Catoctin Furnace cemetery

ABOVE: Elizabeth Comer, secretary of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, surveys what are likely headstones in the Catoctin Furnace cemetery. The stones were moved and placed around the tree by U.S. 15 road construction workers about 40 years ago. RIGHT: One of the stones identified as a headstone by Comer.

Frederick County residents will soon have the opportunity to come face to face with their history of slavery.

Quite literally.

Facial reconstructions of two enslaved people who worked at the Catoctin Furnace will be unveiled March 14 at the Delaplaine Arts Center: a woman in her 30s and a boy about 15 or 16 years old.

The busts are made of clay and have glass eyes, constructed around plastic reconstructions of the original skulls. The artists, from StudioEIS in Brooklyn, New York, had to refrain themselves from making them too real.

The skeletal remains were excavated in 1979 when the construction of U.S. 15 unearthed a previously unknown slave cemetery just outside the Catoctin Furnace. The Maryland State Highway Administration hired a team of professional archaeologists who excavated 35 bodies, which have been stored in the Smithsonian for the last four decades.

Elizabeth Comer, secretary of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, wanted to give voice to the generations of enslaved people who had largely gone undocumented and forgotten.

“I think one of the things that occurs to me when I look into these faces is the humanity of the individuals and the realization of their enslavement and their lives cut short,” she said. “And I think that really gives voice to a lost legacy.”

So several years ago, Comer called Doug Owsley, the lead anthropologist at the Smithsonian, to get the project started. He told her to call him back in a year — he was busy. And besides, they had no funding. She called him several more times. She refused to let it go.

“You have to get in the queue,” Comer said. “I knew it was the long game.”

Then, in 2015, the Historical Society received grant money from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority.

She called Owsley again. He gave her the green light.

forgotten slave cemeteryWhen construction projects such as roads are started, archaeologists are hired to make sure the road will not have an impact on its surroundings, Comer said. And while they decided to excavate part of the cemetery in 1979, Comer doubts that would happen now.

“If this had been done in 2020, and the graveyard would have been located, it’s very likely they would have moved the roadway around the cemetery,” Comer said.

Still, given the technology they had at the time, Comer said that the archaeologists did a good job preserving the bodies. Little did they know, of course, that four decades later, more technology would be available so the remains could be studied in greater detail.

Kari Bruwelheide, an archaeologist and anthropologist at the Smithsonian, said they were able to look at various aspects of the remains to identify the people’s diet and any diseases they might have had, among other things. They saw the impact that the work had on the enslaved people’s bodies, many of whom had spinal problems.

The history of the ironworkers had not been included at the site previously, so the historical society knew they could include their story by looking at skeletal remains, Bruwelheide said.

Catoctin Furnace cemetery

Elizabeth Comer, secretary of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, stands near what she says is likely a headstone in the cemetery located between Md. 806 and U.S. 15.

The untouched part of the cemetery — which contains an unspecified number of intact graves, although 23 have been confirmed — sits on private property on Catoctin Furnace Road. The owners have allowed Comer and other visitors to come onto the land, and have left it largely as is.

They’re legally required to allow some access onto the land under Maryland laws, which state that any cemetery, even privately owned, must be accessible to people who have a blood relation or cultural affiliation with the people buried there.

The Catoctin Furnace Historical Society and the state of Maryland have both been trying to purchase the untouched part of the cemetery for several years. The property owners, however, have not taken their offers.

Comer believes that could change in the future.

As Frederick County's Ceres Bethel AME continues to deteriorate, its need for preservation heightens

For now, the museum has built a trail to the point closest to the cemetery still on state land, where they’ve constructed a platform. Soon, they’ll produce broadsides with the names of the enslaved that they’ve been able to find in addition to other historical information.

Next to the platform is an ore pit, which frequently fills with water. Walking through the cemetery on a February afternoon, Comer points out how close it is to the cemetery — about 500 feet away.

The enslaved people worked, lived, died and were buried in incredibly close quarters.

Untold storiesOwsley and Bruwelheide worked on the project with a number of other Smithsonian staff members, historians and community groups both in and outside the institution.

The process of making a facial reconstruction from centuries-old bones

They looked at what made the bodies different from those of enslaved people who worked on plantations. By focusing on the life histories of these people, Owsley and Bruwelheide said that they hope to bring awareness to how the iron industry relied on African workers.

Catoctin Furnace cemetery

This is one of the stones that may be a headstone in the Catoctin Furnace cemetery.

And to bring that knowledge to the general public, the team wanted to do something more visual than a research paper — although they published one of those as well.

They chose the two people for the facial reconstructions because they were interested in showcasing a teenage boy’s and a young woman’s stories.

“We normally think of people in history that get documented in records as being men,” Bruwelheide said. “So women and children are very rarely represented in our historical narratives.”

The Smithsonian has been part of many facial reconstructions in the past with the help of StudioEIS in Brooklyn, including one of a Colonial girl in Jamestown who died of starvation. They were familiar with the process and decided that it would be a great way to involve the public.

The process took about six months, said Ivan Schwartz, founder and director of StudioEIS. The sculptor, Jiwoong Cheh, is specifically trained in forensic sculpting.

While they were working on the project, the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society paired up with the Western Maryland chapter of Jack and Jill of America, an association for black youths, to bring sixth- through eighth-grade students up to New York to see the process.

Schwartz explained how they actually split the face open down the nose and peeled half the clay back, allowing the students to see a cross section of their work thus far, with the plastic skull underneath.

Leila Gibril, 13, remembers enjoying the trip.

“I just think that it’s awesome that they could tell what someone looked like from what their bones looked like,” she said.

Her mother, Protean Gibril, who is the vice president of the chapter, said the trip was incredibly informative for the students.

“Unfortunately it seems like school systems and a lot of the history books, we don’t really get the details of that life,” Gibril said.

Leila saw the sorrow in the story as well. The students had also visited the cemetery at Catoctin Furnace, and saw the way that many of the headstones — which are not engraved — had been removed from the graves and put around a tree back when the archaeologists had excavated the bodies.

She felt sad looking at the overgrown cemetery.

“Some of the history is kind of lost now,” she said.

A lost communityOwsley will also speak at the March 14 event about the beginnings of DNA analysis on the remnants, which the Smithsonian is partnering with Harvard University to do. This kind of DNA analysis on fairly old bones has only recently been developed.

“When you look at DNA from bones from the past, you only get snippets, and you can fill that information in, so the fact that we’re doing DNA at all on historic remains is pretty amazing,” Bruwelheide said.

One thing that the DNA analysis cannot yet do is link the remains to potential descendants. Bruwelheide said that might be possible if they were only a generation or two apart, but going back this far in time probably wouldn’t work.

Comer would love to reach the descendant community of the slaves in the future, which she says is just not the case in Catoctin Furnace, a tiny village just south of Thurmont.

Catoctin Furnace cemetery

Elizabeth Comer, secretary of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, examines recently what she says is likely a headstone in the Catoctin Furnace cemetery located between Md. 806 and U.S. 15.

While many formerly enslaved black people stayed in the areas around where they worked during the time of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, that was not the case at Catoctin Furnace.

“But our population seems to have shifted, and in the case of the African-American population, it disappears from our community well before that time,” Comer said. “And frankly, probably forcibly.”

Catoctin Furnace isn’t trying to ignore the past moving forward, though. The Museum of the Ironworker is under construction. The facial reconstructions, along with information about slavery and day-to-day life at the Furnace, will be on display permanently once the museum is complete. Visitors will also be able to walk through the back of the woods through a trail in order to see the cemetery from a distance.

When the museum will be finished is uncertain, however, as the Historical Society is waiting on grant money to complete the renovations.

After the facial reconstructions are unveiled at the Delaplaine, they will go on a tour of some of the Frederick County Public Libraries, so that the general public can get a chance to look at them.

Bruwelheide will not be at the event, but she’s excited to hear what the public has to say about the work that the anthropologists have done.

While Comer does not have any knowledge of where the descendants of those enslaved people might be, she wants to reach out to the African community at large to see the impact that the work of those at the Catoctin Furnace had. The iron they made was used for shells at the Siege of Yorktown. They made wells, they produced iron that inspired an entire industrial revolution.

“But those people, the African-American community, specifically descendants don’t have the privilege of being able to drive up to Catoctin Furnace and be able to say, my ancestors built this,” Comer said.

She hopes people can begin to pursue those stories by looking at the faces of those who were there.

“By looking into their faces, we can begin to think about their lives, what they contributed to what we have, what we are today, and really, I hate to overstate it, but it makes them come alive,” Comer said.

“But when you look at those faces, you can feel that they’re there.”

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(9) comments


It is always interesting to look at history and find out about ancestors. Mine came here, to the U.S., mostly before the Civil War, in the mid 1840's, although some came before the Revolution. My great grandfather and great grandmother, on my mother's side came from Wittenberg, Germany, about 50 miles north of Berlin. He enlisted in the 14th New York and fought at Antietam and Fredericksburg. On the same side, not related to my great grandfather, a great Uncle was captured at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads, taken to Andersonville Prison where he died and was buried.

On the other side of the family another great uncle fought on the side of the North, also in the 14th New York. He was wounded in the hand at the Battle of Fair Oaks.

History and genealogy is very interesting.


Yes Dick, we all know of your family history, you've told us multiple times. [yawn]


Does anyone notice, those that protest the loudness regarding removal of public memorials of the confederacy - of course on historical bases - are always so bothered by recognition of the people who endured enslavement, the reason for the confederate states in the first place?


Well said Alice...the days of reckoning are upon us. You sit on the side of atonement or be dealt with accordingly. There’s no way around it. The people who assisted in the revealing of the Truths of this particular buried to be “forgotten” facts in Frederick County history are bringing valuable facts to right what was wrong. Might be too uncomfortable for some to handle.


How does bringing up valuable facts make a wrong into a right?


Because a lot of what was wrong was hiding and lying about the facts.


Why would I want to do that? I wasn't even living in Frederick County then.


No kidding! It is just like those people who want us to see the faces of Confederate generals on statues or flags associated with the CSA. We weren’t around then.


Not quite clear on what “ Why would “I” (you) want to do that?” matters.🤷‍♂️

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