Uncovering slave `village'

Ex-Eastern Shore plantation once home to Frederick Douglass yields clues to past

July 19, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

EASTON -- In his vaunted autobiography, abolitionist and diplomat Frederick Douglass vividly describes life as a slave on a prominent Eastern Shore plantation, with a "great house" he recalled as an "elaborate exhibition of wealth, power and beauty."

The imposing estate, by the waters of the Wye River near this Talbot County seat, still stands and is still home to the family who owned it when a young Douglass kept fireplaces stocked with wood. Listed as a national historic landmark, the Wye House, built in the late 1700s, has been studied for its clues to 18th- and 19th-century America.

Less well-known are the lives of the thousands of slaves who lived here, raising wheat, cotton and other crops in the nation's antebellum years. A team of aspiring archeologists is now at work, using family documents and descriptions from Douglass' The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, as a guide, uncovering remnants of their lives brick by brick.

"It's an entire landscape and village where Douglass lived," said Mark P. Leone, an anthropology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "And this is an enormous, intact plantation in the hands of the family that built it."

Leone is leading a team of students with the university's archaeological field school who are in their second summer of digging at the site. They are seeking evidence of the plantation complex Douglass described, one that included blacksmith, carpenter and shoemaker shops; rows of barns, stables and countless crops; midwives and nurses; an ice and a smoke house, and a garden and tree canopy leading up to the Georgian great house.

Douglass, who lived on the plantation for only a year or two when he was about 7 years old in the 1820s, wrote in a narrative titled My Bondage and Freedom that the plantation "was a little nation by itself, having its own language, its own rules, regulations and customs." The Wye House, he wrote, was "the grandest building my eyes had ever beheld, called, by every one on the plantation, the 'Great House' ... a scene of almost Eden-like beauty."

Most tangible traces of the teeming slave community have vanished. The slaves' experiences have been preserved largely in oral tales and Douglass' not-so-fond memories of being cold, hungry and separated from his mother and grandmother.

"The elegant parts of the plantation are still there and the rest of the story is not as socially acceptable," Lisa Kraus, a doctoral student, said yesterday. "We're uncovering, sharing and talking about it."

Leone and his students have identified the site of former slave workshops and huts that were once cobbled together along a 400-foot long alley called the "Long Green" on an old, hand-drawn map framed in the main house.

Watching the team's daily progress is Mary S. Tilghman, who inherited the property in 1993. She is an 11th generation descendant of the Lloyd family, which settled in Maryland in 1660.

"I am fascinated by this property and everything that happened here," she said while sitting in a parlor under a portrait of an aunt. "It appealed to me to find the artifacts that are there."

Facing the dark side of the home's past is something she's prepared to do.

Tilghman, a widow in her 80s, gave permission for the dig to take place in three summer sessions. Leone, the project leader who teaches and runs a lab at College Park, had contacted Tilghman and her son, Richard, to request permission to excavate the property.

Artifacts will be collected and analyzed by the University of Maryland. The family does occasional public tours and events, but it is a private home so it won't be open on a regular basis.

Today, the tree canopy and an orangerie are still notable features. So are the period living and dining rooms and a family cemetery.

A graveyard in a clump of trees is believed to hold the remains of hundreds of slaves who worked on thousands of acres. No tombstones were used.

"We put a marker there, for fear someone would forget," Lloyd said.

The team is still trying to pinpoint the two-story living quarters shown on the old map, likely where a gnarled tree shades the site. Some bricks in square pits suggest the traces of a building foundation.

"In a way the giant tree preserved these traces. It's pretty incredible that this brick and mortar with oyster shells survived intact," said Mike Gubisch, 24, a supervisor and recent graduate of the University of Maryland. "If we can find the place where the [slaves] lived and their implements, we'll have some insight into them."

A nearby cottage is believed to be the overseer's cottage, which Douglass described as "a little red house up the hill." Also still standing is the sun-washed brick "Captain's House," where he may have spent some his boyhood living under the roof of an early master, Capt. Aaron Anthony.

Wye House is considered by Leone and others to be one of the most well-preserved Southern plantations outside the Deep South.

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