Slaves hid African charms in plantation greenhouse

Wye House Farm orangeryUniversity of Maryland archaeologists excavating the orangery — a greenhouse dedicated to growing delicate warm weather fruits like oranges — of Colonial-era plantation Wye House Farm have found West African talismans embedded into the construction materials of the building. The charms indicate that slaves actually lived in the greenhouse as well as worked in it, and that they continued to practice African religious traditions while publicly professing Christianity.

“This building has always been known to be a greenhouse and anybody could guess that slaves probably ran the heating system, but nobody could tell if slaves lived in the building or what they did beyond stoking the fire and being the laborers for the enormous surrounding garden,” Leone said. “That was how we started.”

Pointed and metal objects at the doorway warded off evil spiritsAs they dug below a north-facing back room, the researchers found dishes, teacups, cutlery, buttons and other objects. Those objects identified the area as a slave quarter that was occupied between about 1785 and 1820.

About two inches beneath the doorstep outside the quarter’s threshold, they also discovered two projectile points and a coin — signature objects used in African religious traditions to control the coming and going of spirits.

Prehistoric pestle cemented with bricks at back of furnaceInside, they found another religious symbol: A stone pestle mortared into the framework of the furnace by the slaves who built it.

In addition to the religious and everyday objects, the researchers were able to document an extensive series of agricultural trials conducted by the slaves who lived there.

They were able to document the agricultural history of the greenhouse by analyzing fossilized grains of pollen. This is the firm time pollen analysis has been used on a historic US greenhouse. The technique identifies which families of plants were grown in the orangery, but can’t pinpoint the specific species.

So we know, for instance, that the Wye House slaves began experimenting with medicinal plants — like ginger and Seneca snakeroot — food plants — broccoli, bananas and greens — and flowering plants. Within 30 years they were growing exotic plants like the eponymous orange trees, plus roses, irises, various members of the nightshade family.

Greenhouses were rare, elite structures back then, and they didn’t come with manuals. The lessons its enslaved staff learned would have been valuable information handed down from generation to generation.

The property was first settled in the mid-17th century by Welshman Edward Lloyd, but the main buildings, including the big house and the orangery, were built between 1780 and 1790. The Wye House orangery is the only 18th century greenhouse still standing in the United States.

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879At its peak, Wye House Farm fielded over 1,000 slaves, including at one point Frederick Douglass who lived there for 2 years as a child. The property is still owned by a direct descendant of Edward Lloyd, and its longevity and long, wide history of slaves living on the property makes it an invaluable source for archaeologists exploring the material remains of slaves. Mark Leone’s team has been excavating the site for 6 years.

Douglass spoke of encountering his first experience of slave master brutality at Wye House Farm in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.

This occurrence took place very soon after I went to live with my old master, and under the following circumstances. Aunt Hester went out one night,– where or for what I do not know,–and happened to be absent when my master desired her presence. He had ordered her not to go out evenings, and warned her that she must never let him catch her in company with a young man, who was paying attention to her belonging to Colonel Lloyd. The young man’s name was Ned Roberts, generally called Lloyd’s Ned. Why master was so careful of her, may be safely left to conjecture. She was a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions, having very few equals, and fewer superiors, in personal appearance, among the colored or white women of our neighborhood.

Aunt Hester had not only disobeyed his orders in going out, but had been found in company with Lloyd’s Ned; which circumstance, I found, from what he said while whipping her, was the chief offence. Had he been a man of pure morals himself, he might have been thought interested in protecting the innocence of my aunt; but those who knew him will not suspect him of any such virtue. Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d—-d b—h [damned bitch]. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, “Now, you d—-d b—h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!” and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over.