I’ve been working at Wye House for three years now. One impression that myself and many of our students are left with is its isolation and remoteness. In the field school van, it takes more than an hour and a half to get to Wye House. We have to cross the bay, drive down seemingly endless shady country roads, and frequently get stuck in traffic. Some days, it seems like Wye House is the farthest possible site at which we could be working.
As far away as Wye House might seem on hot summer days, it’s much more connected than one might think. We’re so used to thinking about distance in terms of lines on a roadmap that we sometimes forget that there are other ways of moving through space and other ways of determining connectedness.
This is a detail from a photograph of Wye House from the early 1920s or 1930s. If you look closely, you can see the plantation’s wharf as well as the hull of a ship. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass writes:
“In the river, a short distance from the shore, lying quietly at anchor, with her small boat dancing at her stern, was a large sloop–the Sally Lloyd; called by that name in honor of a favorite daughter of the colonel. The sloop and the mill were wondrous things, full of thoughts and ideas. A child cannot well look at such objects without thinking.”
“I had the strongest desire to see Baltimore. My cousin Tom, a boy two or three years older than I, had been there, and, though not fluent in speech (he stuttered immoderately), he had inspired me with that desire by his eloquent descriptions of the place. Tom was sometimes cabin-boy on board the sloop “Sally Lloyd” (which Capt. Thomas Auld commanded), and when he came home from Baltimore he was always a sort of hero amongst us, at least till his trip to Baltimore was forgotten. I could never tell him anything, or point out anything that struck me as beautiful or powerful, but that he had seen something in Baltimore far surpassing it. Even the “great house,” with all its pictures within and pillars without, he had the hardihood to say, “was nothing to Baltimore.” He bought a trumpet (worth sixpence) and brought it home; told what he had seen in the windows of the stores; that he had heard shooting-crackers, and seen soldiers; that he had seen a steamboat, and that they were ships in Baltimore that could carry four such sloops as the “Sally Lloyd.””
Is this ship the Sally Lloyd? In his writings, Douglass makes it clear that this ship (and others like it) is the link between the plantation and the outside world. Through this ship, a new avenue of transportation and connectedness opens. While Wye House is seemingly inaccessible by road, it is but a short trip by water to the capital, Annapolis, or the shipping port, Baltimore. Prior to the construction of the Interstate Highway System (1956), the Bay Bridge (1952), and the invention of the Model T (1908), archaeologists departing from the University of Maryland would almost certainly walk down the road to the port town of Bladensburg, board a ship, and sail down the Anacostia River to the Potomac, across the Chesapeake Bay, and onto the dock at Wye House. The alternative would involve a LONG walk up and around the Chesapeake Bay.
Returning to the aerial photograph of Wye House suggests another way to get to Wye House: by air. As remote as Wye House feels, we are frequently greeted by the sounds of powered flight. Overhead, we’ve seen news helicopters, Coast Guard helicopters, private jets, small turboprop planes, home-made ultra-light aircraft. We are also treated to daily flights of A-10 Thunderbolts, probably on training flights out of Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, DC. Nicknamed the Warthog, the A-10 was designed to engage enemy vehicles and tanks with depleted uranium armor-piercing shells. It flies low, slow, and loud and their commanding presence demands that we look up from our units and realize that we’re still connected to the outside world, even here at Wye House on the Eastern Shore.