Enigmatic bone fragment may be part of a story lost forever

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette Packet.

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Enigmatic bone fragment may be part of a story lost forever

February 17, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

Alexandria and Washington, D.C. businesses began amassing slaves for resale after Congress outlawed slave importation from Africa in 1808. These slave dealers would accumulate 100 or more slaves from the surrounding area and transport them over land or water to auction centers in the deeper South. In 1827, the Alexandria Gazette reported how this business affected the community:

Scarcely a week passes without some of these

wretched creatures being driven through our streets. After having been confined, and some times manacled

....The children and some of the women are generally crowded into a cart...others follow on foot...hand

cuffed and chained together.

The establishment of Franklin & Armfield "Slave Dealers" consisted of the central brick office, still standing at 1315 Duke Street, two brick walled side yards, and a kitchen. The west yard (men's area) was at 1317 Duke, while the yard for women and children extended east to Payne Street. During archaeological excavations by Engineering Science, Inc. in 1984, portions of the whitewashed brick wall which enclosed the men's yard were discovered as well as soil stains, called post holes, that document the location of a shed roof. An abolitionist account states that "In the covered part was a long table set with tin plates each containing an allowance of bread and boiled meat...." Fragments of tin plates were also discovered by the archaeologists.

Of all the artifacts excavated at the slave dealer site, one stands out as the most suggestive and problematic. Pork bones are frequently found in Alexandria archaeological sites, but the one sawed from a hog femur at this site looked unusual. At least 18 tiny chips appear to have been flaked off the bone. Could this object have been fashioned from a stew bone by a slave awaiting the dreaded trip South? Or, are we reading too much into the object because of its association with slaves? The bone could simply have been named by rats or sawed irregularly.

There is precedence of handmade rings at other slave sites in Virginia. Theresa Singleton at the Smithsonian reports a ring made from horn discovered at the Mulberry Row slave cabins at Monticello and two ebony (an African wood) rings at the Portico plantation kitchen at the Manassas National Battlefield Park.

The bone is evocative, regardless of its original function. Holding it in you hand and touching the tiny chips produces sensations of the past. Was the bone made into a keepsake for a family facing separation by the slave dealers? This would not have been an infrequent sight, as one observer noted in 1842: ...another melancholy looking woman was here with her nine children, the whole family having been sold away from their husband and father...

Perhaps the bone's greatest value is in helping us connect with a difficult part of Alexandria's past emotionally, rather than just discuss it intellectually.

This caption appeared with an image printed in the Gazette:

This object was sawed from a hog bone and probably used as part of a meal at the Franklin & Armfield slave trading business on Duke Street. It is not known whether the bone was deliberately fashioned into a ring or keepsake through pressure flaking many small chips from the exterior or whether it deteriorated in the environment. Drawing courtesy of Engineering Science, Inc.