Blog by LSSNCA volunteer, Bethany Horvat
As an undergraduate in 2016, I visited a graveyard at Catoctin Furnace, a historic ironmaking village at the foot of Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. I was preparing to write a senior thesis on those buried there around two centuries ago. The furnace is a local gem, beautifully restored and maintained by the local historical club and State park. Among its former owners are men of prominence like Thomas Johnson, former governor of Maryland, and some of its products maintain certain claims to fame, including the production of cannonballs for George Washington’s army. I was intrigued by the site, not because of its famous owners or its iron products which in some cases had a national significance, but because of those that laid buried at the nearby cemetery: the African slaves that operated the furnace during some of its most lucrative years.
Very little is known about the slaves that worked at this furnace, though, more is known of them than slaves that worked at other industrial complexes in early America. I read in the archaeological reports of occupational markers and hints as to the nutritional value of their diets. I read that there were no apparent grave site offerings among the remains, indicating that traditional African burial rites and even the western Christian rites of their owners, were most likely not performed. The evidence suggests that these individuals were buried without ceremony. Of all that I read I found the girl they listed in the reports as “Number 11” to be the most haunting. The various reports suggest that she was likely in her mid-30s to 40s. She had borne children. She was reported to have an occupational marker on her hand. Her frame was small and she had severe dental problems. I think of all the questions I have about her I wonder most what her name was. She likely had an American name given her by her owners, but I want to know her African name. Any mother would have a name for her baby, even if she wasn’t allowed to formally bestow it on her. I wonder if Number Eleven even knew what her mother named her.
As I stood at the cemetery that day, an aspiring historian trained to push the emotions down to look objectively at what we can know, I felt that analytical way of looking at things fade. Instead, I felt all the emotions that come with empathetic humanity. I think about Number Eleven more with the heart of an artist than a historian. I want to paint a real picture of her life, her pain, and most importantly, her name. I wonder whether she was quiet-spirited or full of fiery spunk. Was she a cook, or like me, did her family chuckle at her culinary attempts and joke that perhaps she should stick to her craft? She was described in one report as “muscular” – I wonder what her craft was? Did the father of her babies stand near where I stood that day at the cemetery and long with a crushed heart for her presence? Or was he even allowed to visit her resting place? Did he maybe just dream about performing the rites of their native home for his girl as they laid her to rest? Maybe he preceded her in death. The questions are endless.
This month that we celebrate African-American contributions to our country, I think it fitting that we honor Number Eleven with questions about who she was. She may seem unremarkable – just an anonymous slave from two centuries ago – a number on a chart of bones. But Number Eleven tells a very American story, much to our nation’s shame. She tells the story of the African blood spilled to build our empire. There are no reparations for that sacrifice. The cost was too high. Let’s at the very least seek to know her.