Intersections of Place, Landscape, and Spirit at Wye House

This is a shortened version of my paper for the 2014 Society for Historical Archaeology annual conference, delivered at the beginning of January. I contributed to the second part of an exciting session called The Intersecting Plantation Landscape. You will be able to find my full presentation, and those of the other archaeologists in the session at our website, created by Terry Brock.

West side of the Wye House garden (1904).

West side of the Wye House garden (1904).

The sandy loam of the tidal shorelines of Talbot County, Maryland made for rich planting soil. Edward Lloyd I came to Talbot County in the mid seventeenth-century, carrying the name of Wye with him as an immigrant from Wales. His slaves built the Wye House Plantation along the Wye River which gave the Lloyds access to the Chesapeake Bay and all of the international trading routes it offered to a tobacco merchant. Within this perspective of the landscape are his story and the stories of the generations of Edward Lloyds that followed him. There is the way he saw his land, the formal garden paths, the plants, his view of the nature that surrounded him, and the place that he had created for himself. But his story is far from the only story, and he was not the only one creating places or bringing aspects of a homeland to the plantation. There were hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children at Wye House and several other properties owned by the Lloyds throughout the county.

The most famous was Frederick Douglass the abolitionist, who was held in bondage at Wye House as a child in the early nineteenth century. After his escape, he gave voice to his experience of slavery and oppression in his speeches and autobiographies. These are helpful to an extent, but for those who could not escape or write or speak, we have to turn to the records kept by the Lloyds, the archaeology of the plantation, and archaeobotany to illuminate their lives and histories.

As Dell Upton has discussed with White and Black Landscapes, the enslaved people of the plantation would not have experienced the landscape in the same way as the plantation owners or their guests. While free whites could find refuge and pleasure in the formal gardens and the greenhouse buildings, for the enslaved people, it was a constant reminder of the restrictions placed upon them. Douglass uses this perspective when he relates how famous a spectacle the Wye garden was, with visitors coming from all over to see it. The slaves, however, would be severely punished for entering particular sections or giving in to the temptation to pick its fruit. Although the eighteenth century greenhouse that still stands at Wye House was quite famous in the American planter elite circles, Douglass never mentions it. Despite these restrictions, he describes the natural elements of the plantation as being very much a part of his world, rather than something that belonged only to the estate owners. He writes:

The tops of the stately poplars were often covered with the red-winged black-birds, making all nature vocal with the joyous life and beauty of their wild, warbling notes. These all belonged to me, as well as to Col. Edward Lloyd, and for a time I greatly enjoyed them.

The Middle Walk or "Dungeon" at Wye House (1904).

The Middle Walk or “Dungeon” at Wye House (1904).

The center of Douglass’ mental landscape was not the mansion house or the greenhouse and gardens. It was the overseer’s house, the agricultural fields, the woods, and creeks. Though the young Douglass was beginning to understand what it meant to be a slave, he claimed these places for his own and understood them in his own way.

Beginning in 1770, Edward Lloyd IV kept meticulous censuses of the enslaved labor force, recording first and last names, ages, and other comments in what was called the Book of Hands or Book of Negroes. We can see movement from one Lloyd property to another, creating intersecting paths of people split up and coming together in Talbot County.

In 1770, a 75 year-old woman named Antigua Jemmy lived at Wye House. The plantation passed to Edward Lloyd IV in that year, and property his father owned—which included human beings—was divided between he and his brothers. Eight years later, at age 83, she was sent to a different Lloyd property. On the census, it is denoted as a new park, and may refer to Lloyd’s Recovery or Lloyd’s Park. A year after that move, Antigua Jemmy was no longer listed among the names of the hands. Her origins before she came to Talbot County are expressed in the name she was assigned. (EDIT: I have since read that Jemmy was commonly a man’s name, and I wrongly assumed the gender of Antigua Jemmy to be female. He was most likely male.)

Others are more difficult to trace back to their homeland or track their movements, but there are general insights we can gain. In the mid-eighteenth century, a majority of the ships carrying slaves into Maryland came from Senegambia or the Bight of Biafra, though there were some that came from Sierra Leone and West-Central Africa. Frederick Douglass also noted ships from the West Indies coming into Oxford, Maryland, down the road from Wye House. This is as much as we know so far about where the enslaved Africans at the Wye House Plantation may have come from. A constellation of sites across the Atlantic that make up a diaspora—so many people different and shared cultures, religions, and practices came together in this space and left a material record. As we piece together the paths the enslaved people took, we can better discuss a whole life lived and better contextualize the materials that we find.

In 2001, fantasy author Neil Gaiman wrote a book called American Gods. Within its story, which is a meandering epic that sprawls throughout the United States and back through time, there is this idea that the settlers, the immigrants, the forced laborers, everyone who came to the New World brought their gods with them. The personified gods settled here, and as belief in the old ways faded away or mixed with new, they survived and were transformed, becoming the American Gods. Although it is a work of fiction, he describes the transportation and transformation of religious practices in a diaspora quite compellingly. In one segment, Gaiman describes the passage of slaves to the island of Saint Domingo, using agricultural metaphor to illustrate how “the gods of Dahomey and the Congo and the Niger put down thick roots there and grew lush and huge and deep, and they promised freedom to those who worshiped them at night in the groves.” The author situates one character in the Haitian slave revolt, saying that, “He went with the other slaves, in the small hours of the night, to the woods, although it was forbidden, to dance the Calinda, to sing to Damballa-Wedo, the serpent god, in the form of a black snake. He sang to Elegba, to Ogu[n], Shango, Zaka, and to many others, all the gods the captives had brought with them to the island, brought in their minds and their secret hearts.” These beliefs are intangible, but there is a material component to them, and this is where archaeologists can begin to contextualize certain reoccurring remains that appear on plantation landscapes.

The focus of excavations for the previous three summers at Wye House has been two slave quarters. In the summer of 2013, excavations of the door area of one quarter uncovered a large surface of arranged objects—round blue bottle bases, crushed metal cans, and an iron wheel—just inside the structure, but under the raised floor. Robert Farris Thompson has interpreted wheels or other round discs in African-American garden spaces, particularly those that have a cross on them as one of these does, to represent a Bakongo cosmogram and a sense of sanctifying the soil. This find joins two buried piles of iron farming implements that we excavated from this quarter two summers ago and reported last year. On New World plantations and even in the practice of Yoruba today, iron pitchforks, shovels, and hoes replace blades and spears as the sacred tools of Ogun.

Burdock, which was used for medicine in slave contexts (Source: www.commons.wikimedia.org)

Burdock, which was used for medicine in slave contexts (Source: www.commons.wikimedia.org)

Part of my research has been focused on these objects, but spiritual well-being, physical well-being, nature, and the supernatural are not necessarily separate concepts. These bundles and practices also included the use of the natural landscape to create safe spaces, cure ailments, direct spirits, and call upon gods. Though there is not yet clear evidence of gardens or kept yard spaces surrounding the quarters at Wye House, it was not an unusual practice at the time. Judith Carney calls these dooryard gardens the “nurseries of the dispossessed,” where planting methods and experimentations of African origin played out on plantations. Whitney Battle-Baptiste has discussed how these yards and garden spaces were actively shaped by women to be extensions of the house in order to create a safe domestic place within the plantation, particularly through a ritualistic sweeping of the yard, which aids in keeping unwanted spirits from the entrances. On the present-day landscape, the plant burdock grows in a concentration around one of the quarters at Wye House. According to slave narratives, this plant was used to treat multiple physical ailments, such as gout, rheumatism, and dropsy.

Throughout the African diaspora, there are also certain plants that are associated with spiritual practices and particular gods. The plants used for such purposes at Wye House are more intangible that the artifacts, however, there is significant evidence of this belief system’s existence in Talbot County in the writing of Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass and the Fugitive's Song (1845).

Frederick Douglass and the Fugitive’s Song (1845).

When Douglass was sixteen, working in the fields of Mr. Covey’s farm near St. Michael’s in Talbot County, his beatings became so severe that he sought protection from an older enslaved man, Sandy Jenkins, whom he considered a trusted advisor. He describes their conversation with this passage:

He was not only a religious man, but he professed to believe in a system for which I have no name. He was a genuine African, and had inherited some of the so called magical powers, said to be possessed by African and eastern nations. He told me that he could help me; that, in those very woods, there was an herb, which in the morning might be found, possessing all the powers required for my protection…

The man instructed Douglass to take the root of that plant and wear it on his right side at all times. By doing so, no white man would be able to hurt him. These practices using symbolic materials and meaningful plants were known during Douglass’ time and he links them directly to Africa.

We are finding the meanings behind certain plants and arrangements of artifacts at Wye House because we are learning to look for them. We’re asking questions about the knowledge that people brought with them to the New World, knowledge of plants and of the gods that came live in the woods and the waters. These materials connect the enslaved to a vast network that we are only beginning to map in Talbot County and beyond.

References

Battle-Baptiste, Whitney
2010 Sweepin’ Spirits: Power and Transformation on the Plantation Landscape. In Archaeology and Preservation of Gendered Landscapes, edited by Sherene Baugher and Suzanne M. Spencer-Wood, pp. 81–94. Springer.

Carney, Judith A.
2010 Landscapes and Places of Memory: African Diaspora Research and Geography. In The African Diaspora and the Disciplines, edited by Tejumola Olaniyan and James Hoke Sweet. Indiana University Press.

Covey, Herbert C.
2007 African American Slave Medicine: Herbal and Non-herbal Treatments. Lexington Books.

Douglass, Frederick
1882 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Park Publishing.

Douglass, Frederick
1845 [2009] Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, written by himself. Harvard University Press.

Gaiman, Neil
2009 American Gods. HarperCollins.

Preston, Dickson J.
1985 Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Speckart, Amy
2011 The Colonial History of Wye Plantation, the Lloyd Family, and their Slaves on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: Family, Property, and Power. PhD, William and Mary, Department of History.

Thompson, Robert Farris
1988 The Voice in the Wheel: Ring-Shouts, Wheel-Tire-and Hubcap-Art. In Another Face of the Diamond: Pathways Through the Black Atlantic South, edited by Inverna Lockpez, pp. 28–37.

Upton, Dell
1984 White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia. Places 2(2): 59–72.

Westmacott, Richard Noble
1992 African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South. University of Tennessee Press.

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