Two cabins on the historic Elkridge Furnace site in Howard County likely housed enslaved workers in the 1850s.
That’s the conclusion of Dr. Julie Schablitsky, Chief of Cultural Resources at the Maryland Department of Transportation. In a partnership with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Schablitsky led a team of MDOT archaeologists who carried out a dig at the site in July.
Her team unearthed chimney foundations and brick floors, along with hundreds of artifacts, in and around the dilapidated cabins.
“The coolest thing about this excavation is not necessarily the artifacts that we are finding, but the structural features,” Dr. Schablitsky said. “So, knowing there is a brick floor, knowing that there is a chimney that goes outside the building, being able to answer those questions in just a few days really makes it important that we are doing what we are doing. Archaeology is important. It is really the last resort to answer some questions in history.”
The Elkridge Furnace took locally quarried iron ore and processed it into pig iron between the 18th and 19th centuries. In Colonial America, Britain turned to iron ore rich colonies like Maryland because of political tensions with Sweden. A 1717 trade embargo from Sweden against Britain, eliminated Britain’s major source of iron. As a result, Britain incentivized iron production in the colonies.
These historical events are not unlike today’s embargoes on Russia, which have led the United States and other countries to seek alternative suppliers of natural resources.
The furnace was established in the mid-1700s by Caleb Dorsey, a tobacco planter. The location was chosen for its proximity to forests, iron ore deposits and the Patapsco River. Named for the port town of Elkridge Landing, the furnace was one of Maryland’s largest iron producers in the 18th century.
At the time, large ships could navigate the Patapsco. But the overharvesting of trees to help power the furnace, along with agriculture, led to sedimentation, creating a shallow and eventually unnavigable waterway.
To operate the furnace, the Dorseys used enslaved, indentured and convict labor to produce iron. The working conditions were hot and brutal, and escape attempts from these conditions were common. Runaway ads for enslaved iron workers were published in local newspapers and highlight an underrepresented component of Underground Railroad history; the resistance to industrial slavery.
The site was recently listed on the Network to Freedom with the National Park Service. When it was listed, “we decided to come back and take a second look at these buildings and really flesh out our understanding of them,” said Peter Morrill, a Curator Program Manager with DNR.
A “runaway ad” from 1775 describes two workers from the furnace who escaped: one a slave, another an indentured servant. Samuel Dorsey offered a $48 reward for the pair.
Another ad from 1784 says Nicholas Dorsey was among those offering a $60 reward for a man named Toby. Researchers said details in the ad tell Toby’s story and provide clues about who he was and where in Africa he was taken from. Dr. Schablitsky believes one reference indicates Toby had filed teeth, a practice tied to some African cultures.
“Archaeology is our last chance to understand the lives of these iron furnace workers who endured horrific conditions,” said Dr. Schablitsky. “We are piecing together their life one ceramic sherd and lost button at a time.”
In 1822, the Ellicott family bought the furnace from the Dorseys. Under their ownership, a company store and eventually a large brick home were added to the property.
A lost Goodyear button, found in the builder’s trench of one of the cabins, suggests a construction date in the 1850s, connecting it to the Howards, the family who purchased the property after the Ellicotts. This archaeological clue suggests both cabins, based on their location and similarity, were built as iron worker housing, and likely housed enslaved workers.
The property was privately owned until the 1980s when the MDOT State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) bought the complex to build I-195. At the urging of Elkridge residents, the buildings were preserved with the land transferred to DNR, which continues to own the land and the buildings. The property is currently managed by curators Dan and Donna Wecker, who own and operate the Elkridge Furnace Inn. The couple signed a long-term lease as part of the DNR’s resident curatorship.
During the two-week dig, archaeologists sectioned off 5-by-5-foot areas inside and outside the cabins for excavations. The dig led to some unexpected finds, including a leather shoe hidden inside a wall of one of the cabins. Archaeologists suspect the 19th century shoe was placed within the home either as a sign of good luck or for protection.
“I’ve seen shoes in places where spirits would pass,” Dr. Schablitsky said. “Spirits would come into homes through doors, windows or chimneys. A lot of times these ritual pieces would be tucked in there to protect the home from evil spirits.”
A pipestem with the logo “Hail Columbia,” was also unearthed. Most items found within the cabins included domestic and personal items from the 19th century, such as ceramics with printed patterns.
“Transfer print ceramics are really dateable based on their pattern,” said Sarah Janesko, MDOT SHA Archaeology Lab Director. “So, we’ve been finding some of those transfer prints and those are early to mid-1800s and also some bone buttons which were common in that time period as well. These are some of the interesting artifacts that help us date when this area would have been used.”
Archaeologists also found artifacts from Native Americans, including broken tools and arrows that had been buried in the ground for more than a thousand years.
Brick floors and stone foundations associated with the cabins were also found on the Elkridge Furnace complex.
“Their test pits have proven that, yes indeed, we have foundations from the original chimneys. So, we know for a fact now that these buildings are in their original locations,” Morrill said.
He believes White Pine boards on the outside of the cabins were taken from another
project and repurposed, from either a ship that sailed down the Patapsco River or an old pier. White Pine isn’t native to Maryland and grows in Pennsylvania and New York.
The artifacts will be cleaned and sorted at the MDOT SHA lab in Baltimore. There, archaeologists will spend the next few months writing up their report.
“They’ll submit that report to us and we can use that to better inform our interpretation of the site and hopefully future stabilization and restoration of the buildings themselves,” Morrill said.
Dr. Schablitsky and her team plan to come back later to investigate a field on the other side of the Elkridge Furnace Inn. They’ll use ground penetrating radar to see if there is another building they can excavate.
For more about the archaeological dig, go to: https://bit.ly/3KFzOH1.
To watch videos about the dig, go to flickr.
For more about MDOT, go to mdot.maryland.gov and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.