How Archaeology Tells the Story of Enslaved People at Belle Grove
Located in the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, Belle Grove Plantation—a National Trust Historic Site—was the home of Major Isaac Hite, Jr. and his wife Nelly Madison Hite and the more than 270 men, women, and children that they enslaved, including 26 people given to the young couple by Nelly’s father James Madison, Sr.
Slavery first arrived in the Shenandoah Valley with the early German and Scots-Irish families who brought enslaved people with them. Between 1810 and 1860 approximately 20 percent of the people living in the Valley were enslaved. In Frederick County alone, where Belle Grove Plantation sits, approximately 30 percent of households enslaved people, and many others relied on slavery for their businesses.
For the Hite family, enslaved people were central to the expansion of the site from 483 acres to a 7,500 acre plantation, growing wheat, raising livestock, and operating a large distillery and several mills. This system of forced labor was central to the plantation’s economic success, from enslaved individuals swinging scythes for the harvest to skilled enslaved artisans—such as Carter, Jim, and Daniel working as blacksmiths and farriers—and Ben who was a wagon driver. Enslaved women, like Judah, cooked and served meals to the Hites and their guests.
From 2015-2019, Belle Grove Plantation undertook extensive archaeological work to document and understand the lives of those enslaved by the Hites.
In the spring of 2022, a new exhibition—"Unearthing Enslaved Lives at Belle Grove”—opened at the historic site. The exhibition walks visitors not only through the archaeological methods used to learn about these people, but also through the history, trauma, and lives of those forced to work and live at this site. Here we’ve provided a glimpse into the exhibition and the ways in which archaeology can tell us more about a historic site and those who lived there.
Identifying a Log Cabin at the Belle Grove Slave Quarters Site
For many years, a Civil War sketch of three cabins in the field west of Belle Grove Manor piqued the curiosity of the site’s archaeologists. In 2015, they began investigating a series of pits to search for artifacts. It is from this initial exploration, and sifting through the dirt in the pits, that archaeologist Matthew Greer and his team were able to identify the existence of buildings at this site. Further work revealed that this was the location of the cabins of the enslaved community.
For the next three years, the team excavated various parts of the site, identifying locations for further work based on the number of artifacts found in test pits. At the end of the excavation period, they had over 300 drawings and identified over 60,000 artifacts. In addition to objects, the archaeologists were able to match the size of the site with the number of enslaved people who lived at the site from 1800-1850. They were further able to identify the space through the existence of a “subfloor pit,” a type of root cellar commonly found in the homes of enslaved Virginians.
It is also this site where archaeologist also found evidence of a log cabin. The site no longer had evidence of a foundation or a fireplace, but they did find thousands of artifacts related to the building—from nails and bricks to window glass and locks. Studying these remnants told archaeologists about the house and the people who lived there. Using their understanding of nail technology, and nails used to build the Manor house, which was completed in 1797, they were able to determine that the cabin was built around 1800 and destroyed by fire in the 1850s (most of the artifacts from the cabin were heavily burned, including a wasp nest).
Additional artifacts such as bricks, 1,600 glass shards, and three quartz crystals told more about the lives that lived there. The bricks reveal the existence of a brick chimney and the glass was for windows, indicating a lack of privacy for the inhabitants. The crystals, which are often used in West African religions as a means of protection, indicated some religious practices.
While many times artifacts found at archaeological sites tell the story of a structure, sometimes excavations find objects that provide even a closer understanding of the lives of enslaved people.
A Tale of Two Combs
For archaeologists personal items are often the most exciting finds at an excavation. While artifacts such as bricks and ceramics can tell you some things about the space in which enslaved people lived, these other objects fill in more detail about who these individuals were.
At Belle Grove, the dig at the Slave Quarter Site unearthed a pair of hair combs. Both of the combs were made from antler, a material more often found in store-bought combs (homemade combs were usually made of wood).
The exhibition description for these two objects explains what the combs tell us:
The first comb has wide teeth. This comb could be used by people with any type of hair. The second is fine-toothed. This one would work best with fine, straight hair rather than thicker, curlier hair. People from Europe are more likely to have fine hair than people from Africa. To find a fine-toothed comb in the Quarter Site suggests that some enslaved people at Belle Grove might have been of both African and European descent.
The 1850 Frederick County Slave Schedule supports this: of the 26 people then enslaved at Belle Grove, 18 had both African and European ancestry.
As Matt Greer, the lead archaeologist on the project, said, “These combs provide information about more than just adornment practices. They hint at what these people looked like, and who their parents and grandparents might have been. And they also provide a space for us to think and talk with the public about the fear of 'the unbridled lust of the slave-owner' recalled by Bethany Veney, a woman enslaved in the Valley."
“Anthony is an excellent house-servant and gardener, can do rough carpenter’s work, and has a peculiar turn for making wooden combs.”Freedom-seeker advertisement in the Farmers' Repository (Charlestown, W.Va.), 21 May 1813.
This is just a glimpse into the exhibition at Belle Grove Plantation. The archaeological work at the site not only identified where the enslaved people lived, it also provided a broader understanding of what they ate, how they survived, and how they contributed to the local economy beyond their free labor. The new exhibition joins documentary evidence of the names of the enslaved people and their family trees to fully acknowledge the humanity the individuals that paid the terrible cost for the Hite family’s pursuit of economic prosperity.
This exhibition was paid for in part by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Battlefields Fund. The work of this exhibition is a part of SHINE (Stewarding Sites of EnSlaved History through INterpretation and Education) a holistic new vision for the stewardship of sites of enslavement.
Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Kristen Laise is the executive director of Belle Grove.
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