A team of graduate students from Associate Professor Carolyn Copenheaver’s Advanced Forest Ecology class uncovered new details of Virginia’s rich history through dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating.

Two historic structures — a kitchen and slave dwelling — at Greenfield Plantation in Fincastle were relocated in winter 2016. It was believed that the structures had been constructed in the mid-1830s, but dating of log structures is difficult from an architectural perspective since the same building techniques and materials were used for many decades.

Thanks to a partnership between the college and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, decaying logs from the structures were analyzed to date when the buildings were constructed. Copenheaver and her students compared the tree-ring patterns in the logs with those from two old-growth white oak forests in Montgomery County and ran the measurements through a software program to determine their exact age.

They were surprised to discover that the structures were built later than originally thought. The kitchen was built in late 1844 or early 1845, while the slave dwelling was not built until 1864. “These might be the latest constructed slave quarters discovered to date,” said Mike Pulice of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “It really sheds some light on what was going on right before the end of the Civil War.” At that time, the plantation’s owners likely realized that their operations could not continue if the slave population left. Pulice explained that the new quarters may have been built as an incentive for slaves to stay and work at Greenfield after they were freed.

According to Copenheaver, the tree rings also tell the story of European settlement in the area, including westward expansion before and after the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763. “These samples also provide an opportunity to see what forests in Southwest Virginia were like in the 1700s and 1800s.”

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