A pill bottle, a toy pug, the smooth stone shaped like an ax — these items and more are being studied by state archaeologists to determine whether a rustic cabin in Dorchester County was once home to enslaved people along the route of the Underground Railroad.
Archaeologists with the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration are excavating the earth beneath the wooden floorboards inside the Bayly Cabin, located behind one of the oldest homes in Cambridge, the Caile-Bayly House. The administration’s archaeologists began their survey of the site in September and are working to determine when the cabin was first used as a home, according to a department news release.
Oral history and an 1857 newspaper ad offering a reward for a runaway enslaved woman from the property suggest that the little cabin was a slave quarter. However, state archaeologist Julie Schablitsky and her team are carefully combing through the soil for proof.
The group of researchers plan to test the soil to determine an approximate period when the artifacts were deposited there. If the dirt samples date prior to 1864, there’s a high likelihood the scientists have discovered fragments of enslaved peoples’ lives that were forgotten in time.
“I think this is a way to exorcise demons and learn about the people who may not have had anything written about them,” Schablitsky said. “The people who are only listed in runaway slave ads or [bequeathed] in a will to an owner’s son — you can piece together how they lived, what they ate, who they were.”
The team found broken teacups, buttons, combs, crab claws, chicken bones and children’s toys, including marbles and the head of a doll.
One of the most notable discoveries was what appeared to be a whetstone shaped like an ax in the southwest corner of the cabin. Schablitsky said the placement of those items correlates with a West African spiritual practice ith the religion Shango that was meant to protect a home from being burned down from lightning.
“It must have worked, because the building is still standing after all these years,” Schablitsky said.
One of the potential inhabitants of the cabin may have been Lizzie Ambie, a woman enslaved by Alexander Bayly and described as having a “rather down look” in the newspaper ad seeking her capture. Dorchester County was famously home to Harriet Tubman and her Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses where “passengers” could seek refuge on their journey to freedom, one of the reasons the State Highway Administration was attracted to excavating the property.
Ambie and her husband, Nat, escaped enslavement in 1858 and successfully made it to New York. Other enslaved African Americans such as Mariah Nichols Camper and her children remained on the Bayly property, according to the release.
“We need to know what happened here, and how they lived,” said Cambridge community member Hershel Johnson in the release. “So much of our history was never documented and the archaeology is a way to get back what was once lost. We must realize the importance of exploring this difficult history.”
Schablitsky is hoping that DNA testing of several tobacco pipe stems from the cabin will help connect living descendants of the cabin’s residents with their lost family history.
“As I'm looking at this building, I realize that it wasn't that long ago,” Schablitsky said of Maryland’s pre-Emancipation era. “It's a sad history and dark time in our past, but it's important to look into these stories. We can understand through these discoveries why we have the racial divide that we have. It started somewhere.”