A Chesapeake family and their slaves: A Study in Historical Archaeology

Anne Elizabeth Yentsch’s, A Chesapeake family and their slaves: A Study in Historical Archaeology is, in part, a defense of historical archaeology. Yentsch argues that the reputation of historical archaeology was damaged by its association with tourism during the 1970s and 1980s.  As a way to rectify this problem and assert the value of archaeology for creating new understandings of the past, Yentsch pieces together a domestic history of the Calvert family by conducting excavations and interpreting material culture finds at their residence, 52 State St., Annapolis.

Yentsch demonstrates that material culture and its traces can provide important clues about power and the construction of identity. Her effort to understand the Calvert households includes mapping to demonstrate that house orientation and location are significant in the presentation of authority. She also integrates archival evidence, finding descriptions of Henry Calvert’s clothing in order to argue that his use “of fine and gentlemanly fabric: cool, white calico; blue satin; yellow tabby; or scarlet camlet” (298) set him apart from others in Annapolis. Artwork reinforces these claims. (21,57,251,287)  Entire chapters are dedicated to the symbolic power of fine food and its preparation.  Material evidence of an Orangery and gardens also relates to the Calverts’ efforts to shape family identity and political power.

So does their ownership of slaves.

Yet, Yentsch’s archaeological approach also allows her to demonstrate that the people owned by the Calvert family also exerted some control over their identities. Artifact clusters of beads, coral fragments, turkey bones, hearthstones and pipe stems are evidence not only that there were slaves in the household, but also that they maintained some ties to their cultural identity.  Other evidence reinforces this. Written records combined with material evidence enable her to argue that their “material possessions were slightly higher” in quality than those found in other slave quarters, that they “lived in family-like enclaves, had a higher percentage of young children… and kept African names as often as not” (177).

The particular story of Cubit, a highly prized slave of Captain Calvert, suggests the possibility that Calvert gave enslaved people in his household more freedom than that allowed to other rural slaves.  Captain Calvert appointed Cubit overseer for one of his quarters, suggesting he was held in high esteem. (177-8,186)  Cubit’s Quarter appears on a 1734 slave list and has two other slaves assigned to it.  He is valued at “30,” more than all slaves listed. (172) It would be interesting to further investigate Cubit’s connections with runaway slave “Negro Stephen, a cooper” who reportedly hid at Cubit’s Quarter.  A slave of Charles Carroll also “sought sanctuary with them [the Calvert’s] and “harbored” for a long winter’s month in 1729.” (177)

The strongest points of the text for our use are Yentsch’s how-to methodologies.  Historical archaeology is an interdisciplinary approach to the past. Yentsch includes a variety of sources in her work, from items found in the ground to documents from both national and international sources.  Research avenues include “court records, ledgers, probate inventories, legislative proceedings wills, tax list” as well as “narrative sources,” (197) all of which provide bits of information and strategies for reconstructing historical context.  Folklorist Henry Glassie, whom she quotes often, believes “ordinary people” should be studied “working from the inside out, beginning with the dimensions of daily life in which they are articulate and pushing the boundaries forward.” (166)  This technique is clearly one used by Yentsch enabling her to showcase Annapolis and the Chesapeake as a community of different cultures collaborating on a daily bases, and that within the Calvert residence, English and West African cultures merged.

Adapted from A Chesapeake family and their slaves: A Study in Historical Archaeology by Robin K. Martin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>