Remains Tell Stories of Delaware’s Earliest Enslaved

Burials uncovered in Rehoboth Bay give a first-hand account of the hard life faced by those forced to labor on a 17th-century Delaware plantation

Delaware Dig
Excavations at Avery's Rest Dan Griffith, Archaeological Society of Delaware, Inc

These days, Delaware’s Cape region is known for being a beachy playground. In stark contrast, life in the area's tobacco fields in the 17th-century was characterized by being brutal and short, especially for the enslaved people who worked the plantations. As Michael E. Ruane at the Washington Post reports, archaeologists are now getting a first-hand account of their lives in the fields from human remains found in Rehoboth Bay. 

These may be the earliest remains of enslaved people found so far in Delaware, according to a press release.

Archaeologists began to dig on the grounds of a former plantation called Avery’s Rest, which was once owned by local judge, planter and sea captain John Avery, in 2006. Back in the 1970s, the area was designated as a historically significant site, which is what triggered the round of excavations in the 2000s, when the state learned that the area was being considered for development.

Since then, researchers have uncovered artifacts and buildings on the site. The burials were discovered in 2012. In total, researchers have uncovered 11 of them dating between the 1660s and 1690s. They've since transferred the remains to the Smithsonian for analysis and DNA testing.

According to Ruane, most of the remains were buried in a row. In total, they included seven men, two women and two children of undetermined sex. It’s believed that some of the remains are members of Avery’s family including daughters, grandchildren and sons-in-law. Research shows that two of the men were of African ancestry as well as one of the children. They were buried close to the others but in a separate section.

Studying the remains reveals just how hard life was for the enslaved workers. The man in grave 10, likely age 35, had grooves in his teeth from clenching his clay pipe all day and evidence in his spine that he spent his life in hard labor. Notably, a chunk of bone was chipped from his right eyebrow, a sign of trauma. The man's death may have been caused by a fall, or from being kicked by a horse. It's possible that John Avery, who was known to be ill-tempered and once assaulted a magistrate with a cane, could have had something to do with the death, as well.

While the two enslaved males are listed in the property inventory for the Avery family, their names are not. Tim Slavin, director of Delaware’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs tells Maddy Lauria at the The News Journal the next step is to try to add a name, or at least some detail, to the remains. “First we have to do a mountain of research to see if we can find the names of these individuals,” he says. “This is really the first and only remains [of people of African descent] that we have from this period. It’s a new story, a new chapter that takes place.”

Doug Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, tells Lauria that there is still much to be learned from the bones themselves. For instance, Owsley already suspects that the individuals were not born in Africa and brought to Delaware. Instead, he says it's possible they were born in the Mid-Atlantic region.

“The better the preservation, the more we’re able to say about these individuals,” Owsley says. “I’ve never seen such phenomenal preservation.”

In the future, the team is considering doing facial reconstructions, which could help reveal the identities and places of origin of the burial site's occupants.

“This archeological discovery is truly exciting, and reminds us that the ancestors will always make themselves known to us if we listen,” says Angela Winand, head of the Mitchell Center for African American heritage and diversity programs at the Delaware Historical Society. “The stories of their sacrifices in life and remembrances in death are truly ‘written in bone’ for us to interpret, understand and honor.”