Baltimore and Voter Registration

Archaeologists working in advance of the construction of the Intercounty Connector project encountered an unusual situation at the Jackson Homestead site (18MO609) in Montgomery County. The site was the location of a 19th-century home that was completely destroyed by fire around 1910, while still occupied (Furgerson et al. 2011). The Jackson family apparently had very little time to remove their possessions, so archaeologists working inside the house foundation discovered essentially a time capsule frozen in place by the fire.  One of more interesting artifacts they recovered was a campaign button from the 1860 election between Republican Abraham Lincoln and three other Democratic presidential candidates—John Bell, John C. Breckinridge,[i] and Stephen A. Douglas.  Lincoln, and his running mate Hannibal Hamlin, emerged victorious in this contest.

Figure 1. Lincoln Hamlin medal recovered from the Jackson Homestead site (18MO609).

You heard this familiar refrain over and over again in the months leading up to our national election: “Register to vote”; “Make your voice heard by registering to vote”.  We all know that the ability to exercise our constitutional right to vote in any United States election rests in registering your name with the local election board. In fact, it—and getting a library card—are two of the first things I do when I move to a new area.  But what sounds like a simple, straightforward process is not always the case.  Over the history of the United States, voter suppression has bedeviled our country, a challenge that continues to this day.  So it should probably not surprise you that voter registration issues have also had a long and contentious history in Baltimore.

Faced with the challenges of a growing population in Baltimore and the increased likelihood of voter fraud, the Maryland legislature authorized the city in 1821 to pass a voter registration system. Voting rights, property ownership and public education became tied in the following years and it was not until 1829 that the city extended voting rights to free white males without requisite property ownership (Crenson 2017:127, 132).

Voter registration systems, although appearing to be a way to insure more citizens get a voice, has often been a tool of voter suppression. After the 1829 Baltimore decision, voter registration was limited to only three days in October—a move that led to long lines, discouraging many men in the laboring class from taking time away from work to register. Voter registration systems in many American cities were also designed to disenfranchise immigrants and people of color (Keysarr 2000).  Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Baltimore had the largest concentration of free blacks in the United States (Rockman 2009:166).  Before the Civil War, Maryland had more free blacks than any other state in the nation and 92% of African Americans in Baltimore were free in 1862 (Hayward 2008:3; Rockman 2009:166).

Figure 2. Medal from the 1860 campaign of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin.

After the Civil War, corruption in Baltimore’s voting system was particularly egregious in its dealings with African American voters.  Great efforts were made to suppress black voting, including paying voters to stay at away from the polls and arranging outings on election day to lure voters out of the city (Crenson 2017:295).  Literacy tests and poll taxes were other means used to reduce African American voting rates in the late nineteenth century (Daniels 2020).  In the early twentieth century, two defeated amendments—the Straus and the Digges amendments—tried to create legislation that would disqualify many African American would-be voters by setting stringent voter registration requirements (Crenson 2017:339).

Voter suppression, unfortunately, is still with us today. In 2013, the U. S. Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act, which mandated that states and localities with histories of voting discrimination receive federal approval before changing election laws.  As a result of this decision, numerous states changed regulations in ways that unfairly targeted people of color, removing them from voter rolls or making it more difficult for them to meet the requirements of voter registration.  Despite these obstacles, African American voters turned out in record numbers for the 2020 election.

The medal from the Jackson Homestead was found in the parlor and when the house was burned, it dated back fifty years.  Its antiquity and its placement in the most formal room of the house suggest that it was a family heirloom—perhaps serving as a reminder of the administration responsible for emancipation and the beginnings of a long, still extant road towards equal voting rights.


Crenson, Matthew. Baltimore; A Political History.  Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2017.

Daniels, Gilda. Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America.  New York University Press, New York, 2020.

Furgerson, Kathleen, Varna Boyd, Carey O’Reilly, Justin Bedard, Tracy Formica, and Anthony Randolph, Jr.   Phase II and III Archaeological Investigations of the Fairland Branch Site and the Jackson Homestead (Site 18MO609), Intercounty Connector Project, Montgomery County, Maryland. Prepared by the URS Corporation for the Maryland State Highways Administration. SHA Archaeological Report No. 426., 2011.

Hayward, Mary Ellen. Baltimore’s Alley Houses; Homes for Working People Since the 1780s.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008.

Keysarr, Alex. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. Basic Books, 2000.

Rockman, Seth.  Scraping By; Wage Labor, Slavery and Survival in Early Baltimore.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2009.

[i] As an interesting aside, John C. Breckinridge was the great-grandfather of Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson, who donated Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum to the State of Maryland in 1983.

Maryland’s Shipbuilding Past – the Steward Shipyard Dogshore

The Stephen Steward Shipyard (18AN817), located on the West River in Anne Arundel County, is one of state’s best-documented and preserved eighteenth-century shipyards.  Steward’s thriving enterprise was both large and complex, including workshops and storage buildings, as well as housing for the free craftsmen and laborers, indentured servants and slaves employed there.  During the second half of the century, Steward and his workers constructed seagoing vessels ranging from 20 to 270 tons for both the transatlantic and Caribbean trades.

The MAC Lab’s Chief Conservator Nichole Doub takes measurements of the Steward Shipyard dogshore.

The MAC Lab’s Chief Conservator Nichole Doub takes measurements of the Steward Shipyard dogshore.

Archaeological excavations conducted at the site in the 1990s revealed this impressive artifact – a dog-shore.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines dog-shore as “each of two blocks of timber used to prevent a ship from starting off the slips while the keel-blocks are being removed in preparation for launching”.  This dog-shore, fashioned from a branching tree trunk, is an ideal object to represent the shipbuilding industry in our state.

Thomas Paine perhaps most clearly stated the importance of our nation’s shipbuilding industry in Common Sense (1776):  “Shipbuilding is America’s greatest pride and in which she will, in time, excel the whole world” (Paine 2008:53).  Because they benefited from the colony’s ability to produce seaworthy craft, shipbuilding was the one colonial industry that England did not attempt to regulate (O’Neill 2010).  Building and owning ships was also appealing to American colonists, not only for the economic benefits of the industry, but also because it provided American merchants with greater commercial independence from the British.  In the Chesapeake, ships were important for transporting the region’s primary crop—tobacco—to Europe. Continue reading

Erin Go Bragh! “Home Rule” Tobacco Pipes and Ireland’s Struggle for Independence (from March 2013 Curator’s Choice)

The following article is part of JPPM’s ‘Curator’s Choice’ series.

During the mid-19th century, Irish immigrants flocked to  America to escape the Great Irish Potato Famine (Figure 1).  The famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1852,  was brought on by potato blight, a disease that devastated the potato harvests  across Europe.  In Ireland, where  approximately one third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato  for food, the famine reduced the population by almost two million, many of whom  immigrated to the United States (Irish Potato Famine 2012). Continue reading

Poplar Forest Artifacts

Recently, artifacts from Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation near Lynchburg, Virginia, have arrived at the MAC Lab. One of two homes that Jefferson designed and created for his own use, Poplar Forest has been designated a National Historic Landmark and the plantation house is operated as a historic house museum. Archaeological excavations on the property continue every year and the artifacts being treated by lab conservators are just a tiny sample of what archaeologists are discovering as they continue to provide information for the restoration of the rest of the plantation’s property.

Treating metal artifacts with tannic acid

Biscayne Figurines in Conservation

Between 1765 and 1770, a 70 foot New England ship carrying a large cargo of British ceramics sank in what is now Biscayne National Park in Florida. Conservator Cait Shaffer has been treating several coral covered ceramic figurines from the ship, nicknamed the English China wreck, using chemical cleaning techniques as well as a sonic descaler (the same instrument your dentist may use to clean your teeth). Cait has made a fantastic time-lapse photography presentation showing the removal of the encrustations from one of the figurines, and you can see it by clicking here.

2 of the Biscayne Figurines:

Presidio La Bahia Update

Our new conservator, Virginie, is working hard treating artifacts from Presidio La Bahia in Texas. A Spanish frontier fort, Presidio La Bahia (“Fort on the Bay”) saw six National Revolutions for independence and is the most fought over fort in Texas history. Previously, conservators at the MAC Lab treated several copper alloy kettles from the Presidio, and Virginie is now working on more “everyday” artifacts from the fort, including eating utensils and gun parts.

Removing dirt and corrosion from a pistol butt plate

Close up of butt plate

Just a sampling of the many objects from the Presidio (before treatment)

Mending Tin Glaze Vessel for Exhibit

Curators not only have the responsibility of organizing and properly storing artifacts, they also often select objects for exhibit. And if the objects destined for display need cleaning or mending – well, sure, they can do that too. Curator Erin Wingfield is currently cleaning and mending a tin-glazed earthenware chamber pot to go on exhibit at The Todd’s Inheritance Historic Site, a property occupied by the Todd family from the late 17th century through the 1970’s. The chamber pot dates from the late 17th – to early 18th – century occupation of the site. Tin-glaze is both white and opaque, and Europeans from the 16th to the 18th centuries found that this glaze made a great base for decorating with colors such as blue, green, brown, purplish brown, and yellow.

Erin preparing the vessel for mending

Cobalt decorated tin-glazed earthenware

Conservation of Smith’s St. Leonard Artifacts

Various metal objects from the cellar feature of the Smith’s St. Leonard site are being treated in the conservation department of the MAC Lab. Among them are buttons, thimbles, spoons, buckles, hinge parts, and a piece of a furniture escutcheon (a plate or flange that protects the wood of the furniture from being struck by the handle). There are also a couple of unknown objects, the cleaning and conservation of which may help archaeologists identify them. In addition to the metal objects being treated, conservators have also begun working on the portion of a foldable fan discovered in the cellar. The ivory fan “sticks” (the part of the fan that would be held in your hand) will be cleaned, and the copper alloy “rivet” (the piece that fastens the sticks together) will be treated to stabilize the metal.

One of the unidentified metal artifacts

Archaeologist delicately removing remains of the fan from the cellar feature

Intern Spotlight

We would like to welcome Kelly McCauley, our newest conservation intern, to the MAC Lab. Kelly has a B.A. in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington, where she specialized in archaeology. During her studies, she worked on excavations at Stratford Hall and, later, as a fire archaeologist for the National Park Service at Whiskeytown National Recreational Area. Since becoming involved in conservation, she has interned at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and also with a private company, Conservation Solutions, Inc. Kelly will be with us for three months and, during her internship, she will be conserving both ceramic and iron artifacts. We are very happy to have her here!

Kelly preparing to conserve 19th-century ceramics

Treating the Screw-piles

Conservator Cait Shaffer has begun cleaning the much concreted surfaces of the two screw-piles from the Drum Point Lighthouse that recently arrived at the MAC Lab. She initially tried cleaning the artifacts with air abrasion and a Dremel rotary tool, but many of the concretions on the objects are too hard for these methods to remove them. Cait is now using an air scribe, which is like a tiny jack hammer, and it has been working well. And for the thickest of the concretions, she is dexterously using a chisel and hammer for their removal. After the cleaning process is completed, a protective coating will be applied to the screw-piles.

Using the air scribe to remove concretions

Heavily concreted screw-pile

Close up of concretion