The Eastern Shore of Maryland is a place that feels intensely and seductively timeless. As you move away from the clutter of Kent Island’s Route 50 corridor, the land opens up expansively into vistas that haven’t changed much since the colonial era: wide fields criss-crossed by tough osage hedgerows, dropping their yellow, brain-like fruits into the corn below. Small river towns of peeling clapboard houses with front porches sagging hunker in the humidity, their only concession to the passage of time marked by the direct tv dishes that bristle on their roofs. By and large however, this feeling of the past-as-present is an illusion- modernity has touched every part of this rural landscape. DSL and 24-hour Taco Bells and any store with a “Wal” in its name sidle incongruously with 18th century farmhouses and drug stores where they still make sodas by hand.
Corn crib at Wye House, Library of Congress.
Which is why the true time capsules are all that more rare and remarkable. Wye House in Talbot County is one of these places- a refuge of an elite past Chesapeake, largely untouched and so much richer because of its stasis. Owned by the same family for over 360 years, Wye House is the insect in amber of the Eastern Shore ruling class in its heyday: luminously beautiful from a distance, but with a dark center composed of human sweat, blood and flesh.
Wye House’s long approaching drive and formal facade. source
As you drive to Wye House, each turn down wooded and corn-field-fringed farm lanes seems to husk away another layer of time until your tires on dog-day asphalt could be wagon wheels clattering over dust. The giant oaks and cedars cast deep shadows, almost meeting overhead as you pass beneath, just another of the millions of people who have traveled this way since the Lloyds put down their roots here in the 1650’s.
At the vanishing point of the looped gravel drive, the manor house spreads wide, pillared and hyphened in elegant Palladian rigidity. Around it are gathered tidy outbuildings and barns like chicks flocking to a yellow brood hen. It is prosperous and peaceful, it is seductively old- in short, it is everything we like our history to be: clean, affluent, and seemingly innocuous. But this too is an illusion. It is a monument to the Lloyd’s that owned it, certainly, but just as importantly it is a testament to the slaves that built, maintained, staffed and and farmed it. Like all American history, there are many facets to the past of Wye House and the Eastern Shore property it dominates, and not all of them are appealing.
To this day, a Lloyd family descendant owns the property, which has been handed down, generation after generation, breaking away from its original, vast 20,000 acreage to its current (and still considerable) 1,300 acres today. Land patents of this immense size were not unheard of in the 17th century Chesapeake. It was an era when tobacco cultivation was the economic lifeblood of the region and most farms had huge fallow tracts in states of recuperation from the nutrient-leeching tobacco crop. Tobacco not only needed rich soil to sap, but many human hands to tend- and the Lloyd family, of great influence and puritanical religious leanings, had plenty of ready capital to equip their immense estate with the slaves needed to tend the “16-month crop”.
Names of slaves from an 1805 century ledger kept at Wye House. source
By the turn of the 18th century, the plantation was centered around the grand manor house that remains today, with scores of specialized outbuildings and expensive follies, huge fields and orchards and gardens, fleets of schooners, all staffed, maintained and serviced by 700 slaves. In the 1820’s Frederick Douglass was among them, owned by Aaron Anthony, chief overseer of the Lloyd farms. Douglass lived in one of these dependencies called “the Captain’s House” with Anthony and his family, and was part of the daily life that centered around Wye House, its slaves, and its inhabitants. He later wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom:
“Just such a secluded, dark, and out-of-the-way place, is the "home plantation” of Colonel Edward Lloyd…it is far away from all the great thoroughfares, and proximate to no town or village. There is neither schoolhouse nor townhouse in its neighborhood, for there are no children to go to school, the children and grandchildren of Colonel Lloyd were taught by…a private tutor…The overseers children go off somewhere to school; they bring no influence from abroad to embarrass the natural slave system of the place…Its blacksmiths, wheelwrights, shoemakers, weavers, and coopers, are slaves.“
Exterior and Interior of the Captain’s House, Wye House Farm, from the 1930’s survey of historic American buildings, source
Douglass found Wye House to be the location of some of the most formative experiences in his young life: the place where he witnessed whippings, starvation, and brutality by overseers, and escape attempts by Wye House slaves to North and freedom. He was chosen to be the companion to the young master of Wye House, too, and was introduced to white men of power and influence, inspiring Douglass to ultimately question his place in Wye House, in society, and the existence of slavery itself.
The Orangery at Wye House- a rare,18th century greenhouse, heated by wood fire and a system of hypocausts that supplied Wye House with citrus fruits and hothouse flowers year round.
About the house itself Douglass wrote:
"There stood the grandest building my eyes had then ever beheld, called, by every one on the plantation, the "Great House”. This was occupied by Colonel Lloyd and his family. The occupied it; I enjoyed it. The great house itself was a large white wooden building with wings on thee sides of it…The great house was surrounded by…kitchens, wash-houses, dairies, summer-house, greenhouses, hen-houses, turkey-houses and arbors, of many sizes, all neatly painted and altogether interspersed with grand old trees… that imparted to the scene a high degree of stately beauty… These all belonged to me, as well as to Colonel Edward Lloyd, and for a time I greatly enjoyed them.“
A map by Henry Chandlee Forman of the Long Green at Wye House, location of the outbuildings and activity referred to by Douglass in his autobiography. Source
As in Frederick Douglass’ accounts of Wye House, it remains today a very beautiful, yet very dark reminder of a terrible time in our collective Chesapeake past. The current Lloyd family descendants who own Wye House understand this, and the value the property holds today as a rich repository of physical information that can deepen our understanding of slavery, history, and the foundations of Chesapeake culture. The estate, with their permission, has been the site of ongoing and intensive archaeological digs through the University of Maryland and other partners to uncover some of the secrets interred around and within Wye House. Much of their work is focused on the physical remnants of slavery, which have been obscured by time, vegetation, the slow march of decay. Their digs have unearthed the foundations of slave cabins, charms secreted to ward off spirits in the greenhouse and attics, and the buttons, dishes, broken tools, nails and personal effects discarded, forgotten, and now uncovered.
The Orangery interior, the current site of archaeological investigation by students from the University of Maryland.
Wye House persists, a reminder of the nature of the Chesapeake’s history, at turns both lovely and harrowing. It is our own history, as well as Douglass’ to understand and internalize. The foundations of the country, the Eastern Shore, and Wye House itself were created on the backs of men like Douglass, his family, and his forebearers- a terrible truth, with beautiful, conflicting results nationally, locally, and on a quiet cove on the Wye River. Douglass understood this strange, haunting, captivating quality Wye House possessed. Though it was the place of his enslavement, and was created by a system he spent his adult life trying to destroy, he still said of the house and grounds in his autobiography: "Nevertheless (Wye is) altogether…a most strikingly interesting place, full of life, activity and spirit.”
For more on the ongoing archaeology at Wye House, check out: http://www.aia.umd.edu/
A wonderful resource, “The People of Wye House” compiles all the records of Wye House’s slaves into a searchable database: http://wyehousedb.host-ed.me/