The Seth Richards House: Bentonsport’s First Postmaster

During the construction of a new bridge spanning the Des Moines River near Bentonsport in Van Buren county, archaeologists noticed that the proposed new roadway corridor would pass through a lot where a historical house had been mapped in the late 19th century. According to historical accounts, the site had burned down sometime around 1915. Archaeologists then set out to excavate bits of the site to see what remained of the house's foundation and to carry out archival research to yield information regarding the house and its occupants’ relations to historic Bentonsport. This investigation uncovered that the house in question belonged to Seth Richards, the first postmaster of Bentonsport and regional entrepreneur who had served from 1838 until 1847. Richards had most likely built his house sometime between 1852 and 1866, according to historical accounts.

Archaeological investigations began in the summer of 1983. Knowing that the site would eventually be covered by the new roadway, archaeologists worked diligently to learn as much about the site as possible before construction. In addition to documenting structural features and artifact patterns, archaeologists sought to use the data to understand living conditions and lifestyles of various social groups in 19th-century Iowa. Having excavated a small house the previous summer across the Des Moines River in Vernon, Luther archaeologists could compare the living conditions of the residents of that site with the more economically well-off residents of the Seth Richards site. Vectors for comparison included dishes, tools, personal effects, architectural hardware, and food.

The nature of historical archaeology shines clear at the Seth Richards site. Utilizing documents unique to historical archaeology, the excavations were also assisted by first-hand accounts of the house by Ms. Grace Kemp. Ms. Kemp, who lived in the house from 1908 until 1913, revealed many details about the house’s configuration. It had a large front door with panels of side lights, a two-story frame with gable end façade, and brick fireplaces in several rooms. She also could remember the number of rooms in the house and gave archaeologists a rough idea of where each one was located, their use, and what sorts of materials were used in their construction. Her description of the residence was corroborated by a postcard from c. 1910. Ms. Kemp also confirmed what archaeologists had gathered from other sources that the house burned down in 1915.