Artifacts date to period Josiah Henson was born
Archaeology dig may have located birthplace of famed abolitionist
Josiah Henson was a leading member of the Underground Railroad, a Baptist minister, and founder of a school and community for runaway slaves, but his life began in Charles County, and an archaeological investigation has discovered a number of artifacts relating to the time period and place he was born into.
An open house was held on the private property of La Grange in Port Tobacco to showcase the artifacts discovered, as well as to highlight the life and times of Henson.
Julia King, associate professor of archaeology and anthropology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said she believes she has discovered the place where the 19th century runaway-slave-turned-abolitionist was born.
“The slave quarter complex is probably about 400by-400 [feet],” King said.
King said that a study of old maps led to a probable location for the slave encampment on the La Grange property, and soil excavations turned up a number of artifacts in a wooded area near the manor house.
“We think this area near the woods was a slave encampment where Henson was born,” King said.
King said Henson lived on the property for the first seven or eight years of his life.
During that time, King said Henson’s father was brutally whipped after beating an overseer who had assaulted Henson’s mother. Henson’s father was then sold south.
“Henson never heard from his father again,” King said. “It was this event that served as a formative experience for Henson.”
Henson’s owner at the time, Francis Newman, the owner of La Grange, was a con artist and bigamist who left his wife in England to settle in Port Tobacco with the wife of another man.
Henson later ran away to Canada, where he founded a town and a school for escaped slaves and assisted other slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
“Henson is a very important character, but he’s really been overlooked. He’s up there with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass,” King said.
The five-week investigation of the probable site of the slave quarters has turned up hundreds of artifacts, including bricks, buttons, nails and pottery, dating back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, King said.
“Not a whole lot of stuff, but enough that we can tell there was definitely something there,” King said.
King said the slave encampment was occupied between 1790 and 1830.
King said the investigation is also looking at artifacts around the La Grange manor house.
“In order to understand the enslaved, you have understand the enslaver,” King said.
Janice Wilson, president of the Charles County chapter of the NAACP, said it is important to remember local individuals like Henson who advanced the cause of freedom for enslaved African-Americans.
“Josiah Henson represents a lot of African-Americans. When we look at our history, you see his resiliency, the sacrifices he made, the love for his family, is just over-the-top phenomenal. And facing the adversity he faced in those times, he just kept going,” Wilson said. “It’s a point of pride for Charles County, and the nation, that someone like Josiah Henson left his footprint in Charles County.”
The current investigation being conducted by King’s students ended this week, but the local chapter of the NAACP is collaborating with King to hire two interns to continue looking for artifacts through the summer.
Julia King, associate professor of archaeology and anthropology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, shows the rear of the La Grange manor house, which was the front of the house at the time Josiah Henson was born.
St. Mary’s College of Maryland students Lydia Roca, left, and Jiahan Liu sift through a soil sample looking for artifacts at the La Grange property Wednesday afternoon.
A display of some of the artifacts discovered at the probable birthplace of Josiah Henson.