Digs unearth plantations holding slaves in `free' North

Maryland archaeologist says historians are stunned at the evidence

March 09, 2003|By Mike Toner | Mike Toner,COX NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA -- Slave-holding plantations, usually thought of as uniquely Southern institutions, were deeply rooted in the fabric of "free" states of the North as well, new archaeological studies are showing.

The hidden history of Northern plantations and their slaves is emerging -- one shovel full of soil at a time -- from excavations in and around historic manor houses in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. From bits of china, kitchen utensils, tools, buttons and personal items, archaeologists are getting glimpses of a chapter of America's past that written histories have either ignored or forgotten.

Most Northern states abolished slavery before the Civil War. But recent excavations show that during the late 1700s and early 1800s, many of what later came to be called manors and landed estates were full-fledged plantations that held slaves under conditions similar to those in the South.

"Historians are stunned by some of the evidence," says Cheryl LaRoche, a historical archaeologist at the University of Maryland.

"The popular notion is that slavery in the North consisted of two or three household servants, but there is growing evidence that there were slave-holding plantations," she says. "It's hard to believe that such a significant and pervasive part of the past could be so completely erased from our history."

Near Salem, Mass., archaeologists have excavated the ruins of a 13,000-acre plantation that produced the grain, horses, barrel staves and dried meat. The owner, Samuel Browne, traded those goods for molasses and rum from the Caribbean. The graveyard shows at least 100 blacks were enslaved there from 1718 to 1780.

At Shelter Island on New York's Long Island, archaeologists have spent several years peeling open the grounds of present-day Sylvester Manor to reveal the traces of an 8,000-acre plantation that provisioned two sugar plantations in Barbados and made heavy use of African slave labor. During the late 1600s, at least 20 slaves there served as carpenters, blacksmiths, domestics and field hands.

"America was a slave-holding country -- North and South," says LaRoche. "Over the years, that reality has been lost, stolen or just strayed from the history books."

Fleshing out history

The United States banned the importation of new slaves in 1808, but that did not free the millions already in the country, or their descendents. Some states did take action, enacting bans one-by-one, so that by 1863 the practice was illegal in most of the North.

Because the written record of slavery from the slaves' point of view is so meager, archaeology -- with its emphasis on the physical landscape and material aspects of culture -- is emerging as an important means of filling in omissions and distortions.

"Artifacts can tell us how people washed their clothes, fed themselves, churned their butter and hitched their horses," says Orloff Miller of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. "That's why archaeology can tell what it was like to live as a slave."

Some of the new evidence of Northern slave-holding plantations comes from excavations on the well-manicured grounds of historic estate homes, like the elegant Van Cortlandt Manor on the banks of New York's Croton River, where slaves worked in the fields and orchards.

Other discoveries are turning up in more humble, more endangered locations. In Morris County, N.J., plans for a park-and-ride transit station for New York commuters recently prompted the state to order archaeological investigations of the site, thought to have been the site of the 18th-century Beverwyck estate.

Before archaeologists finished, they had found the remains of more than 20 plantation buildings, including a dairy, blacksmith shop, distillery and quarters for at least 20 slaves that were part of a 2,000-acre provisioning operation for the owners' properties in the Caribbean.

Beneath the floor of the slave quarters, archaeologists found a set of iron shackles; small caches of pins, needles and beads; and a ritualistic arrangements of cooking utensils that reflect the occupants' African origins.

"For a time, Beverwyck was one of the region's finest plantations, but it could only have reached that high state of cultivation through the forced labor of enslaved workers," says archaeologist Wade Catts of John Milner Associates, a New Jersey archaeology firm engaged in the project.

"For most of history Beverwyck has been known primarily as one of the places that George Washington slept," he says. "Now, the tangible evidence we've uncovered allows us to see it in a whole new light."

Catts says there is little doubt that other plantations in New Jersey also had significant slave populations.

Slave element ignored

As a science, archaeology is more than a century old. But only in the last few decades have researchers devoted much attention to the slave component of sites, both in the North and the South.

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