Nearly 200 years ago, the African American workforce who forged iron hardware and weaponry at the Catoctin Furnace was replaced by European wageworkers, leaving scant clues about who they were or where they went. Today, the members of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society want to recover their missing history by crowd funding a $14,000 research project.
“It’s a group that is largely ignored and we really would like to tell that story,” said Elizabeth Comer, an archeologist and CFHS secretary. “Because of new bioarchaeological opportunities that have presented themselves, we are trying to refine the story and expand it.”
Doug Owsley, head of the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who will conduct the research, said scientific advances have made it possible to obtain a great deal of information about the skeletal remains of 35 African Americans recovered from a Catoctin Furnace cemetery during the expansion of U.S. 15 in the early 1980s.
“I think most people are unaware of how much information can come from a human skeleton,” he said. “It’s very detailed.”
Owsley said that craniometric and stable isotope analysis can reveal the geographic origins and ancestry of the 35 individuals, while examination of mitochondrial DNA may reveal their familial relationships to each other and whether they have living descendants today.
Comer said that in addition to restoring local history, uncovering the exact origins of the African ironworkers at the furnace might hold implications for the entire history of the transatlantic slave trade and the American industrial revolution.
She said that certain areas of Africa had “some of the most sophisticated ironworking traditions,” opening the possibility that slaves were sought for their preexisting expertise and that they played a major role in guiding the trajectory of American industry.
“I would argue that the industrial might of the United States in the 20th century can be traced back to the industrial development that you see in places like Catoctin Furnace from the Revolution onward,” Comer said. “It’s a story that should resonate with everyone in the United States, and the people who were doing the work are the people who deserve to be recognized and credited with that.”
Owsley said that this project might be one of the few opportunities to provide such a context to the history of slavery and industry because the African Americans who worked at Catoctin Furnace are the only ones he has ever encountered in an industrial setting in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“I’m sure that there are other (industrial) situations that could easily be identified, but in terms of those that would have human remains (of African Americans) that you could actually look at and ask questions from, I don’t know of any,” he said. “It’s the only one in Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, or D.C. that we have in our database that would provide that kind of context.”
Comer said that the DNA studies might reveal information about the family structures of the African population at the furnace.
“How can we enfranchise them with their history?” Comer said. “If families were kept together, that tells you a lot about the continuity of a community.”
She is hopeful that revealing these relationships will provide another piece of information to connect the remains they have found with the few surviving records of the workers’ names preserved in land documents, wills and the diary of a visitor to the furnace in 1812.
“We might be able to identify not specific people, but specific people possibilities,” she said. For example, “we would like to be able to possibly begin to narrow down an individual who is in his 50s, he might be this individual who is in the cemetery.”
Ancestry.com has agreed to give CFHS access to their expansive DNA database in the hopes of discovering descendants or relatives of the African ironworkers. The search for descendants provides the only opportunity to discover what happened to the freed and enslaved African workers when they left the furnace.
Comer said that without the DNA analysis, the only theories about where the enslaved workers were sent rests on knowledge of slave trading routes at that time, meaning they likely ended up in New Orleans, the Caribbean, or Brazil. There are no clues about the fate of the freed African furnace workers.
“Whatever we come up with will be enlightening and a heck of a lot more than we know now,” Comer said.
CFHS has reached out to local African American organizations to aid their fundraising efforts and has been met with strong support.
“Our history books have not given us all of the information that we need and certainly were not inclusive in telling the overall story, especially as far as African Americans are concerned,” said David Key, president of the African American Resources and Cultural Heritage Society of Frederick County. “African Americans played a huge part in building this country, and anyone who is interested should contribute in any way they can as far as getting the story out there.”