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Brutal slave history unearthed at Frederick County's L'Hermitage

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; B01

From the old road that crossed the Monocacy River, you could plainly see the slave cabins of L'Hermitage.

They were lined up in front of the plantation house, not hidden out back, as was the custom. And passersby could see the implements of oppression -- whips and stocks -- that the owners used to control their property.

Even in 1800, this was extreme for Frederick County, this brutal, Caribbean style of bondage, with its French emigre masters, aggressive displays of subjection, and its 90 slaves.

Last week, in the midst of a summer-long archaeological dig, experts using surface-penetrating radar found what are believed to be remnants of two cabins that once made up the small slave village that served L'Hermitage.

And the National Park Service says the find adds another page to the story of the mysterious plantation, whose tropical-influenced main house still stands, an unlikely witness near the banks of the Monocacy, more than 200 years after it was built.

"It's a huge deal," said National Park Service archaeologist Joy Beasley, cultural resources program manager for Monocacy National Battlefield, outside Frederick, where the plantation is located. "It's an extraordinary site and very unusual, and I do not know of anything like it anywhere else."

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L'Hermitage, 748 acres at its height, was established about 1793 by the far-flung Vincendiere family. They were planters who probably fled from the revolution in France, whence they had gone before the slave revolts in what is today Haiti, where they had large plantations.

They were an unusual family: foreign aristocrats with many children, an absentee father, and a need for an inordinate number of bondservants whom they treated with singular brutality.

And they stood out amid the slave-holding farmers of German descent in central Maryland, where the land and climate called for smaller tracts and populations of 10 to 20 slaves.

The Park Service acquired land that had been L'Hermitage in 1993. In 2003, a survey found, just below the surface, a swath of artifacts that experts guessed marked the slave village. It was not until this year that there was funding for a dig, which began in June and is scheduled to run through September.

The stone foundations of four cabins have been unearthed, amid sweltering heat, and the mournful horns of trains passing nearby.

And artifacts -- buttons, beads, pieces of dishware -- are now being combed from the site, in what the Park Service says is a rare glimpse into one of the region's most unusual historical sagas.

"It's emotional," said Alex Brueggeman, 21, a Howard University anthropology major of Haitian descent, who volunteered on the dig. "The first time I came out I got the goose bumps and everything. It made me extremely proud to be Haitian. . . . This is an incredible experience on so many different levels."

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'Very unusual'

It is a story of international upheaval, racial oppression, family complexity and, perhaps, a touch of religious bigotry. And it is a classic account of slavery in the decades before the Civil War.

The Vincendieres were French Catholics, and they probably came to Maryland, in part, because it was a traditional refuge for Catholics. Hundreds of other French refugees had already fled there, project researchers said.

The household consisted of Marguerite Mangan de la Vincendiere, several of her children, and a man who may have been her husband's cousin, Jean Payan de Boisneuf.

The family patriarch, Etienne Bellumeau de la Vincendiere, never joined his relatives in Maryland, opting, for unknown reasons, to relocate to Charleston, S.C., according to Beasley and a study of the site she edited.

The family brought to Maryland, most likely from Haiti, 12 slaves, the maximum allowed French refugees at the time. They included a 5-year-old boy named Lambert, an 8-year-old girl named Fillelle, two 16-year-olds -- one of whom was born in Mozambique -- and several adults.

But by 1800, the planters owned 90 slaves, making them the second-largest slaveholders in Frederick County at that time, Beasley said.

"That's roughly 10 times the number of enslaved people that you would have expected them to have" for an area in which the main crops were wheat, flax and clover, Beasley said. Plantations with that many slaves usually grew cotton, tobacco or sugar.

"It's a very unusual circumstance," she said.

Beasley said that the family might have been dealing in slaves or renting them out or that it might have been trying to re-create the kind of harsh, large-scale slave system that brought status in Haiti.

Cruel treatment

A dark portrait of what is likely L'Hermitage appears in the 1798 account of the Polish writer and patriot Julian Niemcewicz, who happened to pass by in a carriage and probably was told about the plantation by his driver.

Niemcewicz reported that Boisneuf lived with many slaves "whom he treats with the greatest tyranny."

"One can see on the home farm instruments of torture, stocks, wooden horses, whips etc.," Niemcewicz wrote. "Two or three negroes crippled with torture have brought legal action against him."

Beasley and another Park Service archaeologist, Sara Rivers-Cofield, now with the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, point out that the account may be affected by anti-Catholic, anti-French feeling among the mostly Protestant county residents. But in sum it is probably accurate.

Members of the family were charged in nine state court cases with cruelty against their slaves, a remarkable occurrence when mistreatment of slaves was commonplace, Rivers-Cofield said Monday.

Boisneuf was accused of "cruelly and immercifully beating and whipping" slaves Harry, Jerry, Abraham, Stephon, Soll and George.

One of the Vincendiere daughters, Victoire, was charged with beating her slave, Jenny, according to court records.

Those charges were dismissed, Rivers-Cofield found. But in 1797 Boisneuf was found guilty of "not sufficiently clothing and feeding his negroes," and of beating a slave named Shadrack.

L'Hermitage was sold in 1827. And over the years, as family members died, the Vincendieres gradually sold their slaves, including 17 for $2,925 to a buyer from Louisiana in 1825.

One of those was Fillelle, then 35, who had come with the family to Maryland when she was 8.

When Victoire died in 1854, her will ordered the eventual freedom of the remaining slaves in her possession. Of the 90 people once held in bondage at L'Hermitage, she had three left to set free.

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