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  • Archaeologies of African American Life in the Upper Mid-Atlantic ed. by Michael J. Gall and Richard F. Veit
Michael J. Gall and Richard F. Veit, eds. Archaeologies of African American Life in the Upper Mid-Atlantic. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017. Pp vii, 272. Illustrations, bibliography, index. Cloth, $69.95.

Four decades ago, Ira Berlin stressed the importance of understanding the diverse development of African American life and culture during the colonial era that also shaped many aspects of black society in subsequent centuries. Toward this effort, he identified three distinct slave systems in mainland British North America: a northern nonplantation system and two southern plantation systems, one around the Chesapeake Bay and the other in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry.1 Berlin included both New England and the Middle colonies in the northern nonplantation system. The authors of this collection of essays focus on a subregion of the nonplantation North that they designate as the Upper Mid-Atlantic, "the area between New York City and Philadelphia, extending south to Delaware and northeast to Long Island, with particular attention to the Delaware Valley" (3). They further define the Upper Mid-Atlantic as a cultural "borderland" (4) between New England to the north—a stronghold of abolitionism—and the Chesapeake to the south that relied heavily on enslaved laborers.

This publication brings together eleven case studies and two reflective essays on the archaeological study of African American life in the Upper Mid-Atlantic that emphasize the countryside rather than urban centers. Varied circumstances motivated these studies, including collaborations with present-day African American communities and historical organizations interested in these places; development projects that could endanger the archaeological resources; restudy of previous research; and accidental rediscoveries of black sites. The time span for the investigated sites range from early eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. The book is subdivided into four parts: "Slavery and Material Culture"; "Housing, Community, and Labor"; "Death and Memorialization"; and "Reflections." [End Page 434]

In part 1, two of the three chapters examine archaeological remains associated with enslaved occupants, one on a site in southern Delaware (chap. 1) and the other on Long Island, New York (chap. 3). William Liebeknecht infers that a site known today as Cedar Creek Road Site was a slave quarter complex based on circumstantial evidence. In the eighteenth century, a succession of families owned the 250-acre tract of land, but the documentary records do not indicate that any of these landowners were slaveholders. The archaeological findings, however, suggest that the tract included a slave quarter complex based on the concentration of several post-in-hole, light-framed structures and subfloor pits similar to those associated with eighteenth-century slave housing in the Chesapeake. Additionally, the structure of an iron-working furnace appears to have incorporated some aspects of African technology.

Ross Rava and Christopher Matthews investigated the other slave-occupied site located in Nassau County, New York, at the Rock Hall Museum—a manor estate where one of the largest groups of enslaved Africans lived in the county. The owners of Rock Hill were sugar planters in Antigua and occupied the property until 1818. Archaeological research undertaken to find a detached kitchen building yielded two tantalizing bits of material culture associated with Afro-Caribbean roots of the slave occupants. First, they found a fireplace base made from burnt ash and seashell mixed with crush shell and brick fragments that resembles the remains of colonial-era tabby fireplace bases found in Antigua. Second, a religious bundle consisting of pins, bent nails, and lead shot was found at the top of a cellar staircase and was possibly put there for spiritual protection. Similar intentional deposits found near doorways, chimneys, windows, or corners include—in addition to nails and pins—beads, quartz crystals, pierced coins, buttons, animal bones, shells, and smoothed stones found at numerous sites particularly in Chesapeake region.

In the third study (chap. 2), Keri Sansevere analyzes colonoware—a low-fired, hand-constructed, earthenware pottery often made by and, most certainly, used by enslaved and free African Americans in the United States. Similar earthenwares were also made in the Caribbean, but Caribbeanists rarely use the term colonoware to refer to them. Her study examines numerous sites in both the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast where colonoware was found, but in considerably smaller quantities than in the plantation zones to the south. Sansevere doubts African Americans in the Mid-Atlantic produced the colonoware she studied, and she suggests that [End Page 435] they were most likely imported from the southern United States or the Caribbean and sold at local markets.

The five chapters in part 2 examine sites Free African Americans occupied either after manumissions or after First Emancipation—the abolition of slavery in the northern states. Chapters 4, 5, and 7 focus on specific African American households, all of whom were tenant farmers. Chapters 6 and 8 discuss African American communities established during the antebellum era and continued as black settlements to the mid-twentieth century. In chapter 4 Michael Gall and his coauthors discuss the archaeological materials recovered from the farmstead of Richard Cooper, born a slave in Barbados, who gained his freedom along with his wife, Nanny, in 1778. They settled at White Oak Swamp in central Delaware where a small African American enclave of thirteen households appeared by 1800. In 1805 Richard converted to Quakerism; however, the authors argue the Coopers may have only accepted some aspects of Quakerism because archaeological excavations uncovered a religious bundle comparable to one previously described at Rock Hall in the corner of a hearth in the Coopers' home. It contained cattle bone, a pewter button, a glass bead, two white clay pipe stems, and quartzite fragments, and suggests the Coopers also engaged in religious practices aligned with their African or Afro-Caribbean heritage.

James Dell (chap. 5) directed excavations of the William Parker House site in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, near the hamlet of Christiana. Parker fled southern slavery and established himself as a tenant farmer. In 1851 the Parker house was the site of a violent incident referred to as the Christiana riot or the Christiana resistance when Parker and some of his associates resisted an attempt to take several fugitive slaves into custody under the authority of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Two of the slave catchers died in the struggle and Parker and his associates fled north. The archaeology revealed that Parker and his household lived comparable to other tenant farmers. Jason Shellenhamer and John Bedell (chap. 7) address the transient living conditions of tenant farmers seen in house construction designed for portability at the Bird-Houston Site in Newcastle County, Delaware. The absence of archaeological evidence of sills, foundation trenches, and structural building posts suggests the tenant house was built on brick piers, making it easy to move. Portable housing provided farm owners the ability to relocate tenants seasonally or annually close to the fields in need of planting and harvesting.

The two black settlements discussed in part 2 were established in New Jersey where the formation of black towns following First Emancipation [End Page 436] exceeded other northern states. Janet Sheridan (chap. 6) recounts the rise and fall of Marshalltown, established in 1834 under the leadership of Thomas Marshall, a successful black farmer, churchman, and storekeeper. By 1880, whites gained control of the land and excluded many black landowners from maps that listed property owners' names and buildings. Through mapping land deeds, Sheridan was able to spatially locate black landowners who were excluded from the nineteenth-century maps. Christopher Barton conducted excavations at Timbuctoo, a black community dating from the mid-1800s to the 1940s in Burlington County, New Jersey. His chapter analyzes home food-preservation practices based on artifacts recovered from a community trash deposit dating between 1920 and 1940s.

The three chapters in part 3 are studies of cemeteries. Richard Veit and Mark Nonestied (chap. 9) examine antebellum professionally carved grave markers of enslaved and/or free persons of color who worked for white owners/employers. They observed that the inscriptions on grave markers emphasize the "faithfulness and servitude" of the interred individuals and reinforced the subordinate relationships they had with their owners/employers (157). Using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to identify buried fieldstone grave markers, Megan Ratini (chap. 10) located many graves in the cemetery of Mount Gilead African Methodist Episcopal Church, established in the early 1800s in Buckingham, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. David Orr (chap. 11) describes the rediscovery of African Union Church Cemetery (AUCC) and its community of Polktown, a free African American town in New Castle, Delaware. Researchers located markers for both US Colored Troops and civilians and traced the careers of four soldiers. His chapter highlights the story of one of those soldiers, James Elbert.

In part 4, Christopher Fennell (chap. 12) ties the themes of the papers together within the larger frameworks of African Diaspora archaeology, and Lu Ann de Cunzo (chap. 13) amplifies the ways in which the Greater Delaware Valley and its vicinity formed a borderland between strong abolitionism to the north and plantation slavery to the south that produced a "diverse, contested, and ambiguous place" (212) then and now.

This volume demonstrates that the Upper Mid-Atlantic is a distinctive region of the African American experience based not simply on geography, but on historical, cultural, and economic factors that set it apart from the rest of the nonplantation north. Two of its most striking characteristics: Quaker [End Page 437] hegemony of the Delaware Valley and the florescence of diverse free black settlements following First Emancipation are precisely the criteria needed to define the regional histories for which Berlin urged.

Theresa A. Singleton
Syracuse University


1. Ira Berlin, "Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America," American Historical Review 85, no. 1 (1980): 44–78.

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