Recent excavations at the site of a former plantation, L’Hermitage, on the grounds of Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick, Maryland, revealed substantial evidence of slave quarters that stood on the site in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. An archeological investigation undertaken by the NPS in summer 2010 exposed several features associated with domestic structures on the historic plantation. These dwellings were spaced and oriented in a way that reveals careful planning and a focus on order and symmetry. As Vlach (1993:1) points out “the design of a plantation estate was an expression of the owner’s tastes, values, and attitudes.” The spatial layout of the slave quarters in relation to other buildings may signify the way that slave owners regarded their enslaved workers and strove to exercise control over them. A strict spatial organization ensured that enslaved workers were less likely to gain power and participate in any kind of insurrection (Joyner 2003:15). This particular arrangement promoted supervision, control, and function. The arrangement of structures at L’Hermitage can be interpreted as a conscious effort on the part of the slaveholders to maintain order and hierarchy on the plantation.
Background and History
Monocacy National Battlefield comprises 1,647 acres of land. Although the property is best known as the site of the 1864 Battle of Monocacy, habitation of park land stretches back to the Paleoindian period (12,000-8,000 B.C.). The most recent archeological work took place at the Best Farm, which occupies 274 acres of parkland. The Best Farm was created from the southern portion of the plantation L’Hermitage that existed on what is now park property between 1793 and 1827. History of L’Hermitage and its occupants has been summarized and analyzed (Beasley 2005; Reed 2002, 2005; Reed and Wallace 2004; Rivers Cofield 2002, 2006); however, there remain large gaps in our knowledge of the occupants, particularly the enslaved individuals.
L’Hermitage was a 748-acre plantation owned and operated by the Vincendières, a family of French origin that arrived in Maryland around 1794 from Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) following slave rebellions that threatened the operation of their sugar plantation. By 1800, the household included 6 men, 8 women, and 90 enslaved individuals, at least 12 of whom had been brought from Saint Domingue by the Vincendières. Theirs was one of the largest slaveholdings in Frederick County and even in Maryland. The number of enslaved people on the plantation was unusually large for the relatively small size of the property and low-intensity agriculture practiced, growing clover and possibly grain (Rivers Cofield 2006:277). Perhaps the Vincendières originally intended to grow a more labor-intensive crop such as tobacco, or undertake a secondary enterprise of renting enslaved workers to nearby mills, farms, furnaces, or glass factories (Beasley 2005:2.11). Rivers Cofield (2006:277) also suggests that the Vincendières maintained a large quantity of enslaved laborers as a symbol of status, wealth, and their French-Caribbean roots.
We know little about the enslaved workers who occupied L’Hermitage, but we hope to gain more information through archeological investigations and archival research. Historical accounts document instances of the brutal mistreatment they suffered at the hands of the Vincendières. Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish visitor to Frederick in 1798, provided an eyewitness account in which he noted that the used instruments of torture on their enslaved laborers (Niemcewicz 1965:111-2), although evidence of these devices has not been recovered archeologically. In addition, nine state court cases were brought against daughter Victoire Vincendière and her uncle, Jean Payen Boisneuf, who were charged with excessive cruelty. These charges include insufficiently clothing and feeding and “cruelly and immercifully beating and whipping” their enslaved workers. In addition to suffering physical violence, some enslaved laborers from L’Hermitage were forcibly separated from their families and sold to slave traders in Baltimore and Louisiana. Also documented are instances of resistance; one enslaved worker, Pierre Louis, successfully petitioned for freedom, and at least two others escaped from slavery.
After the Vincendières sold L’Hermitage, the property changed hands several times over the next century, but today it is known as the Best Farm, because the Battle of Monocacy, which the park commemorates, took place when the Best family was the tenant on the land. Several structures survived through the Vincendière and Best occupations to the present: the main house, a small secondary house, and a stone barn. These buildings were constructed during the Vincendières’ period of ownership. A stone structure already existed on the property when the Vincendières purchased the land; the family continued to build on this structure in several phases to create the main house. In the 1860s, a log kitchen was added to the house. (Beasley et al. 2001:24). The secondary dwelling comprises a stone lower story and a log upper story; the second story of the secondary dwelling was added by the Vincendières in the 1790s while the lower portion may have been built by an earlier tenant of the property (NPS 2000:11). The large hipped-roof stone barn dates to the late eighteenth century, and in the early or mid-nineteenth century a mortared-stone addition was constructed. Since the NPS acquired the property in 1993 all three buildings have undergone stabilization and preservation processes.
A multi-year identification and evaluation study of Best Farm was performed from 2001 to 2003 in order to examine the entire site history, from prehistoric times to the present, and reveal evidence of L’Hermitage (Beasley 2005). Phase II testing of the eighteenth and nineteenth century occupations of Best Farm uncovered features related to the enslaved population of L’Hermitage, including a dump, two ambiguous trench-like features, and anomalies that could represent the slave quarters described by Niemcewicz in his account of L’Hermitage (Beasley 2005:19.6). In the summer of 2010, Monocacy NBP Cultural Resource Manager, Joy Beasley, undertook an archeological investigation to explore the slave quarters in greater detail.