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Letter from Maryland

Belvoir's Legacy

The highly personal archaeology of enslavement on a tobacco plantation

By JULIE M. SCHABLITSKY

Monday, October 17, 2016

Letter From Maryland Aerial

 

In the late 1840s, a young woman, improbably named Cinderella, was enslaved on a tobacco plantation called Belvoir, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Her story, discovered by Chris Haley, research director for the Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery program and nephew of Roots author Alex Haley, tells of her marriage to Abraham Brogden, a freedman who worked at another plantation nearby. In late December 1848, Abraham learned that Cinderella was to be sold out of the area to pay off a debt. He was unable to purchase his wife himself, so the couple fled to Baltimore. They were caught, however, before the runaway-slave ad even hit the newspaper. Abraham was incarcerated for “enticing a slave to run away,” while Cinderella was returned to her plantation. After serving three years in prison, Abraham was released, but he never reunited with his wife. Cinderella had passed away from unknown causes in the interim years. Local historian Janice Hayes-Williams sees in the story an expression of the aspirations and hopes of the African-American community in the nineteenth century, of boldness and resourcefulness, particularly among women. “There is a significant pattern of enslaved women marrying free black men,” she says. “It was a potential path to freedom.”

 

The social reality of slavery—including the interactions between free and enslaved African Americans and field and domestic workers, as well as expressions of resistance and paths to freedom—is a matter of great interest to scholars and historians, and also to descendant communities, but it can be difficult to observe in the archaeological record. In many cases, slave cabins were left to rot, or were pulled down in an effort to erase physical reminders of a shameful chapter in American history. But when sites are found archaeologically intact, they can provide details of the lives of enslaved people in the American South, rich with opportunities for connecting with local communities, communities that are often descended directly from the people who worked the old plantations. They have questions, spoken and unspoken, about the trials of their ancestors, and archaeology can provide descendants with that tangible, personal connection to a history both painful and somehow inspirational. This is the story of one such place and its community: Cinderella’s home, Belvoir.

 

Belvoir has a historical marker on the edge of General’s Highway, northwest of Annapolis, but it says nothing of Cinderella and Abraham. It states that during the Revolutionary War, French commander Comte de Rochambeau and 4,500 troops camped there on the night of September 17, 1781, on the way to Yorktown to fight the war’s final battle. Belvoir was a 700-acre plantation, with a manor house that had been built around 1736 by John Ross. Thirty years later the estate passed to Upton Scott, who expanded the home. The Scotts were part of Maryland’s aristocratic planter class. Francis Scott Key, author of the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner,” often came to Belvoir to visit his grandmother, Ann Ross Key. These connections with historical figures have long defined Belvoir’s place in history, and its role in the Revolutionary War was the primary subject of an archaeological survey project in 2014.

Digital Animation:
Letter From Maryland Reconstruction
Belvoir Slave Quarters