The archaeological finds seem ordinary at first. A rusted belt buckle, shards of broken pottery and glass, remnants of an old clay pipe.
But in this detritus of lives lived more than 200 years ago on a southern Maryland farm known as La Grange, researchers in Charles County believe they have uncovered the birthplace of a key figure in African American history.
Josiah Henson is not a household name, but the autobiography the former slave published in 1849 provided integral source material — and some say inspired the title character — for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published three years later. Stowe’s book, the most popular novel of the 19th century and one that has been translated into more languages than any other book besides the Bible, is credited with helping anti-slavery forces gain support for their cause in the years leading to the Civil War.
In his telling, Henson describes being born on a farm belonging to “Francis N” near Port Tobacco, Maryland, and he later relates the story of his mother being brutally attacked by an overseer. When his father sought revenge for the attack, he was punished with 100 lashes and had his right ear cut off. His father was then sold to another slave owner.
Julia King, a professor of anthropology at nearby St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said it took months of scrutinizing old documents and several weeks of digs at the 7-acre property to determine that this was indeed where Henson was born and lived for the first eight or nine years of his life.
She admits the evidence is not definitive.
“We’re not going to find a piece of ceramic that says ‘Josiah Henson was born here,’” King s as she led a tour of the excavation site. But she and others have discovered plenty of convincing clues, more than enough, she says, to make the case that this is Henson’s birthplace.
Located on the winding road between Port Tobacco and La Plata, the grand house built in the late 18th century by Francis Newman still stands on the property. The slave quarters are long gone, but after mapping out the land and taking shovel samples every 25 feet or so, King and her team believe they have located the site of the former structures. It is there, with just a few sample digs, that they have uncovered a trove of items dating to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They expect to find many more in the weeks ahead as the project continues.
King has spent her career as an anthropologist and says she doesn’t often get emotional about artifacts that she and her team unearth. This time, however, was different. She had just watched the remake of “Roots” when the digging portion of the project began. The realization that the miniseries was set at about the same time that Henson would have been enslaved hit her hard.
“I was really just overwhelmed with emotion,” King said. “And I was really just grateful that I had the opportunity to get this bigger story out.”
In his book, Henson tells of how his family was separated and he and his mother were then sold to an owner in Montgomery County, where a park now bears his name. He later tried to buy his way out of slavery but was cheated out of money by his former owner. Finally, in 1830, he escaped from a slave owner in Kentucky and made his way to freedom in Canada, where he founded a settlement for former slaves.
Henson’s story also is an inspiration for Janice Wilson, president of the Charles County NAACP, who says she wants to make sure others in the community learn more about him.
“He’s very much a part of American history, and we know that our history over the years has been denied or not really taught in history books,” she said. “It’s a proud moment here for African Americans in Charles County to know that someone with the same blood running through our veins was born here and was such a significant figure.”
What happens next to this site is unclear. The area believed to be the location of the former slave quarters is in a rolling hayfield lined by giant pine trees. King says that a great first step would be a historical marker to alert passersby to its importance. Perhaps more ambitiously, she’s trying to persuade the local high school to create a “Hamilton”-like musical based on Henson’s life.
“I just want to make sure everyone knows who he is and where he lived,” King says.
An AP member exchange.