SHA Special Publication and Author Perspective – The “Other” Dixwells

Submitted by Mary L. Maniery
PAR Environmental Services, Inc., President
SHA Co-Publications Associate

In March 2018, the SHA began a blog for the Society webpage to highlight our publications and our collaboration with various presses. While our co-publication program and partnerships with Springer, University of Nebraska Press, and University of Florida Press expands our membership’s publication opportunities, the SHA has also continued to publish works independently through Amazon as Special Publications. SHA members can order “The Other Dixwells” for $22.00.

If you are interested in contributing to a joint SHA published volume, please contact SHA’s Co-Publications Editor, Benjamin Ford (


The “Other” Dixwells: Commerce and Conscience in an American Family. (2021)
Thomas N. Layton
Number of pages: 465; 70 figures

Society for Historical Archaeology Special Publications

Who could have imagined that the Chinese opium trade, American feminism, and the abolitionist crusade could be connected, or that an entire branch of a prominent Boston commercial family could have been erased from the historic record for a century-and-a-half, or that a multi-decade saga to restore them to history would begin when archaeology students excavated Chinese potsherds from a Native American archaeological site atop a remote ridge on the north coast of California?  Archaeologist Tom Layton follows those potsherds to their origin on the 1850 shipwreck of the Frolic, a clipper brig, owned by American merchants who hauled opium from India to China. Those potsherds lead to George Dixwell—opium expert, inventor, and part owner of the Frolic—and to clues about his marriage in China to Hu Ts’ai-shun, a Manchu woman. Further research leads to the women of Dixwell’s family tree who turned out to be writers and activists—aunt Judith Sargent Murray, the grandmother of American Feminism, and her niece Henrietta Sargent, a fierce abolitionist who reported the first public speech of an escaped slave—Frederick Douglass. Finally the sherds lead Layton to Ts’ai-shun’s four American great-granddaughters who had preserved a trove of letters, photos, and diaries that enabled this story to be told. Layton reveals his scientifically documented archaeological record then dons the hat of a novelist, filling in the spaces among the facts, bringing these characters to life, and producing an unforgettable read—a true adventure revealing the successes, failures, passions, and secrets of a 19th-century American family.



MM: What are some of your motivations for writing/spearheading this book?

TL:  I wrote The “Other” Dixwells: Commerce and Conscience in an American Family – the third volume of the Frolic Shipwreck Project – to press the envelope of archaeological reporting. In the first two volumes, I had written in a scholarly voice, telling the story of a worldwide system of commerce moderated by the sale of opium to China. In the first, I had told the story of Americans in the opium trade, and in the second I told the story of a wrecked cargo of Chinese manufactured goods bound for Gold Rush San Francisco. But those volumes were focused on the men who had owned and operated the Frolic.

Now I wanted to describe the remarkable women who stood uncomfortably behind those men – fierce abolitionists and women’s rights advocates with careers of their own – and I wanted to present them in an accessible voice as fully formed people living complicated lives.
To accomplish this, I decided to adopt the techniques of a novelist – employing dialogue and character development – judiciously filling in the cracks between the known facts while trying not to extrapolate beyond them. To accomplish this, and to avoid outraging my archaeological colleagues, I wrote a parallel text in the endnotes, listing all my sources and specifying where I had gone beyond them.

In short, I wrote this volume as an experiment in archaeological writing, hoping it would encourage others to explore more creative ways in which to present the results of their archaeological studies.

MM:  Who would you like to read this book? Who is your audience?

TL:  I have long felt that if the archaeological profession expects to receive continued support from our legislators, we need to write not just for an audience of other archaeologists and university tenure committees, but also for the general reading public. In this book, I attempted to reach both constituencies. Academic publishers have not been kind to those who have attempted to press the envelope of academic convention. This book was rejected by a multitude of academic publishers because it contained a creative non-fiction component. Those rejections even included the Society for Historical Archaeology’s academic press partners for co-published books. I hope that those academic press editors, too, will read this book and create space in the future for new approaches to writing archaeology and history.

MM:  Now that you have published this book, what kinds of things are you dreaming up next? What is in the works?

LT:  Way back in 1984, when my students excavated Chinese ceramics from an early historic Pomo village site, my first task was to find the shipwreck from which the Pomo had collected them. My next task was to find the wreck divers who had more recently pillaged the wreck and convince them to return their collections for scientific study. I developed rapport with the wreck divers by conducting multiple taped oral history interviews of each of them, and I promised to credit their contributions in my books.

This I did, but the full oral history transcripts were to lie in a cardboard box for decades until, during the forced social isolation of Covid-19, I finally re-read the wreck divers’ narratives together with the related oral histories I had conducted of my archaeological colleagues. I then realized that the awkward story of California wreck divers and their decades of pillage was just as integral to the story of underwater archaeology in California as were the narratives of me and my archaeological colleagues. When I asked Jim Delgado to update his 1992 oral history narrative, he revealed that he had written an unpublished manuscript telling the story of underwater archaeology in California. Jim and I, together with Ben Ford of the Society for Historical Archaeology all agreed that both manuscripts should be published as parts of the same volume, presenting the first-person narrations of California’s underwater pillagers, together with the history of scientific research by maritime archaeologists. This book is now in the works as another SHA Special Publication.

Written by Mark Freeman

Website Editor