As soon as I silently intoned “Well, I’ll be damned,” the memories came back. Memories of white French plantation owners who, after the world’s only successful slave revolt, came to the United States by the shipload with their families, domestic slaves, African mistresses and children of color. Of a slave woman who had to choose between freedom with her lover or leaving with her master and keeping “her” children, one of which was fathered by her master and one the child of her master and his wife. Of how masters and slaves struggled for power amidst consuming fear on both sides, but sometimes also amidst love and mutual dependency.
I had just walked through the door of the Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center outside Frederick, Maryland, where I was expecting to learn of the battle that saved Washington, DC during our Civil War. But as soon as I entered I was met with an exhibit detailing news about the recent discovery, supported by an archaeological dig just last summer, that one of the Park’s six farms had been one of the largest slave habitations in the mid-Atlantic region. That “…from 1794 until 1827, the present Best Farm was …a plantation known as L’Hermitage. L’Hermitage was established by the Vincendieres, a family of French planters who came to Maryland from the colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti). In 1800, as many as 90 enslaved laborers toiled at L’Hermitage, making the Vincendieres family among the largest slave holders in the state.”
Here’s the thing. On the drive up I had been listening to Isabel Allende’s “Island Beneath the Sea,” a deeply researched historical novel. The first half of the book is about relations between slaves and masters in Haiti during the time leading up to the 1791 slave revolt that evolved into the successful Haitian Revolution. The latter half of the book picks up the story in New Orleans, where thousands of French planters fleeing Haiti with their households and human property landed as refugees. But, apparently, they did not all go to New Orleans. Many went to other places, including Charleston, Savannah, Baltimore – and even Frederick, Maryland. And, to my surprise, the story had just come to me in a tangible way on a lazy Sunday afternoon drive with my dog. First it was in my ears. Then it was in my mind. Then it was in my memories.
I drove from the Visitor Center to the Best Farm site.
Now it was under my feet. No one was there except for me and Dusa Dog. No matter where I walked at this historic site, I felt I was intersecting a path made by a real-life character similar to those portrayed fictitiously in the book. Yes, I felt it. Feelings are real, no matter what the catalyst.
I was awe-struck with the interconnectedness of human history.
Now I will go there from time to time to think in solitude and to remember.
Note: To read more about the archaeological dig at Best Farm, read this Washington Post article.