All of us are freshly returned from the Society for Historical Archaeology conference, held this past week in Baltimore. Each Archaeology in Annapolis graduate student, as well as undergraduate Justin Uehlein presented research from this year. The following is the paper I presented in the symposium People Who Lived With Glass Houses: The Archaeology of Gardens and Scientific Agriculture in Early America. It was a pleasure to meet others who share similar research interests and hear about the work going on in this area from around the country. Other AiA papers will appear on the blog shortly!
Distinct from the Common Farm: Early Scientific and African-American Gardening
On Independence Day weekend this past summer, NPR’s “All Things Considered” aired a story called Growing a Revolution: America’s Founding Gardeners. The host, Ira Flatow, interviewed the gardens director at Monticello and the author of the book “The Founding Gardeners.” When asked directly to talk about the involvement of slaves at the gardens of Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier, the two interviewees deftly shifted the focus back to Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, effectively disregarding the question. Listen to the exchange:
FLATOW: Did he actually putter in the garden himself or did he have his slaves and other people do that for him?
HATCH: Yeah, Jefferson was a gentleman gardener. He’d sow seeds in the garden. And one of his slaves, Isaac, years after Jefferson died, recalled how Jefferson would work at a right hard pace in a cool evening, sowing seeds in his kitchen garden at Monticello.
The gardens director mentions the slave Isaac, even by name, but uses him only as a vehicle to relate Jefferson’s actions. A caller to the show points this out, and asks for more elaboration on the work the slaves were doing, saying “It was obviously the slaves who did the labor. So what are their contributions?” These two clips are the only mentions of slaves in their responses:
HATCH: Yeah. In Monticello, the head gardener was a man named Wormley Hughes, an enslaved African-American who was sort of a beloved figure among the African-American community. But Jefferson did actually sow the seeds himself in the garden. His garden book is amazing for the details. And one of his friends who came to Monticello described a seed rack that was carried from planting site to planting site. And from that, Jefferson, with his own hands, would actually sow the seeds. He was a fairly handy guy in the sense that he would make locks and keys and work in the blacksmith shop.
WULF: All of them are outside most of the day when they’re on their plantations. Madison, for example, has a pair of gardening trousers, which are described as so worn that he has patches on the knees. So he must have been out there in the garden doing some weeding. Otherwise, you don’t have holes on the knees. So I think they’re all out there but, obviously, at the same time, the slaves are doing kind of the backbreaking work.
Again, the question “what are the contributions of the slaves?” is largely ignored in favor of casting the founding fathers as not only great thinkers and freedom fighters, but also industrious workers. The contribution of the enslaved labor to these Colonial gardens, according to this scripted history, is the “backbreaking work,” and nothing more. This is the story told by the experts and distributed widely for public consumption. It is with this story and its omissions in mind that I look at the gardens and greenhouse at the Wye House Plantation in Talbot County, Maryland as part of the Archaeology in Annapolis project.
Frederick Douglass, who was enslaved at the Wye Plantation as a child, described “The fertile garden, many acres in size, constituting a separate establishment, distinct from the common farm–with its scientific gardener, imported from Scotland…” For Douglass and other visitors, the 18th-century garden’s distinctiveness came from the use of scientific gardening and principles of order that were in fashion at the time and employed by the owner of Wye House, Edward Lloyd IV. The botanical literature and equipment for the greenhouse, such as a thermometer, that appear in the Lloyd’s records suggest the knowledge and precision necessary to keep the plants healthy. In this period, greenhouses became outdoor curiosity cabinets, where Colonial gentry collected and imposed order on living specimens, constructing a landscape to their worldview. As the scholarship on greenhouses show, the structures provided a protective house for plants that were aesthetically pleasing, exotic or rare, useful as medicine or food, and could be used for experimentation and science. They also contained a social element, since they were a means for the owner to control nature, gain and reproduce prestige, and reflect a particular social identity. An entire network of global exploration and colonization brought an exchange of seeds and botanical knowledge to elite gardens. This is the Euro-American tradition in which the founding fathers and Edward Lloyd operated as gentlemen gardeners, and the culture that dominates the narrative of early American gardening.
Archaeologists from the Archaeology in Annapolis project began excavating the Wye Greenhouse—the only standing 18th-century greenhouse in North America—in 2008 at the request of the Tilghman family, the current owners of the property. As part of the investigation, the researchers excavated in and around the greenhouse and an attached shed, which they discovered served as a residence for slaves. In their findings, archaeologists uncovered earthenware pots associated with gardening and domestic ceramic vessels that indicated the shed served as a living area at the end of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century. It would make sense that the ones living in the attachment were also the workers responsible for the care of the greenhouse plants. Just like the caller to NPR, I would like to ask, what were their contributions to the fertile garden and how can I bring this information into the public consciousness?
Authors such as Carney and Rosomoff have explained that, as slaves traveled in bondage on European ships, they brought with them plants, knowledge, and a botanical culture that found a new home in plantation landscapes. Within this space, some slaves were permitted to keep gardens, or did so anyway out of sight of the plantation house, and through their gardening practices, aspects of African traditions developed into a uniquely African-American gardening tradition. Plants of African origins, such as hibiscus, bananas, and okra, penetrated plantation societies and became staples of Southern cooking and greenhouse displays. Their presence contributed to a uniquely Southern cuisine, which Archaeology in Annapolis researcher Amanda Tang is exploring further through animal bones and cookbooks. The syncretism of African and Euro-American plant cultures resulted in distinct, but linked, gardening traditions. One, the celebrated scientific gardening, exemplified dominance over the external physical world and the ability to control nature. It is characterized by a physiocratic philosophy, in which the physical world contains an established natural order, and through the progress of humanity, planting and agriculture may improve nature. The other was a means for enslaved Africans to reproduce an identity and maintain control over an internal physical well-being and the spiritual world.
Richard Westmacott noted that the outdoor spaces and gardens of African Americans had been traditionally ignored by scholars and examines the past and present of this tradition. Westmacott used interviews to examine the uses, values, designs, and African influences of gardens in a present-day African-American context, while connecting these practices to the subsistence plots of plantation slaves. While African-American plant uses influenced that of plantation owners, Euro-American gardening practices also may have altered ways in which the slaves used the land, for instance, introducing ornamental plants from the plantation garden to slave gardens. To study and discuss one tradition without the other separates the two as though they were not intertwined elements of the same landscape, which is not the case.
The presence of the enslaved population and their use of the greenhouse at the Wye plantation are visible, if not in historical record, then in the archaeology and paleoethnobotony. Researchers identified evidence of West African spiritual practices in the greenhouse as seen from a cache buried outside of the doorway to the slave quarter and a pestle placed in the brick furnace of the hypocaust structure. The cache included a colorless quartzite projectile point, placed deliberately to direct spirits away from the entrance. While conducting oral history interviews on contemporary African-American gardens in the tradition of Westmacott, Grey Gundaker took note of found objects that served to denote the entrances to yards. The separation of spaces between exterior and interior is important, and creates a transition between two worlds that necessitates protection.
In addition, Mark Leone concluded that the pestle in the furnace was likely placed in the keystone position by one of the enslaved workers who built and maintained the hypocaust, a system of flues that carried warm air throughout the greenhouse. This mechanism sustained precise levels of heat in different areas of the building, dictated by the temperature needed by the different plants. This was sophisticated and specialized work, which suggests that simply categorizing the slaves’ labor as the “backbreaking work” does not do it justice. In one interpretation, the pestle may indicate an object calling on Ogun, a powerful Yoruba deity associated with iron and fire. The objects of protection and power demonstrate that, as the greenhouse symbolized a control over the natural, the hidden landscape within it held control over the spiritual.
One of the objectives of the previous excavations of the Wye Greenhouse was to extract and analyze pollen samples. With the help of Heather Trigg and Susan Jacobucci, the inclusion of paleoethnobotany in the research allowed Archaeology in Annapolis to analyze the types of plants cultivated at the Wye Greenhouse and to understand how the plants were used by both the owners and the enslaved in the living quarter. The researchers recovered samples from three units within the greenhouse, one unit in the slave quarters, and also from the modern surface soil in order to compare the results. The preliminary analysis suggests that tropical plants such as citrus and bananas and decorative plants such as pond lilies and irises were on display in the late 18th century in the greenhouse. Many of the same pollen traces appear in the living quarter, since the laborers would have been working with these plants, but the samples from the quarter reveal a larger proportion of comestible plants. It is difficult to identify the pollen to the species level, but the families that include cranberries and blueberries; mustards, broccoli, and cabbage; and eggplant, wild ginger, and arrowhead are present in significant amounts in the living quarter. While there is yet no evidence of a slave garden, these are plants which could represent edible and medicinal vegetation gathered locally. It may be the case at the Wye House that the enslaved population supplemented their diet, self-medicated, and maintained a sense of spiritual well-being using their botanical knowledge, as Ywone Edwards-Ingram has suggested of the slaves in Virginia.
There are many opportunities to continue the comparative gardening research at Wye. Two previously unidentified slave quarters were discovered and excavated this past summer, and records found by historian Amy Speckart point to additional greenhouse structures at Wye used in conjunction with the one standing presently. Through ground-penetrating radar, we have already been able to guess where one of them is located. Last summer, I took soil samples from the two slave quarters and a profile in the greenhouse in the hopes that we will be able to add to our current understanding of plant use and compare these results to those at the other quarter and greenhouses on the property.
While it doesn’t have the same reach as NPR, beginning with last year’s excavations, I created and maintained an Archaeology in Annapolis blog, which has enabled us to share our day-to-day findings in the field and analyses in the lab. It gives us the ability to continuously inform the Tilghman family of our research, as well as the descendent community of the enslaved at Wye, many of whom live in Easton, Maryland. Though the excavations are on private property, through videos, pictures, and posts by Archaeology in Annapolis excavators, we are able to open up access to our research. While blogging is only just coming into its own as an academic medium, my hope is that it will continue to be a place to share my speculations about the greenhouse and engage with others who have thoughts about these gardening traditions, past and present. Though an informal means of engaging with the public, I think it will help for me to continually evaluate and articulate what I’m learning. In this public forum, I plan to continue to share my process in answering the question “what are the contributions of the slaves?” The answer, rather than one of avoidance, belittlement, and Madison’s trousers is already one of the control, agency, and distinct botanical knowledge of the enslaved.
Blair, J. E., Cochran, M. D., & Duensing, S. N. (2009). Phase II Archaeological Testing on Wye Greenhouse (18TA314), Talbot County, Maryland, 2008. University of Maryland.
Blair, J. E., & Duensing, S. N. (2009). Phase II Archaeological Testing on the Interior of the Wye Greenhouse (18TA314), Talbot County, Maryland, 2009. University of Maryland.
Carney, J. A., & Rosomoff, R. N. (2010). In the shadow of slavery: Africa’s botanical legacy in the Atlantic world. University of California Press.
Douglass, F. (1855). My Bondage and My Freedom. 1st ed. Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, New York.
Edwards-Ingram, Y. (2005). Medicating Slavery: Motherhood, Health Care, and Cultural Practices in the African Diaspora. College of William and Mary.
Gundaker, G. (2005). No Space Hidden. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Hatch, P., & Wulf, A. (2011, July 1). Growing a Revolution: America’s Founding Gardeners. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2011/07/01/137555246/growing-a-revolution-americas-founding-gardeners
Jacobucci, S. A., & Trigg, H. B. (2010). An Analysis of Pollen Recovered from the Greenhouse at Wye House Plantation, Easton, Maryland. University of Massachusetts.
Speckart, A. (2011). The Colonial History of Wye Plantation, the Lloyd Family, and their Slaves on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: Family, Property, and Power (Ph.D.). College of William and Mary.
Westmacott, R. (1992). African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.