MIDDLETOWN — Archaeologists have unearthed roughly 20,000 artifacts at the site of slave quarters on Belle Grove Plantation.

The project began in late May under the leadership of archaeologist Matthew Greer, who also did archaeological research at the Middletown plantation the previous three summers. Work is expected to conclude this Friday.

For the past three months, Greer, his research partner Erica Moses and four interns have been excavating a roughly 1½-acre site that includes remnants of a burned log cabin where slaves lived, trash deposits and the possible sites of other slave quarters. Undergraduate students from Hood College in Frederick, Md., also helped with the dig.

Belle Grove was home to Isaac Hite Jr. and his wife Nelly Conway Madison, sister of President James Madison. The limestone manor house was completed in 1797, and the plantation grew to some 7,000 acres, mainly producing wheat, grain, corn and livestock. It also had a blacksmithing compound, a limestone quarry and a whiskey distillery.

According to family records, the Hite family owned 276 enslaved people from 1783 until 1851, when the family sold the property.

Kristen Laise, Belle Grove’s executive director, said money the Hite family made on the plantation largely came from the work of their slaves.

She said artifacts found in the dig will help people learn about plantation life from an African slave’s perspective instead of just those of white plantation owners. She said the dig has emphasized how much slaves contributed to the productivity of the plantation.

Some of the artifacts uncovered include a cast-iron pot lid, copper bracelets, buttons, beads and ceramics.

Greer estimates that Belle Grove probably had 40 to 50 slaves at a time on the plantation.

“Life for enslaved people was hard no matter what,” said Greer, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University who will use the archaeological evidence found at Belle Grove to write his dissertation on what daily life was like for slaves in the Northern Shenandoah Valley. “We are finding primarily things that they were using to make their own lives, despite the fact that they were held in bondage, so things like cast-iron pots, which sort of let them make the food that they wanted to.”

Greer said he wants to dispel myths that plantation life was benign for the enslaved.

He noted that a stone building at Belle Grove had a clear view of the fields where the slaves were working.

“One of the ways the Hites were controlling the enslaved community was this constant threat of ‘if you act in a way I don’t want you to, I’m watching you,’” Greer said. “... That is something that is a classic plantation strategy throughout America, and we see it here in the [Shenandoah] Valley. Slavery here was pretty much like slavery anywhere else.”

In the early 1800s, African slaves made up 20 percent of the Valley’s population, according to Greer. He also said Frederick County was one of the top 10 exporters of slaves to New Orleans.

“It’s definitely integrated into society here,” Greer said. “A lot of people were making money selling slaves. You are ripping people away from their families and communities, so it’s not really benign.”

Until the 1990s, Greer said historians didn’t talk much about slavery in the Shenandoah Valley. Even then, he said the discussions were more about slavery as an institution. He said there has been little discussion on what the life of a slave was actually like here.

All of the artifacts found over the summer are from the site of a log cabin Greer believes burned down sometime in the 1840s or 1850s. He thinks the cabin had an iron stove. He said the site of the cabin was easy to find because the soil where it burned was pretty dark. He said they also found evidence of fire on bricks and glass at the site.

Because many domestic items were discovered at the cabin site, such as a pocketknife, buttons and ceramics, it’s likely that it burned down before the Civil War. If the cabin burned down during the war, the slaves would likely have taken their belongings with them. ... there were things you wouldn’t leave behind.”

“It doesn’t look like anyone was living there in the 1860s,” Greer said, based on the artifacts that were found.

Some of the unearthed pottery was imported from England. Greer and Laise think slaves may have been able to trade chickens and other types of poultry they raised in exchange for various household items. Many poultry bones were found at the site of the archaeological dig.

Funding for the research was made possible by a $15,000 grant from the Winchester-based James R. Wilkins Charitable Trust. The project also received $10,670 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Battlefield Preservation Fund.

Greer and his team unearthed more than 10,000 artifacts in previous years, bringing the total amount of artifacts discovered to about 32,000.

Greer said he plans to return to Belle Grove next summer for one final archaeological dig of the slave quarters before he writes his dissertation.

For more information, contact Belle Grove at info@bellegrove.org or 540-869-2028

— Contact Josh Janney at jjanney@winchesterstar.com

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.