Return to story

Dig turning up information on famed abolitionist

August 7, 2006 12:50 am

0806DOUGLASS2.jpg

University of Maryland archaeologists are finishing a second season at Wye House Farm in Maryland, guided in part by Frederick Douglass' account of his childhood in slavery there. 0806DOUGLASS3.jpg

Archaeologists dig for artifacts on the Wye House Farm plantation in Maryland. With permission from the owner, they hope to flesh out the story of those who built and worked on the estate. 0806DOUGLASS1.jpg

These artifacts were found beneath a 70-year-old tulip poplar tree. They include a spoon, hand-blown and flat glass, bone from a cow, and part of a pig's jaw.

By ALEX DOMINGUEZ

ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

EASTON, Md.--The Great House still stands on the plantation where Frederick Douglass spent his childhood. But the quarters where the famed abolitionist once lived along with other slaves are long gone from the 350-year-old estate.

While the history of the Lloyd family, which has owned the property since the 1600s, is well documented, much less is known about the daily lives of their slaves.

University of Maryland archaeologists hoping to flesh out the story of those who built and worked on the estate are wrapping up their second season at Wye House, guided in part by Douglass' account of his childhood in slavery.

Jennifer Babiarz, a university archaeologist supervising the dig, said slaves such as those who worked at the plantation were the backbone of Maryland's early economy.

"We were very interested in what daily life would have been like for people who were enslaved on this plantation and making sure that people knew the rich history, not just of the Lloyds, but of all the people who lived and worked here," Babiarz said.

"There were so many men, women and children who lived their lives here and it's important their story gets told."

The estate now has about 1,300 acres, much reduced from its 42,000-acre peak in the early 19th century, but the core remains intact. Along with the Great House, with its lengthy tree-lined drive, the property has one of the country's few remaining orangeries, a type of greenhouse used to shelter orange and other citrus trees during the winter. An overseer's house, a slave graveyard, a captain's house, a smokehouse and other structures also dot the property.

A strip described by Douglass as the Long Green is where the archaeologists are concentrating their efforts.

Douglass lived at the plantation for several years in the mid-1820s and wrote about it after his 1838 escape from slavery. In the 1845 autobiography "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," he described the plantation as "a little nation by itself, having its own language, its own rules, regulations, and customs The overseer was the important dignitary. All the people were the property of one man."

The foundations of three buildings, and possibly a fourth, have been discovered along the narrow strip of land between a gravel path, mentioned by Douglass, and the Chesapeake Bay. A tall poplar grows between the foundation of what may have been a two-story slave quarters Douglass mentioned. An American Indian burial ground dating to before the Lloyd plantation has also been found there.

Other buildings were used as either housing or workspace by the slaves, many of whom had backgrounds in fields such as carpentry, blacksmithing and barrel-making, said Lisa Kraus, a doctoral student who used Douglass' autobiography and old maps to decide where to dig.

Many slaves at Wye House "were actually purchased and brought there specifically because they had skills the Lloyds needed in order for the plantation to function," Kraus said. "They were producing material that was used by the plantation but also producing things that were shipped out, which was totally different than most other plantation slaves."

Mark Leone, an anthropologist supervising the project, said the plantation did not just provide for the owners' needs: Wye House was the head of a large commercial enterprise.

"How do you turn farm products into international trade for a profit? That's what these places are really all about and that's what this Long Green is--it is the labor base for a very big set of diversified industries," Leone said.

Before digging began, Leone said archaeologists contacted descendants of slaves who worked on the property, many of whom still live in nearby Unionville and Copperville, and asked what questions they had. The descendants were most interested in slave spirituality and the role the Wye House slaves had in blacks' fight for freedom, Leone said.

Items relating to those questions have not yet been found, although some items believed to have had spiritual significance were previously discovered in buildings on the estate, he said.

The excavation is being done with the permission of Mary S. Tilghman, who inherited the property in 1993 and is an 11th-generation descendent of Edward Lloyd, who first settled the property.

"The history here is of intense personal interest to me, and I'm dedicated to its preservation," she said. "This land has been part of my life for so long that I feel a duty to preserve the heritage it holds."

A third and final year of excavation is planned for next summer.





Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.