Archaeological Dig in Boston’s Chinatown

Joe Bagley, Boston city archaeologist,     explaining the Chinatown dig.

On a hot morning in July, Thomas Lester, the archivist at the Archdiocese of Boston, and I walked to Chinatown to meet Joe Bagley, the Boston city archaeologist. We wanted to talk to Joe about his work at the “unusual” dig at 6 Hudson Street in Chinatown. As Joe was quick to remind us, “Every building has a unique story.”

When we arrived at the empty lot right next to the Chinatown Arch, we saw a large pile of dirt and rubble and a hole about eight feet deep—in which we found Joe. He was chipping away at concrete with a sledgehammer while I shouted questions down at him, the noisy bustle of Chinatown humming around us. Joe explained that underneath it, every neighborhood of the city has different characteristics. Here in Chinatown, this original site lies under layers of fill from the 1970s and ’80s. Joe’s team did not expect to find quite so much fill when they began their dig. By the time they hit a layer of bricks from the original site, they had also hit the water table, which unfortunately meant an end to their digging.

A plastic toy dinosaur leg
and a uneaten Snickers bar

Since much of Boston is built on fill, with wood pylons supporting the buildings, the water table must be kept high so that the wooden supports do not rot. Joe says archaeology should not be conducted in standing water (unless you’re doing underwater archaeology) because the water easily becomes muddied, causing you to lose the context of the layers in which any artifacts are found. So, any original artifacts that may be lying beneath the soil here—probably well preserved by the water—will remain undiscovered.

When I asked about the most exciting items they had found, Joe and his colleagues reported a New Edition cassette tape from 1984, a plastic toy dinosaur leg, and a uneaten Snickers bar—fun discards from the ’80s. While they may not have found many articles of deep historic significance, they learned a lot about the idiosyncrasies of conducting archaeology in Chinatown. This time, they dug an enormous pit by hand. Joe said in the future they would dig most of the hole with a backhoe. When they got down to the layers in which they were interested, they would do the more delicate fill removal by hand.

Community Support

Joe’s team did learn some interesting things about 6 Hudson Street. It appears that the backyard had a cistern, and outhouse, and at some point, another small structure. They encountered a layer of linoleum, which probably belonged to its interior floor, as they dug down. This site was also unusual in that it is private property; usually they dig on city-owned or nonprofit-owned land. In this case, Joe worked with the Chinese Historical Society of New England to gain buy-in from the owner and the community, producing a strong community-supported archaeological dig.

As the City of Boston Archaeology Program pulled together the proposal for the dig, they did a lot of research on the 6 Hudson Street property. They consulted many sources familiar to genealogists, including federal censuses and city directories. They provided me with a copy of the proposal, and I’ll quickly summarize for you the interesting history of the property that it reveals.

The story of this property also tells the story of the neighborhood through time.

Prior to 1833, this area of the city (South Cove) was still underwater. In 1833 a project was begun to fill in the area. By 1838, 6 Hudson Street was filled with wooden pilings and gravel. At first the property was owned by Massachusetts-born residents, then it transitioned to a boarding house for mostly Irish immigrants in the late 1860s. In 1900, the residents of the neighborhood began to change again—a Syrian immigrant, Theodore Nahass, owned a grocery store at this address. At that time, “Syria” was used to refer to an area in the Middle East that contains portions of multiple present-day countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. Immigrants from this area might also be described as coming from “Turkey,” since that country was then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. By the 1920s, Chinese immigrants had begun to move into the neighborhood we now call Chinatown. The building at 6 Hudson Street eventually became a restaurant named Ruby Foo’s Den which was in business until 1957. The lot has been vacant since 1988.

Connections to Catholic Records

Thomas and I visited the site in hopes that we could connect their work with our work on the Historic Catholic Records Online project. We are specifically researching Syrian immigrants to Boston who can be found in the St. James the Greater sacramental registers. I have not yet connected any Syrian immigrants in our records with 6 Hudson Street, but I was able to find baptismal records for children of Irish descent who lived there and were listed in the 1880 census. Here you can find John McDermott’s baptismal record; he was 3 years old in 1880, the son of John and Mary. His father worked in a furniture store. John’s sister Annie was 2 in 1880; you can also find her baptism in the St. James the Greater records. The Galvin family (Patrick and Elizabeth) were also enumerated at 6 Hudson Street in 1880. Here is the baptismal record of their daughter, Mary Elizabeth (spelled “Gallivan” in the church register).

It was really exciting to have a chance to learn more about archeology (I had never been to a dig before), but it was especially interesting to me personally to explore the intersections of archeology and genealogy. While this dig focused on a single property, the story of this property also tells the story of the neighborhood through time—from the inhabitants of the building, to the artifacts they left behind. You can find pictures from the dig on City of Boston Archaeology Program’s Instagram page (bostonarchaeo).

Molly Rogers

About Molly Rogers

Molly is from York, PA. She studied English and French at Colby College in Maine and has a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Simmons College. She enjoys many outdoor pursuits such as whitewater kayaking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing and has a few indoor hobbies like reading, knitting and creating a genealogy website for her grandmother’s family.

2 thoughts on “Archaeological Dig in Boston’s Chinatown

  1. I work as an historical archaeologist in Tucson, Arizona. I often conduct genealogical research on the people associated with the properties I excavate. We have a company blog at desert.com that includes some of their stories (in the Field Journal section)..

    1. Thank you so much for your comment–I’m sure your work in Tucson is really interesting, especially for those with Arizona roots!

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