Last week we featured an artifact from The Briers, an estate in Olney. The Briers – originally called Silent Retreat – was built in 1854, and was situated off Route 108 (see map at bottom of post). The owner, Josiah Waters Jones, Sr. (1810-1896), was a prosperous farmer; the 1860 census shows that his real estate at that time was worth $10,000 and his personal property worth $20,000. He did not marry until 1864, so the 1860 census shows him alone in his household.

Except that he wasn’t alone. The 1860 Slave Schedule, enumerated separately, shows that Jones claimed ownership of thirteen people, and that his estate included two “slave houses.” This brings us to today’s artifact: a small wooden bench, believed to have been “used by slaves at the Briers as substitute for chairs at the kitchen or cabin table.” (Quoted from our original 1960s catalog card.)  It was donated in 1962 by Mrs. JW (Margaret) Jones, Jr., and can be seen in the Beall-Dawson House in our upstairs slave quarters room.

The seat top measures 8″ x 40″, and the bench is 14″ tall. One leg is a turned and finished piece, and the other three are unfinished, still covered in bark; presumably one kind was a replacement for the other, though it’s not clear which is which. The construction is simple, but it is sturdy and made with some care.  The center of the top is worn smooth, though there are some cut-marks that look like it was used as a cutting board or work surface; it has suffered water damage, chips and scratches, and other signs that this is a utilitarian piece of furniture over 150 years old.

The 1860 Slave Schedule does not, with few exceptions, provide names; instead, only the person’s age, sex and “color” are noted. Mr. Jones’ list includes black females aged 70, 34, 16, and 3, and black males aged 68, 45, 40, 33, 24, 16, 14 and 1. The 13th individual is listed as a 60 year old mulatto male, marked as a “fugitive from the state.”

Fortunately there are other sources to help us give identities to at least a few of these unnamed individuals, some or all of whom may have used this bench. (Indeed, one of them probably made it). Though a name is only part of a person’s story and identity, it can be an important part – and it was a part often denied to enslaved people, at least in the records left by whites.  Using names whenever possible can help to make history human and knowable on a very basic level.  (For a fantastic example of work being done in this area, visit the Virginia Historical Society’s “Unknown No Longer” project.)

In 1867, Maryland commenced a “Slave Census” which listed, by owner (now ex-), those individuals enslaved in 1864 at the time of Maryland’s emancipation. From this, we see that in 1864 The Briers was home to: David Dorsey, 60; Edward Williams, 49; George Thomas, 35; Peter J. Williams, 32; Thomas Williams, 30; Tilghman Debtor, 19; Samuel Debtor, 17; Mary [no surname given], 17; Martha Debtor, 12; Elias Debtor, 8; and Anne Debtor, 2. Tilghman and Samuel Debtor are noted as having enlisted in the Union Army, for which Mr. Jones received $100 compensation each. David Dorsey is, perhaps, the “capable slave Uncle Dave, blacksmith and wheelwright” described by historian Roger Brooke Farquhar in the early 1960s. (For anyone playing along at home with their own copy of Farquhar’s book, Old Homes and History, please note that The Briers is filed under T for “The.”) In the 1870 census, Martha and Elias Detter (Debtor) are “domestic servants” in the Jones household, while David Dorsey and Edward Williams, “farm laborers,” live in their own households in the Olney area.  I have not been able to trace the other people in the County records.

As for the building(s) in which this bench was used, no photos of cabins or “slave houses” at The Briers exist that I’m aware of. Farquhar states that “Josiah Waters Jones, Sr., built in 1853 before the brick house was built, a stone slave quarters.”  The Briers gave way to suburbia in 1962; the house and all the remaining outbuildings were torn down.  It was not entirely forgotten, however.  Streets in the new neighborhood of Olney Mill were named after Montgomery County estates, including “Briars Road” (they spelled it wrong, but oh well), and according to a photo feature in the Washington Star (Jan 10, 1966), the “historic-looking” but entirely fake mill at the entrance to Olney Mill “has been built of stone salvaged from slave quarters, stables and a blacksmith shop found on the Briers.”

Since evidence suggests that at least one cabin was built of stone, The Briers’ quarters may have looked something like this one, at Mt. Carmel in Dickerson.  1936 photo from the HABS collection, Library of Congress.

Interested in the unique challenges of 19th century African-American genealogy? Our own Sween Research Library has many resources, in the form of both printed works and knowledgeable staff and volunteers.  Help can also be found through our Genealogy Club. Other online resources include www.ancestry.com (a membership-based site), www.mdslavery.net, and www.familysearch.org

Above: a detail from G.M. Hopkins’ 1879 Atlas of Montgomery County (with my notes), showing the intersection of the Washington & Brookeville Turnpike (Route 97) and the Laytonsville-Sandy Spring Road (Route 108). For further locational assistance, the “Chas. H. Brooke residence” at the top is Falling Green, currently the home of the Olney Boys & Girls Club.

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