The Life of Josiah Henson


In 1849, Maryland citizens could purchase a newly-published book whose origins began in their own state. Entitled The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, this volume recounted Henson’s life, including his childhood as an enslaved individual in Charles County. In and of itself, the publication of slave narratives—personal accounts of life in bondage—was not an unusual occurrence during the antebellum period. What makes this volume stand out is that it served as the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The second most translated book ever published (after the Bible), Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped galvanize the abolitionist movement in the United States (Robbins 2019).

Even without the Stowe connection, Henson (Figure 1) was an interesting man in his own right. While Henson stated his birth date as 1789, he may have actually been born closer to 1798 on a plantation known as “La Grange”. Subjected as a child to multiple acts of cruelty and violence, Henson eventually ended up in present-day Rockville, Maryland, where he became an overseer for Isaac Riley. Escaping enslavement with his family in 1830, Henson relocated to Canada and helped to found the British American Institute of Science and Industry and the Dawn Settlement, a community for former slaves. Henson became active in the Underground Railroad, serving as a conductor, as well as speaking extensively about his experiences as a way to raise money for refugee slaves. He also became a Methodist minister. Before his death in 1883, Henson had visited Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle and been the guest of President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House (Brock 2018).

Henson has sparked a great deal of intellectual curiosity over the years and recently this interest has taken an archaeological turn. In 2009, archaeologists working for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Montgomery Parks began archaeological exploration at the Josiah Henson Site (18MO653). One of the goals of the project was to discover archaeological traces that could be dated to the period that Henson and another twenty enslaved individuals lived at this site. This multi-year project was featured in 2014 on an episode of the archaeological reality show Time Team America. A museum dedicated to the community enslaved at Riley’s plantation will open in late 2020 at the Josiah Henson Park.

Figure 2. Copper alloy pie crimper from the Josiah Henson Birthplace site.

In 2016, a group of archaeologists from St. Mary’s College of Maryland did work at a property known today as La Grange (18CH928) near Port Tobacco, where Henson was born (Webster et al., 2017). It was during testing of a trash midden area between the house and the quarter that a small copper alloy artifact was discovered. It was originally part of a kitchen tool known as a pastry wheel or pie crimper, used for cutting and trimming pie dough (Figure 2). The small wheel would have originally been set in a handle that allowed it to rotate freely (Figure 3). Although dating to the same period as Henson’s life at La Grange, it is unlikely that he ever used or even saw this object. Cooking was considered women’s work and the plantation kitchen would have been located near the main house and in an area probably off-limits to children.

Figure 3. Early 19th-century brass pastry wheel from a private collection. Length: 4″.

References
Brock, Jared. 2018. The Story of Josiah Henson, the Real Inspiration for ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. Smithsonian. Website accessed October 28, 2019 at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/story-josiah-henson-real-inspiration-uncle-toms-cabin-180969094/.


Henson, Josiah. 1849. The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Arthur D. Phelps, Boston.


Robbins, Hollis. 2019. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Matter of Influence. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Website accessed October 28, 2019 at https://ap.gilderlehrman.org/essays/uncle-tom%C3%A2%E2%82%AC%E2%84%A2s-cabin-and-matter-influence


Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1852. Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. John J. Jewett & Co., Boston.

Acknowledgments:  The author would like to thank Cassandra Michaud of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Montgomery Parks for providing information about the excavations at the Josiah Henson Park.

Oblate Sisters of Providence: The First Order of African-American Nuns


This post was written by former MAC Lab volunteer Lauren Morrell.  Thank you, Lauren!

18CH216-Lot28

Front: Written in French, “O MARIE CONÇUE SANS PÉCHÉ PRIEZ POUR NOUS QUI AVONS RECOURS À VOUS” (Translation: O Mary conceived without sin pray for us who have recourse to thee) around the Virgin Mary with rays emitting from her hands.
Back: 
Miraculous Medal motif showing the letter “M” with a cross over it, and under both are the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a crown of thorns, and the Sacred Heart of Mary pierced by a sword. Courtesy U.S. Army Garrison, Adelphi Laboratory Center.

This miraculous medal — a medallion that many Catholics believe was inspired by the Virgin Mary — was uncovered at Blossom Point farm in Charles County, Maryland (18CH216). The farm was part of St. Thomas Manor, which was patented in 1649 by Thomas Matthews and Father Thomas Copley, who were members of the Jesuit community. St. Thomas Manor has been owned by the Jesuits since then. The farm was rented to short-term tenants after the Civil War and this medal, which postdates 1832, was probably owned by one of the tenants.

Maryland has a long history with the Catholic religion. Founded in 1634 by Catholic Lord Baltimore, the colony became known as the cradle of Catholicity (Pyne 2008). The first Catholic church in the English Colonies was constructed in St. Mary’s City in 1667 (The Chapel of St Mary’s City, 2019). By the founding of the country, roughly ten percent of Maryland’s population were openly practicing Catholics, of which nearly 20 percent were slaves (Pyne 2008).

Baltimore has the distinction of being the birthplace of a Catholic religious institute that broke both racial and gender social norms. The Oblate Sisters of Providence were the first permanent community of Roman Catholic Sisters of African descent in the world; their mission is to “renounce the world to consecrate themselves to God and to Christian education of young girls of color” (Posey 1994). The title, Oblate Sisters of Providence, was given October 2, 1831, by Papal recognition as an official Catholic organization.

The community began in 1828 when Elizabeth Lange, a free woman of color, and Father James Nicholas Joubert, a white Frenchman, bonded over their shared French culture, Caribbean refugee status, devotion to the Catholic faith, and their commitment to providing education to black children (Morrow 1997).

Elizabeth Lange was born in the Caribbean around 1784.

lange-med_290_282

Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange

She immigrated to Baltimore in 1813, joining the growing community of free people of African descent. Baltimore, at the time, was the “free black capital” of 19th-century America, with a vibrant and involved community (Morrow 2000). Elizabeth saw a need to educate French- speaking children, so she and another Caribbean emigrant, Mary Balas, opened a school for children in their home (Morrow 2000). Continue reading

Dr. Samuel Mudd’s Tea and Coffee Set


Dr. Samuel Mudd's family tea and coffee service, made by James Dixon and Sons between 1842 and 1851.

Dr. Samuel Mudd’s family tea and coffee service, made by James Dixon and Sons between 1842 and 1851.

“Your name is mud” has long been used as a way to insult another person whose actions don’t meet with general approval.  I have encountered this phrase a great deal over the last six months, as I have given lab tours and shown visitors the work conservators at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab have been doing on the tea and coffee set of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Dr. Mudd was a Charles County physician who provided medical assistance to gunman John Wilkes Booth after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.  After being convicted of conspiracy in 1865, Mudd spent almost four years at a military prison in the Dry Tortugas.  It has become a common myth that the “your name is mud” insult sprang up in reference to Samuel Mudd’s actions on that fateful April night in 1865.  Continue reading

Heralding Your Political Affiliations on Your Tableware, So to Speak


The mended Rhenish Hohrware jug found at Westwood Manor (18CH621).

The mended Rhenish Hohrware jug found at Westwood Manor (18CH621).

This magnificent Rhenish stoneware jug was recovered from Westwood Manor (18CH621), the residence of planter and innkeeper John Bayne, who lived in the Zekiah Swamp in Charles County in the late seventeenth century. Although the Zekiah was a sparsely settled frontier region on Maryland’s western shore at this time, a number of community institutions—public roads, houses of worship, mills, general stores, and a courthouse—had developed in the Zekiah by the end of 17th century (Strickland and King 2011; Alexander et al. 2010: 21-22), creating a landscape of interconnected people, plantations and community services.

Recent reanalysis of artifacts recovered at Bayne’s residence during a 1996 excavation suggested that the Manor’s occupants and their clientele were striving to reconstitute an English material world in the colony. Along with a variety of expensive and presentation quality ceramic and glass vessels, the assemblage included an elaborately decorated ivory walking stick handle, a silver spoon and other luxury items. Continue reading