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A Historical Dig Sheds Light on the Food of the Underground Railroad


On November 4, 1857, a fill in mind seemed in the Cambridge Democrat, the local newspaper of Cambridge, Maryland. Submitted by one Dr. Alexander Hamilton Bayly, it equipped a $300 reward for somebody who may maybe well well maybe stumble on and kidnap a 28-year-former girl named Lizzie Amby, whom Bayly had enslaved. She had fled Bayly’s condominium some days earlier than, sure north, along with her husband, Nat; a discover of possessions; and Nat’s knife and pistol. The Ambys had been gorgeous two contributors of a neighborhood of 16 who took half in that race, led by the abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, who had herself fled Dorchester County to suppose her freedom in 1849.

“That changed into once a time when the Underground Railroad changed into once on fire,” says archaeologist Julie M. Schablitsky, Chief of the Cultural Sources Division at the Maryland Division of Transportation. MDOT oversees several command historical sites, along side the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a riding tour of significant sites linked to Tubman. “People had been leaving Cambridge by the dozens.” That solid connection to the Underground Railroad has earned Dorchester County, where Cambridge is found, the designation “Harriet Tubman Nation.”

The Bayly cabin has been standing in Cambridge, Maryland, in its current form for more than 150 years.
The Bayly cabin has been standing in Cambridge, Maryland, in its most up-to-the-minute rep for greater than 150 years. Courtesy of MDOT

The condominium Amby escaped from tranquil stands on a residential avenue just a few miles from the Choptank River. Within the 1800s, the pickle changed into once dwelling to a backyard, some cattle, and a handful of of us, love Lizzie, whom Bayly enslaved. The condominium changed into once owned by the Bayly household until 2003. Now, in the arms of a original proprietor, it is neatly maintained, painted yellowish-cream, with dainty shutters and a entrance porch frilly as a marriage ceremony cake. Its gentility is a haunting contrast to the truth that it changed into once constructed from the pressured labor of Black American citizens.

The most compelling structure on the Bayly property is an unobtrusive two-fable building out lend a hand. Mottled white, with peeling paint and warped wood boards, that is the Bayly cabin. For years, thanks to a combination of oral historical previous and memoir, locals referred to the placement as a “slave cabin,” speculating that the of us Bayly enslaved will must fill lived there. Yet nobody had tried to appear at this archaeologically.

Archaeologists dig test pits on the first day of the cabin dig.
Archaeologists dig test pits on the predominant day of the cabin dig. Courtesy of MDOT

Now, thanks to an investigation into the cabin’s foundation, Schablitsky and her team of archaeologists fill uncovered an beautiful breadth of objects that present perception into the lives of the enslaved and free Black residents of the Bayly property. The dig started in 2018, and the had been revealed in July 2020. Archaeologists found that the cabin served a pair of functions, much like a storehouse, earlier than Emancipation, and changed into once likely dwelling to free Black laborers in the leisurely 1800s. Nonetheless, they found home artifacts from each sessions, along side poignant remnants of daily lifestyles much like an adolescent’s tea location, a porcelain doll head, end to intact plates, and a rubber comb.

The most revealing objects had been additionally the starkest: a series of hundreds of animal bones. A part of a kitchen midden, or garbage pit, under the cabin floorboards and across the yard, the bones rep an intimate file of the diets of the enslaved of us—and, later, free Black laborers—who occupied the pickle. Thanks to the pickle’s importance in the Underground Railroad, and the indisputable truth that Amby and others from Cambridge fled with Tubman, the dig additionally offers exciting glimpses of the culinary abilities and traditions that can maybe well also fill sustained these escaping slavery.

Archaeologists found plates, buttons, and other household goods at the Bayly cabin.
Archaeologists found plates, buttons, and varied household goods at the Bayly cabin. Courtesy of MDOT

The bones paint an image of resourceful of us the usage of creativity to continue to exist. Archaeologists found the bones of home animals, along side pig, cow, chicken, and sheep or goat, however they additionally found fish and crab from the nearby Choptank River, and game much like rabbit, turtle, duck, goose, turkey, pigeon, woodpecker, possum, raccoon, skunk, deer, and muskrat. (Muskrat, which Harriet Tubman herself changed into once talked about to hunt, stays a Dorchester County delicacy to today). The cuts of meat and diversity of game command that the residents lived in poverty and consistently scrambled to complement their diets with whatever they may maybe well well salvage.

This extra or less supplementation is fashioned of enslaved of us’s diets, says Frederick Douglas Opie, a Professor of Ancient previous and Foodways at Babson College. Opie, who specializes in the foodways of the African diaspora, didn’t work right now on the arrangement, however has researched drinking on the Underground Railroad. He says that on smaller holdings love the Bayly’s, in desire to natty plantations, enslaved of us’s diets would were closer to those of their enslavers, however extra nutrient-gloomy. In all contexts, enslaved of us would fill likely grown and eaten okra, corn, leafy greens, and sweet potatoes, as neatly as raised pigs, chickens, and goats, some for market.

Turtle bones found under the floorboards. Turtle was a commonly eaten American dish in the 1800s.
Turtle bones found under the floorboards. Turtle changed into once a customarily eaten American dish in the 1800s. Courtesy of Alexander Keim, MDOT

They’d additionally fill foraged, fished, hunted, and snuck meals from enslavers’ stores or kitchens to stretch their rations. Schablitsky says that some enslaved of us’s dwellings beget signs of makes an strive to masks meals from enslavers. “We’d explore hidden chicken bones in dust floors,” says Schablitsky. “We now fill accounts of of us whose mothers would gain chickens and burn the feathers.”

When enslaved of us escaped, they aged the same resourcefulness to feed themselves on their race. The Underground Railroad changed into once a network of helpful properties, hump by “conductors” and “region masters,” free Black and white abolitionists. Contributors relied on notice of mouth; codes, along side songs; and their capacity to navigate wild terrain whereas for all time evading gain.

Rabbit bones from the Bayly property.
Rabbit bones from the Bayly property. Courtesy of Alexander Keim, MDOT

“A form of what fugitives would fill eaten on the motorway would were the same things they would fill eaten in the yard,” says Anthony Cohen, an Underground Railroad historian and the founding father of The Menare Foundation, which runs Button Farm Living Ancient previous Heart open air of Washington, D.C.

Button Farm uses length instruments and heritage crops and cattle, much like brown cotton, tobacco, Jerusalem artichokes, Maryland fish pepper, Cottage Patch geese, and guinea hogs, to educate company about the realities of meals and pressured labor under slavery. Cohen’s dedication to experiential historical previous originated with a 1996 race he undertook to retrace the Underground Railroad. He adopted routes he had researched as an undergraduate, and adopted in the spirit of regarded as one of his ancestors, who escaped slavery in Georgia. Over the direction of his race, Cohen traveled greater than 800 miles from Maryland to Canada by boat, rail, buggy, and on foot, with by no procedure greater than a day of meals in his pack. He spent the night in the homes of volunteers he met along the technique.

Anthony Cohen, retracing the Underground Railroad in 1996.
Anthony Cohen, retracing the Underground Railroad in 1996. Courtesy of Anthony Cohen, Button Farm

Cohen sourced the records for this race, as neatly as his most up-to-the-minute experiential historical work, from first-hand historical accounts of these that witnessed, skilled, or escaped slavery. Critical sources comprise the autobiographies of Frederick Douglas and Underground Railroad conductor William Still’s “Journal C,” a log e-book where he saved major components of escapees’ journeys.

In these accounts, vacationers on the Underground Railroad utilize whatever they can elevate, beg, forage, or filch. Some classic dishes enslaved of us ate on plantations grew to develop into staples of the race. For instance, in regarded as one of his autobiographies, Frederick Douglass describes ash cake, a staple meals made by wrapping a paste of cornmeal and water in oak leaves and steaming the packet in scorching ash. Cohen cites one account from two freedom seekers from North Carolina who, lacking any bowls, mixed cornmeal and water in their hats.

A child participates in experiential learning at Button Farm.
A young person participates in experiential learning at Button Farm. Courtesy of Anthony Cohen, Button Farm

Those on the Underground Railroad additionally lifted meals from nearby markets and farms. “It changed into once seize as seize can when it involves drinking,” says Opie. “They’d on the entire sneak onto the farms and gain invent correct out of the fields.” There are accounts of vacationers darting into markets, smoke properties, and ice properties to invent rations, all whereas evading gain. For Opie, seizing sources changed into once an act of resilience. He sees the legacy of white makes an strive to snatch and punish these freedom seekers in potentially the most up-to-the-minute-day overcriminalization of Black American citizens. “I’ve advance to this conclusion that white of us policing dim bodies has a prolonged historical previous rooted in slavery,” Opie says.

Travelers additionally relied on their records of local crops and animals to forage. “These had been these that lived off of the land,” says Cohen. Whenever you happen to search recommendation from Adkins Arboretum, a 45-minute power from Cambridge, you may maybe well well maybe toddle thru woods that fill in mind great love these that freedom seekers would fill walked, and issue an audio data to pickle crops that vacationers foraged.

Travelers on the Underground Railroad foraged for food in forests like this one, at Maryland's Adkins Arboretum.
Travelers on the Underground Railroad foraged for meals in forests love this one, at Maryland’s Adkins Arboretum. Courtesy of Kellen McCluskey, Adkins Arboretum

The Maryland forest is thickly populated with edible native crops: root beer-scented sassafras; bitter beech nuts; shadbush, whose branches grow heavy with pink fruit in June. Escapees may maybe well well fill boiled acorns; dug up pine roots; or plucked dim cherries so astringent they pucker the mouth, per Ginna Tiernan and Kathy Thornton, Govt Director and Land Steward of Adkins Arboretum. Opie says vacationers likely additionally boiled the first shoots of crawl greens, a toxic plant that’s a popular survival staple in the South, and which ought to be cooked fastidiously until the toxins are removed. And to boot they fished, trapped birds, and hunted little game.

Some freedom seekers had been ready to rely on the generosity of Underground Railroad region masters, who equipped covert safe haven. Cohen remembers the account of one voyager from Hagerstown, Maryland, who made his technique to Pennsylvania. At one point, he changed into once invited to a meal by a white Quaker. “He started to utilize, however couldn’t because he changed into once overwhelmed,” says Cohen. He had by no procedure met a form white person earlier than.

A sassafrass leaf in Adkins Arboretum.
A sassafrass leaf in Adkins Arboretum. Courtesy of Kellen McCluskey, Adkins Arboretum

Escapees aged meals and of us records to support their getaways. Cohen has found a form of accounts of of us striking some combination of scorching pepper, lard, and vinegar on their sneakers in show to throw slave catchers’ bloodhounds off their scent. Some freedom seekers in North Carolina aged turpentine; others, in Texas, aged a paste made from a charred bullfrog. By no procedure one to pass up experiential analysis, Cohen assembled a team, along side search and rescue dogs, to envision these solutions (as an alternative of the bullfrog). “Pepper with lard allowed it to stick with our sneakers, and that had some invent,” he says. The turpentine changed into once most efficient: The moment dogs sniffed it, they cowered and squealed.

Visitors to Button Farm use 19th-century tools to perform agricultural tasks.
Associates to Button Farm issue 19th-century instruments to do agricultural initiatives. Courtesy of Anthony Cohen, Button Farm

We don’t know if Lizzie Amby, who escaped from Alexander Hamilton Bayly’s Cambridge condominium, aged turpentine to support her getaway. We don’t know exactly what she and her husband Nat ate for the length of their atomize out: if they took corn from fields, or boiled beech nuts, or had been nourished by the kindness of strangers. And in spite of the massive dig of the Bayly lend a hand cabin, we don’t know whether she after all lived in the building itself, or in varied areas on the property; whether her lips touched any of the chicken bones, or whether her arms hid them under the floorboards.

We attain know, nonetheless, that Amby lived half of her lifestyles in the shadow of the Bayly condominium and its frilly faux-innocence. All of us know that she changed into once pressured to labor to preserve up her oppressor, however additionally that she ate, slept, and skilled pleasure and pain in that situation. “She knew that cabin,” says Schablitsky. “Her footsteps had been in the soil that we dug.”

Archaeologists found several pieces of pottery on the first day of the dig.
Archaeologists found several pieces of pottery on the predominant day of the dig. Courtesy of MDOT

And we know that, in the future in early November, 1857, Lizzie left the Bayly’s property and headed north with her husband, Nat. She and her husband eventually arrived at the dwelling of conductor William Still in Philadelphia. In his ledger, Still describes Nat as having the “just and self sustaining bearing” of a “pure hero.” And he quotes Nat’s description of Lizzie: “I undoubtedly fill heard her yell she would fight thru blood and tears for her freedom.”

That description changed into out to be correct. The final aspect we learn about Lizzie Amby—the final written file of her lifestyles that historians for the time being fill—dates from June 10, 1858, when Nat sent Still a letter from Auburn, Fresh York. It contained a message to his household in Maryland: He and Lizzie had been helpful, and free.

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