William & Mary’s Anthropology Department requires all of its MA/Ph.D. and Ph.D. students to undertake externships in which they typically work for different external organizations specializing in archaeology and cultural heritage management. This is an opportunity for students to gain valuable skills and experience outside of the academy that will help enrich their graduate research and bolster their careers as archaeologists and anthropologists. Second-year Ph.D. student Maia Wilson, who came to William & Mary on a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, has been conducting her externship with the National Park Service (NPS). Maia, whose Ph.D. research has been exploring matters of Black history and repatriation, has recently been working with NPS at the Travis Plantation site in Jamestown where she’s been developing her skills in cultural resource management (CRM). It was during this work that Maia made a surprising discovery: that she may have familial ties to past people who lived at the site. Tomos Evans sat down with Maia to discuss her background in archaeology/anthropology and cultural heritage, her current academic and CRM work at William & Mary, and the exciting mystery surrounding her potential ancestral connections to the Travis site.
Tomos began by asking Maia about her journey as an archaeologist, and what brought her to her current research at William & Mary.
“I found archaeology almost by accident. Rather, I never really intended to be an archaeologist. I was a psych major at Valdosta State University (VSU) and my psych advisor Dr. Meagan Arrastia-Chisholm reminded me that I had to take elective classes that would fulfil that section of coursework where you have to take credits outside of your major.”
It was during elective classes in Anthropology that Maia soon realized that this was the subject for her. “I realized really late into the game that I had picked the wrong social science!” Inspired by her Anthropology teachers at VSU – Dr. Matthew Richards and Dr. Shelly Yankovskyy – Maia soon found herself seeking out opportunities to bolster her experience in the field. “I just took as many anthro classes as possible, and I even did an ethnographic writing field school in Belize in summer 2016.”
However, it was not until she graduated early, at the end of fall 2016 that Maia had the opportunity to gain experience in archaeology. It was her post-graduation job searching that first brought Maia to NPS:
“I found a great opportunity through NPS’s Volunteer-In-Parks (VIP) Program. Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, at the time Ocmulgee National Monument, had an ad listed saying that they were looking for volunteer curatorial support technicians. They specifically needed volunteers interested in working under the curator to help with cataloguing backlogged artifacts. I started in late September 2017.”
The experience was invaluable to Maia who acquired a range of important skills thanks to the excellent training she received from her mentors at the National Park Service:
“I was really spoiled working under curator Lonnie Davis (who retired in 2020) and Samantha Rodgers (a museum specialist) because I got so much more training than just artifact identification. I was essentially trained as a museum specialist and eventually they told me to stop referring to myself as a volunteer: they saw me as a museum specialist intern. When you work in those kinds of spaces you learn so much more beyond what is curated. I’m very proud of that time and that work that I got to do. My handwriting lives in perpetuity in the collections there, and that makes me quite happy!”
It was also during this time that Maia began developing some of her research interests that would be fleshed out throughout her Ph.D. at William & Mary. These would initially be developed during Maia’s MA research at the University of Idaho in 2019 where, inspired by conversations she had with Dr. Bill White (UC Berkeley), she worked on addressing questions of Indigeneity, Blackness, and repatriation revolving around Ocmulgee. Located at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park are the ancestral lands of the Muscogee, where there is a complex history of interaction between people of Indigenous, African, and European descent. Burials of people of assumed African descent here were excavated, at a time when they were considered Muscogee graves. But following NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) legislation that sought to repatriate the bodies and artefacts of Indigenous people, the Smithsonian would not return these excavated bodies as they were not considered to be “Indian enough” (based on morphometric analysis) to be returned under the legislation. At UIdaho, mentored by Dr. Mark Warner, Dr. Katrina Eichner, and Dr. Kate Kolpan, Maia learned about, and became a part of, wider efforts to repatriate Black bodies and heritage that are not protected by equivalent legislation to NAGPRA:
“What I find interesting about the work I have done focusing on Black history and Black repatriation politics is how “on time” my project feels. When I began, I had no idea that there was Black repatriation-minded legislation moving through Congress. I also started doing this work and then realized how much this is a focus for Black archaeologists and African Diaspora archaeology. I am also so enamored with witnessing the process of seeing the invested public become enthralled in the work and contributing their ideas. It’s like suddenly we are both stuck in together. There’s a bond built. I love witnessing that moment of cohesion and collaboration where we’ve both entered a shared space of ethical and activist research. Then there’s the ability to use archaeology to do something for others. I have been inclined to think of the work as service or a good I can provide, particularly to those historically harmed by it. And that is straight from my bible- Black Feminist Archaeology (Battle-Baptiste, 2011).”
At William & Mary, where she began her Ph.D. in 2021, Maia has been developing research that is rooted in Black Feminist approaches to African Diasporic historical archaeology. She’s particularly focused on documenting and representing Black history and developing arguments in favor of Black repatriation. At William & Mary, Maia would once again be involved in working with NPS, this time as part of her graduate externship. This work has provided her with the opportunity to be at the forefront of researching Black history in Virginia:
“I did my externship for the cultural resources team at Colonial National Historical Park. One of those projects is a naming project where I have been tracing the names of Black CCC workers at Yorktown and Jamestown. I also have periodically returned to Ocmulgee to return to my old station volunteering in the repository.”
Tomos asked her about how this extern work with NPS has helped strengthen her Ph.D. research, and her skills as an archaeologist:
“The projects I’ve been involved with have kept my fieldwork and lab work techniques refreshed since I’m continuing to practice. Further, as someone interested in working for NPS in the future, it keeps me close enough that I can stay connected with NPS mentors and stay abreast of wider NPS agendas. Also, each item plays into some parts of my skillset that I call upon for my Ph.D. work. It’s been very useful seeing what resources within NPS are available that I can tap into for the Black communities I work with. It has further allowed me to see first-hand how entities like NPS handle consultations and agreements with communities.”
The conversation then shifted to the Travis Plantation site on Jamestown Island, where Maia has recently been working under the NPS externship. According to Maia, the plantation was created by Edward Travis (originally Travers) who immigrated to the Jamestown colony in the early 17th century. The plantation would eventually pass to his great-grandson Edward Champion Travis, who inherited it in 1745. The site is significant to Virginian and American history in more ways than one:
“The estate we are working within focuses on the era of Edward Champion Travis. It was a very wealthy home and farmstead, and it was not their only property. They predominantly exploited tobacco on the island itself. It was a major cash crop that developed America’s economy, and the farmstead itself was a military base of operations during the American Revolution making it integral to the fight for American independence (of course independence was conditional and not for everyone). This plantation is very much a part of early Virginian and early American history – the Travises being among some of the first to ‘successfully’ settle on the island. The first Africans were forced onto the island not long before the Travises arrived.”
While the history of the site had previously focused largely on the Travis family, the recent work that Maia has been involved with has sought to investigate the lives of other people who lived at the site previously marginalized by mainstream historical narratives, including the enslaved African communities there:
“The specific project is less interested in the Champion-Travis family itself, and preoccupied with finding outbuildings and the quarters of the enslaved Africans we know were being shipped directly there from the Travis family’s larger estate in Barbados. This has broadened the site’s worth to communities typically underserved by NPS. It becomes quite contemporary in its quest to not only document and memorialize wealth, prestige, and whiteness, but also to address the atrocities of chattel slavery and the resiliency of the African Diaspora.”
It was during this work that connections began to form in Maia’s mind regarding her potential familial links to the Travis site:
“Some years ago, I became interested in genealogy to trace back to my great-great-grandmother. There are stories about her and her ancestry (I have been told she was not Black yet enslaved) and I was hoping to find knowledge lost about her as it has created a very felt pocket of absence. I found her – Ann – and her last name is Travis, but I had no intention to go further back and quite frankly had no knowledge of the Travis Family. Bells didn’t ring until one day my photo was used in an NPS newsletter article about the resuming of excavations at the Travis Plantation. A cousin on my dad’s side said, “I think that’s where our Travis ancestors are from.” My family has been in this southeast pocket of VA for hundreds of years, so I thought “It’s not impossible!”. I hadn’t looked at the minor genealogy I had done in years, but I got an unwavering feeling that I needed to look at my notes. And there it was – several folks with the last names Travis.”
During a recent family reunion over Juneteenth weekend, Maia learned from family members that they’ve traced their Travis ancestry back to Brunswick County, VA rather than Jamestown Island. However, Maia has uncovered two sources that may link the Brunswick Travises to the Jamestown Travises. One of these was a 1909 article in the William & Mary Quarterly, and the other was ourfamtree.org, a website for tracing ancestry (full references are included at the end of the article). From these, Maia deduced that her family may descend from one of Edward Champion Travis’s sons or grandsons, who owned land in Brunswick County that was inherited through Edward Champion Travis’s will. It remains a mystery whether this was a matter of an enslaved African being given the Travis name, or direct descent from a white Travis family member.
“These sources tentatively link the Jamestown Travises to the Brunswick Travises by a direct line. I’m considering seeking assistance from the Lemon Project on continuing this genealogy.”
The Lemon Project is a program at William & Mary that focuses on contributing to, and encouraging, scholarship on the 300-year relationship between African Americans and the university. It will be exciting to learn more about what further details Maia uncovers regarding her family’s connections to this site, especially in light of the incredible coincidence of her working there for her externship. To conclude the conversation, Maia offered encouraging advice to current and prospective students in archaeology interested in getting involved with NPS:
“VOLUNTEER, VOLUNTEER, VOLUNTEER! Check the Volunteer-In-Parks announcements. Pay attention to sites like USA Jobs who post seasonal positions for archaeology often at parks under NPS. If there is a park close to you, make your presence known: walk in, buy something from the gift shop, see if the curator has a card, chat with a ranger, look up any foundations that are housed within the park, and become a regular. Lastly, reach out to me. I would be more than happy to talk with you about NPS stuff. NPS people often have several parks under their belt. So, the network of those working for NPS can feel like a small world. Getting involved at one park can actually expose you to so many more at the same time. Do all of this or any this if it is within your means to do so.”
Anyone interested in contacting Maia for more information can reach her at email@example.com.
External links and references:
Battle-Baptiste W. (2011). Black feminist archaeology. Left Coast Press.
“Archeology & Hidden Histories Uncovered on Jamestown Island”. National Parks Service, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/colo/learn/news/archeology-hidden-histories-uncovered-on-jamestown-island.htm
“Archeology and the Enslaved Laborers at Travis Plantation”. National Parks Service, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/archeology-enslaved-laborers-travis-plantation.htm .
“Descendants of Edward Champion Travis, abt 1720 - 8/1779”, ourfamtree.org, 2023, https://www.ourfamtree.org/descend.php/Edward-Champion-Travis/30426
“Travis Family.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1909, pp. 141–44, https://doi.org/10.2307/1916339