were the decomposed remains of brick support structures. possibly made from clay deposits located within the property. Principe explained, “The clusters were present at 5 foot intervals, and may have served as the support pylons for Pearson’s original cabin.”

Principe stated that there is still much work to be done and they have only scratched the surface. One of her future goals is to locate the slave quarters. She explained, “Locating and studying the living areas of these individuals is essential to fully understanding the history of Chinsegut.” Principe is confident that further study will reveal an even greater amount. She explained to the Hernando History Roundtable, “These artifacts need proper analysis, conservation, and curation. All of this takes time, hard work, and money. This is why GARI is working closely with the FOCH, and is currently in the process of raising funds to continue work at Chinsegut in the future.”

You can read the transcript of Jill Principe’s lecture at the Old Hernando History Roundtable meeting in its entirety at http://www.gulfarchaeology.org/news.html

Recovered historical artifacts are on display upstairs in the Manor House. If you would like to donate, or if you would like more information on GARI, their website is http://www.gulfarchaeology.org.

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