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Unearthing the past

Rebecca “Boo” Moss never planned to be an archaeologist. That’s because she never thought she would find historical artifacts on the property surrounding her Jonesborough home.
Her discoveries of everything from antique pottery shards to the remains of what appears to be old slave quarters has led Moss to embark upon her very own archaeological dig of sorts — right in her very own yard.
The 59-year-old nurse practitioner moved into her vintage home located at 204 E. Main St. nearly seven years ago. Since then, she has uncovered some pretty amazing clues about Jonesborough’s early history while working on several home improvement projects.
Her love for historic homes comes naturally, Moss says, especially for ones in Northeast Tennessee. In fact, her childhood memories are rooted in the nooks and crannies of antique abodes.
“I grew up in this area, in Limestone, and my family’s history in the Appalachian area extends back generations,” Moss said. “My mom was a teacher and we lived in a historical home that my parents remodeled. Then, while my dad was overseas in the war, my mom bought the old Bayless log cabin in Johnson City and restored it. It didn’t even have any floors in it, but she took it on.”
So, when it was time to look for her own home, Moss was thrilled to find the old Hoss residence in Jonesborough on the market. Immediately drawn to it, she traded in her Johnson City condo for the stately residence on the corner of East Main and Spring streets.
She began to make it her own, tackling the inside of the house first, where she did most of her restoration work for the first five years.
Then, about two years ago, she turned her attention to the yard. And that’s when she started unearthing – literally – dozens upon dozens of clues about her home’s history.
It all started with Moss’ need for a new driveway.
“I only had one entrance and it was facing Main Street,” she said. “It was cramped and there was hardly any turning space. I got permission to take the driveway down the back to come out on Spring Street.”
When the grader arrived and started digging, Moss started seeing bits of pottery everywhere. Excited, she began gathering up the pieces from the dirt as the grader moved through the backyard.
“He would let me get in front of him, gather up the pieces I found and then I would dash off and he would continue forward,” Moss said. “I’m sure he thought I was crazy, but I found a lot of things in that black dirt, a lot of history.”
That was the first outdoor project.
“The second big project was in the backyard, near where the old well is,” Moss said.
The well, still protected by a big metal cover, was to become the area for a little seating area, which meant it was time for more digging.
Once again, Moss wasn’t disappointed.
“Every time I dug, I went through the dirt like crazy,” she said. “I found different stuff – pieces of metal, pottery shards like old transferware, and some old arrowheads.”
Using brick from an old stable which she purchased from the Heritage Alliance, Moss continued work, leveling the spot for her patio. New treasures turned up — an old mule shoe and quite a few kiln-fired handmade marbles.
Moss’ third project, creating a walkway through the yard, also turned up a plethora of relics. But it was the recent project that compelled Moss to search for more information about the history of her property.
Starting in an area near the front of the house, Moss set out to build some raised flowerbeds.
“We started putting in some old foundation stone to build the flower beds, and again, we started finding lots of things,” Moss said.
This time, however, her discoveries were quite a bit different.
There was the usual assortment of marbles and pottery shards, even an old Indian trade pipe. But as the work progressed, she and the workers helping her started finding building materials – shingles, old shutter dogs, an old mule shoe, a couple of old gate latches and chains – most of which were handmade from metal.
And as the crew continued to dig, they found what she believes to be the base of an old chimney.
Fascinated, she kept pulling the earth back from the stone. Finally, deep beneath the dark soil, she uncovered a much larger foundation. Surely there had been some kind of building there.
Excited and intrigued, Moss started researching local history and found some answers to her home’s mystery in a book, “Reminiscences of an Old Timer“ by Captain Ross Smith, which was privately printed in 1930.
What she found was evidence that her property might have been part of one of the darkest chapters of American history.
“It told about a two or three-story slave quarters on the property,” Moss said, “and then it mentions my house which it says was owned by the Hoss family.”
Moss’ research indicates that her home was built in 1930 and owned by Henry Hoss, a descendant of the property’s original owner, Jacob Hoss, Sr.
If indeed that is true, it should not be a surprise that Moss would find the remains of slave quarters on the property. There is clear evidence that the elder Hoss, a planter who died February 10, 1817, was a slave owner.
In a will signed by Hoss on February 29, 1816, in Jonesboro (sic), Washington County, TN, he bequeaths a total of 12 slaves – two men, one woman, five boys and four girls – to various family members.
After leaving his wife Marget (sic) “five hundred dollars to be hers forever,” the will continued, “SECOND, I give and bequeath unto my eldest son JOHN HOSS three negroes, one a man by the name of Willie and the other two boys, one by the name of William and the other by the name of John to him and his heirs forever.”
Sons Abraham and George, daughters Catherine and Mary, and grandchildren Mary, William and Calvin were also named in the will to receive slaves at the time of Hoss’ death.
Uncovering that piece of painful history in her yard is difficult, she says, but “we shouldn’t forget. They weren’t servants. They were slaves. That’s what we did as a society.”

Moss says she plans to preserve the artifacts she has so carefully extracted from her land, placing items in shadowboxes that will remain with the house for posterity.
“We need to know about these things and share them,” Moss said. “That’s how we learn.”