Artifacts recently uncovered in St. Mary’s County reveal lost stories of enslaved African Americans as well as Native Americans who inhabited the land over three centuries ago.
The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration and St. Mary’s College of Maryland archeologists are working to unearth a 300-year-old slave quarters site at a historic Jesuit plantation in Southern Maryland.
According to a release, many of the archaeological remains lay buried in farm fields within Newtowne Neck State Park, which is managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and are located a stone’s throw from an 18th century brick manor once occupied by Jesuit missionaries. Early indications suggest the slave quarters may date to around 1700, making it “the earliest known slave quarters in the area,” Dr. Julie Schablitsky, MDOT SHA’s chief archaeologist told Southern Maryland News.
“The Jesuits were prolific in their record keeping, but very little survived on the enslaved African Americans who worked the fields and served the Catholic church,” Schablitsky said in the release. “If there was ever a place in Maryland that holds the story of diverse cultures converging to find religious freedom in an environment of conflict, sacrifice and survival, it is here.”
Several research sites are located along Newtowne Neck Road and state archaeologists are performing research as part of the agency’s role as a partner with Maryland Rediscovery 400, an initiative to promote and interpret Southern Maryland’s history.
Julia King, professor of anthropology at St. Mary’s College, told Southern Maryland News last week the sites were found in 2015 during an archaeological survey funded by the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority and the Department of Natural Resources.
King and others worked to get MDOT’s archaeologist to come to the site and digging was originally scheduled to begin in May. That date ultimately got pushed back because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between Oct. 19 and 28, Schabkitsky and her team of archaeologists dug at the sites and found artifacts that will be analyzed to learn more about the people who lived just beyond the manor house. All the findings will be incorporated into interpretive signs and materials associated with the Religious Freedom Byway and visitor experiences, websites and public presentations.
Last month while still on site, Schablitsky said archaeologists used metal detectors to pinpoint the locations where people who were enslaved left evidence of their lives, such as broken clay tobacco pipes, ceramic cups and rusty nails. She said remote sensing was also used to “help determine where to excavate.”
Trash middens, or concentrated areas of artifacts created from past people throwing away their trash, also help to show what kind of activities people were doing, as well as what kind of foods they were eating.
“We’re finding a lot out through things people threw away,” Schablitsky said.
While Native American ceramics were found buried at the site, King said it could mean the two groups were interacting, which “wouldn’t be a big surprise” as Native Americans and enslaved people were both “treated as second class citizens.”
A small crucifix dating from the mid-nineteenth century was another artifact found at that site that could indicate enslaved people were going to church, as the Jesuits were concerned of the “religious well-being of their enslaved property,” King pointed out.
Early documents mention the sale of 272 slaves from Maryland in 1838, including those who lived at Newtown Manor. Descendants of these African Americans are found in Maryland and across the United States.
Gwen Bankins, likely a descendant of those who labored at Newtown, said “it’s very interesting to know” things about the people who inhabited the land in the past and it “adds dimensions” when your family is involved.
She said it “was incredible” that many of the artifacts were found in time for Maryland’s Emancipation Day, celebrated on Nov. 1.
“It’s important to know your history,” she said, adding she experiences “great joy” in uncovering her own and even “finds healing in it.”
Bankins, now 56, said when she was young people didn’t talk about contributions enslaved people made in society. Today, she’s finding her ancestors’ stories and realizing they “helped to build this community.”
The Rev. Dante Eubanks, a resident of Leonardtown, traces his family to the Newtown plantation. He said “to be able to stand in the exact place where my ancestors lived and endured is a powerful experience. … We need to remember these stories.”