“Knowledge Quite Worth Possessing”

Frederick Douglass, from "My Bondage and My Freedom", c. 1855

Frederick Douglass, from “My Bondage and My Freedom”, c. 1855

One of our best glimpses into enslaved life at Wye House and at similar plantations across Maryland and the south comes from Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist who was enslaved at Wye House for several years. In each of his autobiographies, he opens with a description of slave life on the plantation.  Our use of Douglass extends not just to his descriptions of the built structures and landscapes that comprise the plantation, but to the physical, personal, and cultural impacts of slavery as well.  Of these, Douglass frequently returns to the impact of slavery on the family, his personal search for knowledge, and the power of knowing one’s past.

Douglass recounts when he was first brought to Wye House by his grandmother Betsy:

Grandmother pointed out my brother PERRY, my sister SARAH, and my sister ELIZA, who stood in the group. I had never seen my brother nor my sisters before; and, though I had sometimes heard of them, and felt a curious interest in them, I really did not understand what they were to me, or I to them. We were brothers and sisters, but what of that? Why should they be attached to me, or I to them? Brothers and sisters we were by blood; but slavery had made us strangers. I heard the words brother and sisters, and knew they must mean something; but slavery had robbed these terms of their true meaning. The experience through which I was passing, they had passed through before….Think it not strange, dear reader, that so little sympathy of feeling existed between us. The conditions of brotherly and sisterly feeling were wanting — we had never nestled and played together. My poor mother, like many other slave-women, had many children, but NO FAMILY!….I really wanted to play with my brother and sisters, but they were strangers to me… (Douglass, 1855; 48)

According to Douglass, the realities of slavery not only physically separated families but also as a result destroyed the familial knowledge many of us take for granted.

Upon reflection, Douglass writes:

 …nor was I long in finding out another important truth, viz: what man can make, man can unmake. The appalling darkness faded away, and I was master of the subject. There were slaves here, direct from Guinea; and there were many who could say that their fathers and mothers were stolen from Africa — forced from their homes, and compelled to serve as slaves. This, to me, was knowledge; but it was a kind of knowledge which filled me with a burning hatred of slavery, increased my suffering, and left me without the means of breaking away from my bondage. Yet it was knowledge quite worth possessing. (Douglass, 1855; 90-91)

Despite the realities exposed by this knowledge, the realization of freedom denied, Douglass proclaims it knowledge worth knowing.  Knowing the freedom enjoyed by one’s forbearers makes the realities of slavery harsher, offending, and more personal. Likewise in the present, knowing the bondage suffered by one’s ancestors puts contemporary freedoms in a different perspective.

Douglass continues to think about the ways in which slavery is perpetuated and how to break from it:

‘Very well,’ thought I; ‘knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.’ I instinctively assented to the proposition; and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom. This was just what I needed; and I got it at a time, and from a source, whence I least expected it.  (Douglass, 1855; 146-147)

From this understanding of Douglass, Archaeology in Annapolis has been excavating plantation landscapes on Maryland’s Eastern Shore since 2000.  One of our goals is to help recover the knowledge Frederick Douglass laments has been obscured by slavery.  The most tangible aspects of these energies include the archaeological investigations of the plantations at Wye Hall and Wye House and the excavated material remains of slavery.  It also includes our commitment to the archaeology of The Hill, a community of free African Americans in Easton, Maryland dating back to at least 1790, and to their descendants.

To this end, we have created “People of Wye House”, a searchable database of the enslaved people of the Wye House plantation between 1770 and 1826.  While the database has great potential as a genealogical tool, it can also be used to help us better understand American plantation slavery and the creation of a uniquely African American culture.  Inspired by the groundbreaking work of Lorena Walsh at Carter’s Grove (From Calabar to Carter’s Grove: The History of a Virginia Slave Community, University of Virginia Press, 1997), we have started to use the database to understand how the enslaved community at Wye House grew into a true community.  The research presented below represents only a small part of a potentially much larger project.  As always, we welcome your comments and encourage you to actively engage with this information (both the research below as well as the database) we have made publicly available.

The reality is that those listed in this database were enslaved.  One of the consequences of this fact is that it is reflected in the population demographics of those enslaved at Wye House.  Because the censuses that comprise the database list the ages of those individuals that appear on them and because we can usually determine the sex of an individual based on their names, we are able to reconstruct a demographic snapshot of the population for each of the census years.


Figure 1. Enslaved population in 1770.

Figure 1 shows both the ages and the genders of those appearing in the 1770 census.  Theoretically, in any naturally reproducing population, one can expect to see a roughly equal distribution between males and females as well as a gradual decrease in frequency with age.  This is not the pattern observed here.  Of particular note in the 1770 census are the uneven distributions between males and females as well as between ages within the population.  As Walsh argues, this pattern can be expected in the context of plantation slavery.

During much of the 17th and 18th centuries, the enslaved population in British North America was largely not self-sustaining.  That is, there were more deaths than births and in order maintain the enslaved workforce, enslaved Africans had to be brought from Africa continuously.  When deciding which slaves to purchase for their plantations, plantation owners would frequently favor young men, approximately between 15 and 30 years old, as they could be expected to labor for many years and would be the best investment in a plantation workforce.  These men form a stable labor base for the plantation for many years until with age, they become less productive workers.  To replace this aging population, the plantation owner must buy a new cohort of productive, young, male laborers. According to Walsh, the discrete clusters in the 1770 census between the ages of 15-25, 35-40, 45-55, and 70-80 may represent these African cohorts, purchased as the cohort above aged and became less productive.  While this is not to say that there are no American born slaves at Wye House in 1770 (there almost certainly are), the major force driving the demographic distribution in this population seems to be the importation of new enslaved laborers.  This migration of Africans into the Americas has profound implications for the formation and development of an African American culture.

At some point in the 18th century, the enslaved population in American undergoes a fundamental shift.  The birth rate begins to overtake the death rate, which means enslaved populations become self-sustaining.  Coupled with a national ban on the importation of slaves in 1808, this demographic shift marks the transition from African slavery in the Americas to the creation of a new, uniquely African American slave community.

Enslaved population in 1826

Figure 2. Enslaved population in 1826.

The censuses at Wye House reveal this historical trend.  Figure 2 shows the ages and genders of those enslaved on the plantation in 1826.  Not only are males and females now roughly equal in terms of numbers, but the age distributions are much closer to what one would expect to find in a naturally-reproducing population.  While there are certainly African-born slaves present in 1826 (as Douglass reminds us), this pattern is not one that is created by purchasing cargos of enslaved individuals.

The consequence and importance of this transition between the demographics of the enslaved population in 1770 and 1826 cannot be overstated.  In 1770, we see evidence of a group of people who were purchased explicitly to work on a plantation and were replaced as they became inefficient.  Because of the clusters of age cohorts and because of the surplus of working age men, one can argue that many of these individuals were brought directly from Africa.  Further research with plantation account books or ship’s logs may provide additional evidence to support this point.  By 1826, this pattern is gone and in its place, we see one that looks like a self-sustaining community with its own history, memory, and culture.

The database is also useful in that it tracks many of the same people through time.   Below in Figure 3 are the population distributions from the 1770, 1792, 1805, and 1826 censuses.  Note that the cluster of 10-25 year-olds in 1770 appear again as a cluster of 25-40 year-olds in 1792, again as a cluster of 35-50 year-olds in 1805, and again as a cluster of 55-70 year-olds in 1826.  From the censuses, we can track this group from childhood to adulthood and into old age.  This group is of particular note because when Douglass writes of those enslaved at Wye, these are the elders in that community.  He writes, “Strange, and even ridiculous as it may seem, among a people so uncultivated, and with so many stern trials to look in the face, there is not to be found, among any people, a more rigid enforcement of the law of respect to elders, than they maintain.”  As Douglass’ grandmother Betsy demonstrates above, these are those individuals in Douglass’ community that possess familial knowledge and represent a physical connection to the past, for which they are highly respected.

Figure 3.

Enslaved population in 1770

Figure 3a. Enslaved population in 1770.

Enslaved population in 1792

Figure 3b. Enslaved population in 1792.

Enslaved population in 1805

Figure 3c. Enslaved population in 1805.

Enslaved population in 1826

Figure 3d. Enslaved population in 1826.

In our own families, our parents and grandparents are our best connection to our pasts.  They are the ones who can best tell our family stories, point out relatives in old, faded photographs, and give us a sense of who we are and where we come from.  Inevitably, one day these people will be gone from our lives.  When this happens, so much is lost. While our database cannot retrieve personal memory from the depth of time, we hope it is able to contribute to the collective memory of those families who were enslaved at Wye House.

As Douglass would say, this is “knowledge quite worth possessing.”

1 Comment

Leave a Reply