Archaeologists and historians throughout the United States conduct research about the transition from slavery to freedom. Occasionally, we will be featuring guest posts from these researchers to demonstrate ways that these transitions occurred throughout the country. This post was written by Beth Pruitt, a graduate student at the University of Maryland. She works with Archaeology in Annapolis, a partnership between UMD and the Historic Annapolis Foundation, who have recently been conducting excavations at the Wye House Plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
At the Wye House Plantation, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the present-day landscape bears the scars and vestiges of the landscapes of previous centuries, if you know where to look. The raised walkways of the seventeenth-century gardens are still visible on the lawns. The eighteenth century house and many outbuildings stand where they were built, reused, restored, and reinvented as the property passed to each new generation of the Lloyd family. The landscape has been rewritten throughout time, aspects of the past hidden and uncovered. The latest stage in this process has been the archaeological work conducted at the plantation by Archaeology in Annapolis, at the request of the family, to make visible the lives of the enslaved. Too often, archaeological work can seem distant or generalizing, particularly for marginalized groups, but the excavations at the Wye House have been illuminating on a level that is individual and personal.
Frederick Douglass, who was enslaved at Wye House as a child, writes extensively on his time there in his autobiographies, detailing his memories of a human landscape of over one thousand slaves. The Long Green and its nearby fields, shown on a map by Henry Chandlee Forman in a small inset, was once home to the buildings of plantation agriculture and industry as well as its labor force. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass described the space as occupied by “numerous other slave houses and huts, scattered around in the neighborhood, every nook and corner of which was completely occupied.” These remnants of slavery disappeared at Wye by the twentieth century, as is the case at many plantations in the Chesapeake. Using Douglass as a guide, along with historical maps and other geospatial data, Archaeology in Annapolis graduate student Benjamin Skolnik located two previously lost slave quarters in that area of the property in 2011. Transforming the Forman map, an early twentieth-century aerial photograph, and LiDAR data in a process of georectification, Ben was able to bring part of Douglass’ landscape to light.
Excavations in the summer of 2011 and 2012 have given us the artifacts of domesticity between the construction of the quarters c. 1781 and the end of the Civil War. We have the buttons, dishes, pipes, and food remains. We also have piles of broken and intact iron implements—including a plow, shovel, hoe, ax, and wheel hub—the abandoned tools of slavery or the deposited tools of Ogun. The archaeological story may seem to end there: the architecture, personal items, and equipment of agricultural production buried, lost, and recovered. However, the story of the people who lived in those quarters did not end in slavery, but continued in freedom.
When the enslaved population living at the Wye House plantation evacuated the buildings we excavated, they moved with their families to found the neighboring towns, such as Easton, Unionville, and Copperville. The Lloyds kept meticulous records of the enslaved, retaining censuses that often include both first and last names. There are famous names, like Frederick Douglass (as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) and the names of eighteen men who were enslaved on the Lloyd properties, fought in the Civil War, and founded the town of Unionville—known locally as the Unionville 18. The other names are not famous, but we know them. As archaeologists in the area, we can see those names in the families that live in those nearby towns today. The names of the owners of those artifacts are not lost to us but are preserved and passed on.
In an effort to make these names accessible, I created an online searchable database from the census transcriptions in 2012. At the moment the website, People of Wye House, consists only of the enslaved populations living at the Wye House—called Home House to distinguish it from the other Lloyd properties on the Eastern Shore—between 1770 and 1834. In the future, I hope to include the records from these other plantations to aid in finding individuals as they lived, died, were relocated, formed families, and were separated from them. Douglass is clear in his autobiography in the way the violence of slavery deprived him—and other slaves—of essential family connections, saying upon meeting his siblings “Why should they be attached to me, or I to them? Brothers and sisters we were by blood; but slavery had made us strangers. I heard the words brother and sister, and knew they must mean something; but slavery had robbed these terms of their true meaning.”
In contrast to the preserved Georgian buildings and gardens of a wealthy tobacco plantation, there is a different landscape emerging through our archaeological and historical research. It does not look like it today, but the Long Green was a city within itself prior to Emancipation. The story we would like to tell takes us from this “neighborhood” where the individuals recorded in the censuses once lived to the descendants on the Eastern Shore who still bear their names. It is a heritage that has not been entirely erased and remains in the ground and in the stories of these families.
Archaeology in Annapolis, operating out of the University of Maryland Department of Anthropology, maintains a project blog, updated regularly about research and excavations in the city of Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore. If you would like to contribute to the People of Wye House website, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.