Today this is a marina for pleasure boats. In 1848 it was a working dock that admitted directly onto the Potomac River, and was the site of the largest non-violent slave escape attempt in US history, the “Pearl Incident”, when 77 individuals attempted to flee down the Potomac river and through the Chesapeake Bay with the intended destination of New Jersey, a free state. Their efforts were thwarted by contrary winds on the Potomac and betrayal by a fellow slave who did not join them.
These warehouses in Georgetown today house businesses, a tavern and boutiques, but at the time of the Pearl Incident were tobacco and grain warehouses owned by Mr. Dodge, the man who owned the leaders of the escapee contingent.
The net outcome of the Pearl Incident was the ending of the slave trade in Washington DC in 1850, but full abolition of slavery and legal emancipation would have to wait until 1862. Along the way, the captain and first mate of the Pearl spent four years in prison because they could not afford to pay the fines ($10,000 in 1848 currency, or about $250,000 in today’s currency).
Here are the first two from my visit to Hampton National Historic Site, in Towson, Maryland (just north of Baltimore). More will be forthcoming, but I wanted to get these two posted right away. Hampton was at its peak, a several thousand acre estate. It was built as the country home for the Ridgely family, who made their early wealth through ironworks. One Ridgely would be governor of Maryland. The house itself was famous for being a centerpiece of entertainment and gracious living, having greenhouses and a subterranean icehouse on the property, providing the Ridgelys and their guests with seasonal fruits, ice water and chilled beverages year-round, an extreme rarity in 1790 when the house was built. The main house has thirteen bedrooms on three floors, a sitting room, great hall, dining room, parlor, library/music room, kitchen and laundry.
This octagonal garden, roughly 8 feet on a side, is built inside the foundations of the house slave quarters. It was a two-story structure, and some three families of house servants shared it. While the US Park Service guides (who give outstanding tours of the property) tell you explicitly about the structure and its purpose, no marker in the garden indicates its history.
Today, Hampton Lane divides the Hampton historical site. What is remarkable about the property is that so many of the farm structures remain – the dairy with its spring-water-fed cold water bath for the milk and butter, the horse stables (the Ridgelys were big horse racing fans, and kept the stables within eyesight of the mansion, another unusual feature, as well as a no-longer-surviving racetrack of their own), the overseer’s house and slave quarters for the skilled labor (stable hands, dairy workers, etc).
You can see the overseer’s house inside the white picket fence to the right of the scene. Hampton is open as a public park, and many people come there to ride their bikes and exercise their dogs. Today it is a beautifully maintained pastoral landscape in suburban Baltimore. While again, the Park Service does yeoman’s work in interpreting the space, and has provided outstanding documentation on the website for Hampton, the interpretation of the site requires you to actually go inside the structures and talk to the park service guides. It is possible to visit, and if you don’t engage, be completely oblivious to the fact that the parkland you are walking through exists by and for slave labor.
Sully Plantation is another historic homestead in the Washington DC suburbs. Today, sited across the road from the Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Air and Space Museum and the runways for Dulles International Airport, it is a tiny oasis of parkland in the middle of major development. This is one of the older properties I’ve been to, with the current house begun in 1793 and completed in 1799. It was built by Richard Bland Lee, Robert E. Lee’s uncle and the first Virginia representative to Congress. The property covered some 3,100 acres. It had been in the Lee family since the 1740s.
This is the kitchen at Sully. On the other side of the massive fireplace is the laundry. While it gives the appearance of bustling domesticity and comfort, it is still the site of slave labor that would have been conducted from before dawn to well after sundown seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. The comfort and ease of life of the Lee family and their guests would have been the product of this room.
It bears minding that this one-room cabin with no glass in the windows, no insulation in the floor, walls or ceiling, a single stone fireplace for warmth in winter, and a long walk to the well, would have been luxurious by the standards of the field slaves. They most likely lived in large barracks-style buildings at considerable remove from the Sully house, with less privacy and fewer conveniences. Contrast this with the big house, with glass pane windows, carpets, fireplaces in every room, imported mirrors to brighten the parlor when the sun went down, feather beds, and a kitchen outside of the house to keep cooking odors and the risk of fire away.
A view of Sully from the slave residence’s perspective. On the left you can see the stone dairy house – a structure with spring-fed pools to keep milk, butter, and other perishables cool year-round. Next is the smoke house where they would have smoked meats to preserve them, and then the laundry and kitchen, connected to the big house by a covered walkway. All this would have seemed like an alien world to the field slave, and still a strange place they worked in but did not belong to for the house slaves living in the cabin with this view.
I’ve subtitled this one “Fifty Feet is a Thousand Miles” – although that covered walkway from the kitchen to the house is a short distance, walking it with breakfast, lunch and dinner made for someone else’s consumption every day of your life must have produced some significant cognitive dissonance for the women who worked the kitchen.
I remember hearing from a friend whose wife was a docent at Sully that Mrs. Lee remained friends with and corresponded with her personal maid for the rest of her life, even after her maid was freed from slavery and she had returned to Philadelphia where she was from. These kinds of friendships, and they did happen, certainly complicate the narrative of slaveowners and the enslaved, but it is still no excuse or balm for the absolute moral failure that was slavery. The friendship of a woman and her maid is not compensation for the remaining hundred-plus men, women and children who worked twelve hours a day in heat and cold, rain and snow, planting, tending and harvesting crops all for the profit and comfort of someone else without compensation or even decent living conditions.
This series of images are what inspired my current project – Sinister Idyll. Sinister Idyll as a title came about from standing on the Best Farm property at the Monocacy National Battlefield monument outside Frederick, Maryland, and seeing the beautiful summertime landscape of rolling hills covered with cornfields, knowing the horrors of American slavery that were practiced on the property. At the end of the 18th century, the Vincendieres, a French Creole family fled to Maryland from Haiti to escape the slave revolts.
Headed by a woman, Victoire, they re-established their plantation life outside Frederick, Maryland, on a 750-plus acre property they called L’Hermitage. At their peak, they owned some 90 slaves. This was an extraordinary number – across the Potomac River, Oatlands plantation had 120 to work 3500 acres. It is not known why they had so many slaves as records of their business do not survive, and they may have been trying to cultivate labor-intensive crops such as tobacco. What is known, however, is that they were also operating a stud service – slave breeding for hire – and that their own methods for treating their slaves were harsh enough that the sheriff was called to their property multiple times by neighbors on complaints about cruelty and mistreatment of the enslaved population.
This building is the Bachelors’ House, a secondary dwelling for the young men of the family to live outside the main house until they married and started their own property and family. Today it presents an idyllic scene, but on the ridge behind it and to the right was the location of three slave cabins, each not much different in size to the Bachelors’ House, but housing roughly thirty people per structure.
This is the corn crib on the Best Farm. It is called the Best Farm today, rather than L’Hermitage, because the last family to operate the farm was the Best family – they leased the land from 1863 into the 1990s. The corn crib is another site of slave labor in an otherwise bucolic landscape. The stone barn you can see in the background would have housed farm animals and machinery. It is a far better, more sound and protective structure than the cabins where the slaves would have lived. You can see the shadow of the big house intruding on the foreground, much as it would have loomed over the lives of all the enslaved population.
If the stone barn gives you echoes of northern France, you’d be correct – architecturally it is styled after the structures of the homeland of the Vincendiere family. It is one of the oldest stone barns in Maryland, if not in the US. There is a tremendous sense of irony that a structure styled after the home of freedom of thought and equality of mankind would be the site of barbaric enslavement. There is also a tremendous irony in such a property being operated in such a way by a woman in the first decades of the 19th century, when such things were highly anomalous at best.
Today this field grows rich with corn. Clear blue skies and puffy white clouds cap the scene. In 1862, in this cornfield, a turning-point of the Civil War almost happened. Robert E. Lee’s army had camped here, on the march to Antietam. Left behind was a copy of General Orders #191, which detailed Lee’s plans. It was found wrapped around three cigars, abandoned in the camp. Delivered to General MacLellan, they practically handed him Lee’s army on a platter. As usual, MacLellan failed to follow up completely on this intelligence coup, and the end result was the single deadliest day in U.S. military history with some 22,000 dead, wounded or missing, and a war that would drag on for three more long, bloody years.
I have chosen to photograph these scenes in panoramic format because the wide aspect ratio emphasizes the landscape surroundings and provides a context for the structures and places. I purposefully chose to print them as very small contact prints to force intimacy with the subject – to view them you can’t hold yourself at a remove and distance yourself from the context – the echoes of slavery on this landscape are very much still with us if we stop for a moment to look and listen. I am printing them in palladium because the warm tone of the image evokes a certain historicity of the scene, reminding you that these hidden scars upon the landscape and the soul of the country are eternal.
My plans are to continue this project on locations throughout the Washington DC metropolitan area and expanding beyond as time and budget permit. Next up, Sully Plantation.
The Best farm is the largest remaining property on the battlefield at Monocacy. The original property was 750 acres, today it retains 270-some. The property was owned by a white family who immigrated from Santo Domingo (now Haiti) at the beginning of the 19th century, fleeing political and social unrest after the slave rebellion on the island. They re-established their plantation outside Frederick, Maryland, which they named L’Hermitage. The landowners who established the farm had 90 slaves, an unusually large number for a property of its size, and they were the second-largest holding of slaves in the county. According to the Park Service website, one theory has it that they were trying to replicate the slave-labor system they were used to in Haiti, and had that many slaves as part of a rental scheme where they would rent them out to neighboring farmers. On my tour, it was mentioned several times that recent evidence has come to light that the farm operation included the breeding of slaves like racehorses for sale.
The main house is quite large, bigger even than the Thomas farm house. Like the Thomas and Worthington homes, it is not open for tours. The interior is in quite rough shape, but stable. Perhaps one day they will be able to restore it and re-open the home for interpretive tours. The farm was privately operated until 1993 when the park service acquired it. The house was not occupied during the later years of farm operation, though, judging from the condition visible through the windows. If I recall correctly the last occupant of the home was a relative of former Senator Mac Mathias. I wonder if she knew the full history of her property – I don’t know how comfortable I would feel living in a house, no matter how lovely, that was built on the profits from the sale of human beings.
I originally thought this structure was the summer kitchen. In fact, it was a secondary home on the property. It was furnished with plaster walls with decorative motifs, much to the same standard as the main house. It is thought that the structure was built to support other French refugees from Haiti and the French Revolution who were relatives or friends of the family. There would have been a porch with stairs on this side facing the house to provide access. The row of slave cabins would have been between this structure and the main road. If they were still standing, they would be visible in the background of this scene.
Here is a view of the stone barn as seen from inside the corn crib. I remember seeing this barn from the interstate highway as we would drive past every weekend when I was a child, and wanting to go see it up close. I had no idea then of the history of the property. The roof of the barn is of course not original, but the stone walls themselves date to 1798 when they were mentioned in the tax assessment. It is an unusual structure in its design, and looks and feels more like a French or English country barn from the 18th century than an American barn structure.
A view of the corn crib.
The reason the farm is called the Best farm is that it was leased for operation by the Best family from 1864 until 1993. It was owned, however, by the Trail family, which has provoked a friendly dispute between Ed Bearss and the Park Service staff because he still wants them to call it the Trail farm, not the Best farm.
Circassian beauties is a phrase used to refer to an idealized image of the women of the Circassian people of the Northern Caucasus. A fairly extensive literary history suggests that Circassian women were thought to be unusually beautiful, spirited, and elegant, and as such were desirable as concubines. This reputation dates back to the later Middle Ages, when the Circassian coast was frequented by Italian traders from Genoa, and the founder of the Medici dynasty, Cosimo I de Medici, had a well-known affair with a Circassian slave girl. During the Ottoman Empire. Circassian women living as slaves in the Sultan’s Imperial Harem started to build their reputation as extremely beautiful and genteel, which then became a common trope in Western Orientalism.
As a result of this reputation, in Europe and America Circassians were regularly characterised as the ideal of feminine beauty in poetry, novels, and art. Cosmetic products were advertised, from the 18th century on, using the word “Circassian” in the title, or claiming that the product was based on substances used by the women of Circassia.
In the 1860s the showman P. T. Barnum exhibited women whom he claimed were Circassian beauties. They wore a distinctive Afro-like hair style, which had no precedent in earlier portrayals of Circassians, but which was soon copied by other female performers, who became known as “moss haired girls”. These were typically presented as victims of sexual enslavement among the Turks, who had escaped from the harem to achieve freedom in America.
The combination of the popular issues of slavery, the Orient, racial ideology, and sexual titillation gave the reports of Circassian women sufficient notoriety at the time that the circus leader P. T. Barnum decided to capitalize on this interest. He displayed a “Circassian Beauty” at his American Museum in 1865. Barnum’s Circassian beauties were young women with tall, teased hairstyles, rather like the Afro style of the 1970s. Actual Circassian hairstyles bore no resemblance to Barnum’s fantasy. Barnum’s first “Circassian” was marketed under the name “Zalumma Agra” and was exhibited at his American Museum in New York from 1864. Barnum had written to John Greenwood, his agent in Europe, asking him to purchase a beautiful Circassian girl to exhibit, or at least to hire a girl who could “pass for” one. However, it seems that “Zalumma Agra” was probably a local girl hired by the show, as were later “Circassians”.Barnum also produced a booklet about another of his Circassians, Zoe Meleke, who was portrayed as an ideally beautiful and refined woman who had escaped a life of sexual slavery.
The portrayal of a white woman as a rescued slave at the time of the American Civil War played on the racial connotations of slavery at the time. It has been argued that the distinctive hairstyle affiliates the side-show Circassian with African identity, and thus,
resonates oddly yet resoundingly with the rest of her identifying significations: her racial purity, her sexual enslavement, her position as colonial subject; her beauty. The Circassian blended elements of white Victorian True Womanhood with traits of the enslaved African American woman in one curiosity.
The trend spread, with supposedly Circassian women featured in dime museums and travelling medicine shows, sometimes known as “Moss-haired girls”. They were typically identified by the distinctive hairstyle, which was held in place by the use of beer. They also often performed in pseudo-oriental costume. Many postcards of Circassians also circulated. Though Barnum’s original women were portrayed as proud and genteel, later images of Circassians often emphasised erotic poses and revealing costumes. As the original fad faded, the “Circassians” started to add to their appeal by performing traditional circus tricks such as sword swallowing.
I had been hunting for a CDV of the Circassian Beauty for a while, and then found two images of “Circassian Beauties” on CDV recently. The one is fascinating because she’s obviously just a teenager. The other is an adult woman. I have seen other CDVs of Barnum’s Circassian, although I’ve seen a different name associated with her – Zenobia. It’s highly likely that there was more than one associated with Barnum’s Museum and later the traveling circus. I find the showman mentality of Barnum and his contemporaries utterly fascinating that they would have no qualms about not only faking someone supposedly from the Ottoman Empire, but that they would indulge in the exploitation of the specific mores and fears of their time that they did – enslaved white women as concubines of “the Oriental” was only one step removed from the notion of white women being sexually used by black men, especially in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. And that Barnum would try to buy an actual Circassian woman speaks volumes to his mindset – while he would display her as liberated from slavery, in fact, he would acquire her as if she were still property.
I’d love if anyone out there knows anything about the sticker on the back of the second card – thematically it could be contemporary to the card, but it could also be as recent as the 1930s.