Unearthing keys to past

Slavery: In Frederick County, the digging continues for traces of a village that may have been the largest slave quarters in Maryland.

October 29, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- On a grassy rise just west of Route 355-- once the main wagon road between Frederick and Georgetown -- archaeologists are probing the earth for traces of what may be the largest slave "village" ever uncovered in Maryland.

If they're right about the spot, as many as 90 African-Americans lived and worked in a row of wooden houses set on this low hill 200 years ago. They were enslaved to help work a 748-acre plantation founded in 1795 by Payen Boisneuf, a Frenchman who had fled a slave revolt in Haiti.

While no trace of the slave quarters remains above the ground, the National Park Service and the University of Maryland have joined forces to determine whether forgotten details of daily life in this community can be uncovered.

"This is a really important, really significant site -- important to our understanding of slavery in Maryland," said Joy Beasley, a National Park Service archaeologist and cultural resource manager for the Monocacy National Battlefield, where the dig is located.

By one account, Boisneuf was a particularly cruel master. Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish traveler who happened on the plantation called L'Hermitage en route from Georgetown to Frederick in 1798, wrote a scathing memoir. He said that the master and his family "foam with rage, beat the negroes, complain and fight with each other. In these ways does this man use his wealth, and comforts his life in its descent toward the grave."

Traces of the long-vanished slave community began to emerge last year during a 22-acre metal-detector survey of cultural resources on the property. Limited excavations this month have added to an inventory of thousands of artifacts.

Kneeling in the grass yesterday, University of Maryland archaeologist Brandon Bies sorted through dozens of plastic bags filled with metal buttons, iron nails, hinges, broken tobacco pipes, animal bones, fragments of broken brick, ceramic pottery and tableware. All of it points to a densely populated domestic settlement on about two-thirds of an acre. And it all dates to the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Nearby, paid and volunteer archaeologists uncovered what appeared to be traces of a structure about 16 feet wide and 12 feet deep -- similar to slave quarters unearthed elsewhere in the middle-Atlantic region.

"The kinds of artifacts are consistent with the kinds of artifacts from other slave contexts, in Virginia, for example," Beasley said.

Marylanders in 1800 saw little reason to record the details of slave life, she said, "so there is very little information about these people in the historical record. One of the only ways to learn about them is from the archaeological record."

This slave site is of particular interest, Beasley said, because it brings together an unexpected mix of cultural influences.

"It is very unusual in Maryland to have a plantation established by a French Catholic," she said. Most of Boisneuf's neighbors were German and English Protestants.

Stephen Potter, regional archaeologist for the park service, said the French influence is apparent in some interior details of the plantation's manor house, which still stands across a broad gully from the dig site.

Archaeologists will also be looking for African or Haitian influences at the site, because Boisneuf is known to have brought at least 14 slaves from Haiti when he fled.

The plantation probably produced small grains, corn and flax. The family purchased a northern parcel in 1795 that has since been swallowed up by Frederick's southward sprawl.

The southern property, about 274 acres purchased in 1798, is now part of the national battlefield. It includes a surviving stone house, built about 1760 and enlarged with a log second story to serve as the Boisneufs' first residence, and a larger home the family built nearby some years later.

Historians had almost no information about the plantation until they happened on the Niemcewicz memoir. Four miles before reaching Frederick on the Georgetown Pike he reported seeing "a row of wooden houses" --which archaeologists believe was the slave quarters -- and "one stone house with the upper storeys painted white." That house is thought to be the stone and log dwelling.

Boisneuf, he wrote, treats his slaves "with the greatest tyranny," he wrote. "One can see on the home farm instruments of torture, stocks, wooden horses, whips, etc. Two or three negroes crippled with torture have brought legal action against him, but the matter has not yet been settled."

Beasley said there are obvious exaggerations in the account. But "we have been able to verify the presence of court cases brought against the family -- six against Boisneuf and one against Victoire [his daughter] for cruelty to their slaves. The cases were brought by citizens in Frederick, but were thrown out of court and never tried."

By 1820, census records show only 40 slaves on the property. In 1827 it was sold, and eventually became known as the Best Farm. The slave quarters disappeared and the land was tilled by tenant farmers until 1993, when the park service acquired it as part of the Monocacy National Battlefield.

On July 9, 1864, 18,000 Confederate troops under Gen. Jubal Early clashed with 5,800 Union forces under Gen. Lew Wallace. The outnumbered Northerners withdrew, but their action delayed the rebel advance on Washington long enough to allow the capital to build its defenses and thwart a rebel attack.

The park service will need more funding to continue the excavation, conserve the artifacts found there and interpret the site for park visitors.

"This represents a really important research opportunity," Beasley said. "It's also important that it is owned by the National Park Service, because the site is going to be protected."

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