The hidden history of Northern plantations and their slaves is emerging one shovelful of soil at a time from excavations in and around historic manor houses in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. From bits of china, kitchen utensils, tools, buttons and personal items, archaeologists are getting glimpses of a chapter of America's past that written histories have either ignored or forgotten.
Most Northern states abolished slavery before the Civil War. But recent excavations show that during the late 1700s and early 1800s, many of what later came to be called manors and landed estates were full-fledged plantations that held African-American slaves under conditions similar to those in the South.
"Historians are stunned by some of the evidence," said Cheryl LaRoche, a historical archaeologist at the University of Maryland.
"The popular notion is that slavery in the North consisted of two or three household servants, but there is growing evidence that there were slaveholding plantations," she said. "It's hard to believe that such a significant and pervasive part of the past could be so completely erased from our history."
Near Salem, Mass., archaeologists have excavated the ruins of a 13,000-acre plantation that produced grain, horses, barrel staves and dried meat. The owner, Samuel Browne, traded those goods for molasses and rum from the Caribbean. The graveyard shows at least 100 African-Americans were enslaved there from 1718 to 1780.
At Shelter Island on New York's Long Island, archaeologists have spent several years peeling open the grounds of present-day Sylvester Manor to reveal the traces of an 8,000-acre plantation that provisioned two sugar plantations in Barbados and made heavy use of African slave labor. During the late 1600s, at least 20 slaves there served as carpenters, blacksmiths, domestics and field hands.
"America was a slaveholding country North and South," said LaRoche. "Over the years, that reality has been lost, stolen or just strayed from the history books."
Fleshing out history
The United States banned the importation of new slaves in 1808, but that did not free the millions already in the country, or their descendants. Some states did take action, enacting bans one by one, so that by 1863 the practice was illegal in most of the North.
Because the written record of slavery from the slaves' point of view is so meager, archaeology with its emphasis on the physical landscape and material aspects of culture is emerging as an important means of filling in omissions and distortions.
"Artifacts can tell us how people washed their clothes, fed themselves, churned their butter and hitched their horses," said Orloff Miller of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. "That's why archaeology can tell what it was like to live as a slave."
Some of the new evidence of Northern slaveholding plantations comes from excavations on the well-manicured grounds of historic estate homes, like the elegant Van Cortlandt Manor on the banks of New York's Croton River, where slaves worked in the fields and orchards.
Other discoveries are turning up in more humble, more endangered locations. In Morris County, N.J., plans for a park-and-ride transit station for New York commuters recently prompted the state to order archaeological investigations of the site, thought to have been home to the 18th century Beverwyck estate.
Before archaeologists finished, they had found the remains of more than 20 plantation buildings, including a dairy, blacksmith shop, distillery and quarters for at least 20 slaves that were part of a 2,000-acre provisioning operation for the owners' properties in the Caribbean.
Beneath the floor of the slave quarters, archaeologists found a set of iron shackles; small caches of pins, needles and beads; and ritualistic arrangements of cooking utensils that reflect the occupants' African origins.
"For a time, Beverwyck was one of the region's finest plantations, but it could only have reached that high state of cultivation through the forced labor of enslaved workers," said archaeologist Wade Catts of John Milner Associates, a New Jersey archaeology firm engaged in the project.
"For most of history, Beverwyck has been known primarily as one of the places that George Washington slept," he said. "Now the tangible evidence we've uncovered allows us to see it in a whole new light."
Catts said there was little doubt that other plantations in New Jersey also had significant slave populations.
As a science, archaeology is more than a century old. But only in the last few decades have researchers devoted much attention to the African-American component of sites, both in the North and the South.
"For a long time, archaeologists who studied plantations were mostly interested in the people who lived in the big house," said Syracuse University anthropologist Theresa Singleton, author of "The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life." "That didn't tell us much more about slaves than we learned from the histories by the people who enslaved them. Archaeology allows us to see history through a different lens."
Digging up a past that many would rather forget has had interesting results on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
Slave quarters have been reconstructed at Bulloch Hall, the Greek Revival mansion just off the town square in Roswell. Until archaeological excavations in the late 1990s helped identify the location of the structure, the only hint of the slaves who helped build the mansion in 1839 had been a simple sign pointing in the general direction of "the quarters."
In rural Mason County, Ky., archaeologists recently identified an old wooden barn as the country's only extant slave pen, one of the prisonlike compounds where slaves were kept overnight during transport from the East to the cotton fields of Mississippi and Louisiana in the mid-1800s.
The busloads of curiosity seekers who descended on the farm for a closer look prompted an ultimatum from the owner. Archaeologists could either remove the structure or he would tear it down. The building, disassembled one timber at a time, will soon be reconstructed at Cincinnati's Underground Railroad center.
In Philadelphia, when the new $9 million Liberty Bell Center opens this year, the grounds of the most famous icon of American independence and later the symbol of the abolitionist movement will now acknowledge an aspect of African-American history that almost got left out.
During excavations or the new center, archaeologists recovered thousands of artifacts from the red brick mansion where Washington stayed in Philadelphia. But it took public protests for the National Park Service to decide that the story of Washington's slaves deserved space in the pavilion, too.
"Most Philadelphians would be shocked to know that Washington had slaves with him in the city," said University of California, Los Angeles, history professor Gary Nash, who helped spur the Park Service decision.
The slave quarters, and any artifacts they hold, lie just outside the entrance to the new center. They were undisturbed by construction, and the Park Service plans to leave them in place, to be studied and interpreted at some future date.
"Written history is always subject to a kind of cultural amnesia. Some of it is deliberately forgotten and some of it is inadvertently lost," said Nash. "That's why artifacts and their context are so important. They can speak to us for the people who left no written record."