Slave cabin is study in freedom Surviving site: Archaeologists find evidence of alterations at Sotterley Plantation, which emerges as a chronicle of the postwar changes blacks made.

November 17, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

HOLLYWOOD, Md. -- In a shady ravine, just a short sprint

from the master's house at the Sotterley Plantation, stands a dilapidated cabin long described as the last survivor of a row of wooden slave quarters.

Tourists who came to admire the 1717 manor house's fine woodwork and view of the Patuxent were told the cabin had stood, little changed, on its original site along the rolling road to the river.

But this fall, archaeologists uncovered a far more complex history -- evidence of alterations, improvements after the Civil War, and perhaps even a relocation of the cabin itself.

Far from a static relic of Maryland's slave-based rural economy, the cabin is emerging as a chronicle of the postwar changes that came with freedom for blacks.

Maryland stayed in the Union, but it was also a state with slaves -- 87,000 and declining in 1860, but still 51 percent of the black population. After the war, the freed slaves had rising expectations.

They "wanted to be in control of their own farms and their own cabins," said Jessica Neuwirth, 30, principal investigator on the dig and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. "There were massive realignments, turning them from slave villages into farms and tenant farms." She said houses were moved and slave quarters were changed.

Sotterley's is "one of the few cabins that survives in Southern Maryland," said Dr. Julia King, research administrator at the Jefferson Patterson Historical Park and Museum in St. Leonard. "Yet we know there were thousands of these structures built and inhabited by slaves before the Civil War."

"It's important because the sites of few slave cabins have been excavated in Maryland. Traditionally, there has been a lot more emphasis on the land owners, the masters," she said.

Sotterley was the inherited home of George Plater, a friend to George Washington and a member of the Maryland delegation that approved the U.S. Constitution. In 1791 he became Maryland's sixth governor, but died 11 months later.

Sotterley's last slave owner was Dr. Walter Hanson Stone Briscoe. After the war, all of his slaves but one stayed on as tenant farmers. The cabin offers a sense of what their homes were like.

The nonprofit Sotterley Mansion Foundation plans to restore it, at a cost of $63,000, to be paid for with a $36,000 grant from the

Maryland Historical Trust and with private gifts.

The project includes an architectural study by experts from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, paid for with a $5,000 grant from the trust. Preservation Maryland has granted $5,000 to support the archaeological work.

In the first hole, dug beside the cabin's west wall, Ms. Neuwirth and archaeologist Kate Dinnel, 42, found nothing to date the cabin to the time of slavery. What they did find suggested that that section of foundation was laid late in the 19th century.

But outside the east wall, they found fragments of ceramics old ** enough to prove occupancy as early as the 1830s, possibly by slaves. The challenge became tying the artifacts to the structure.

Some clues were found beneath the cabin's present brick chimney. Digging there revealed more artifacts from the 1830s to 1850s, charcoal, and what appears to be the stone foundation of an earlier chimney -- perhaps built of mud and wood like those of many poor homes of the mid-19th century.

It's possible, Ms. Neuwirth said, that the cabin's thick pine plank walls, which are stacked like logs, were moved onto the site of an earlier cabin that had burned.

Or perhaps the cabin's walls are original to their present location, and the brick chimney was a postwar improvement, like parts of the foundation, windows, an altered staircase and an upstairs privacy wall noted by the Williamsburg historians.

"That makes cultural sense," Ms. Neuwirth said. As freed slaves began to improve their homes, safer and more durable chimneys would have been a high priority. But either way, the findings suggest something of the changes that swept the plantation after freedom came.

The antebellum world that Sotterley evokes can be unsettling. Amy Quinton, 20, of Baltimore and Karen Mines, 19, of Upper Marlboro helped in the dig. Both are juniors at St. Mary's College. Both are African-American.

"The lady gave us a tour of the big house," Miss Quinton said, "and the whole time I was thinking, 'We'd be the people serving here.' It was just beautiful, but a couple of generations ago, we would have hated the place."

After the mansion tour, Miss Mines said, "we came down the hill and saw the slave cabin and just stopped." The rough cabin suddenly and in some deeply moving way tied their past to their present. "Our great-grandparents were born into slavery," she said.

It's an awakening that Dr. Iris Carter Ford, a professor of anthropology at St. Mary's, hoped for.

She, too, was struck by the elegant tranquillity of the white

house on the hilltop with its broad portico and the breezes that come across the fields from the river.

"The first thing I said when I walked in the door was, 'This is why African-Americans were oppressed,' " she said. "People didn't want to give it up," even at the cost of enslaving others.

"You can't understand the American experience without understanding African-American history as well," Dr. Ford said.

Sotterley is open by appointment through Nov. 30. For reservations or information, including admission fees, call (301) 373-2280.

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