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Africans in the Chesapeake

Finding African Burials in the Chesapeake
African Origins
The Young Woman from Harleigh Knoll

The skeletal record traces the Chesapeake African story as no other evidence can. Bones let us evaluate an individual. We see a man or woman, a child or an adult, a person with particular experiences in life and death, whose own story is as relevant to history as any other.


wrought iron shackles
Wrought iron shackles, found in an abandoned 17th-century well, with one anklet chiseled apart. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Bones reveal identity, both individually and within a group. A skeleton's African origin can be identified and sometimes linked to a specific region. For people whose cultural and personal identity was stripped away in life, the skeletal record can be vital in discovering personal history and ancestral ties.

cowrie shell
Cowry shell found in a sub-floor pit of a slave quarter.  Learn more about the significance of cowry shells.  Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

What Artifacts Can’t Tell Us

Items identified as African are rare in early Chesapeake sites. Africans who arrived as slaves brought few if any belongings with them. Many enslaved Africans could not openly practice their beliefs without fear of punishment. Consequently, Africans limited themselves to subtle cultural expressions that are difficult to detect in the archaeological record.

There were relatively few Africans in Virginia or Maryland in the 1600s. Many slaveholders owned only one to two slaves. Blacks and whites lived and worked together, also making it difficult to separate items used, made, or owned by blacks from those of whites.

cranium of a woman with filed teeth
Notch created by filing teeth
Cranium of a woman with filed teeth and image of 3D scan of teeth. Images courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Tooth Notching

Cultural practices that affect appearance can offer clues to identity. Tooth notching, because it modifies the skeleton, persists after death. The front teeth may be filed or chipped along the biting edge, or even extracted. Ethnographic and travel literature from the 1800s reported that peoples in some regions of Africa modified their teeth in particular patterns.

No reports of tooth notching done in North America have been found. Advertisements for runaway slaves referred to persons with filed teeth as African-born. These documents have supported claims that remains with tooth notching represent first-generation Africans in America.

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