This battered, but mostly intact, reaping knife or scythe was donated in 1964 by Marjory Hendricks. Ms. Hendricks described it as an “important relic . . . a sickle which I dug up near the Spring at Normandy Farm” in Potomac, and informed us that the Smithsonian dated it to “1712 or 1716.”  It is made of iron, hand-forged and riveted together; the remains of a wooden handle are attached with two long iron wires (and one modern screw).

In 1931, Marjory Hendricks purchased some land on Falls Road and opened the Normandy Farm Restaurant. (Now known as Normandie Farm, the restaurant is a Potomac landmark.) Ms. Hendricks lived in a cottage on the property and kept a large vegetable garden; presumably the knife was found in the course of cultivation or yardwork, and she took it with her when she sold the restaurant in 1958.

So what was there in 1712-1716? Whose reaping knife was lost or forgotten on the grounds? Some histories of the restaurant say the land was “originally” a country club, which is not technically accurate. In this instance*, we need to go back to at least the beginning of the 18th century. According to the land grant maps in our Library – meticulously researched by volunteers Sheila Cochran, Eleanor Cook, Mary Charlotte Crook, and Florence Howard – Normandie Farm sits on part of a 600 acre land grant called “The Outlett,” surveyed in 1715 for William Offutt (d. 1734). Click the map below to enlarge it (and to read my tiny caption).

William left “The Outlett” to his son Edward, describing it in his will as “All that tract of land called the Outlett beginning at a White Oak on a small branch that runneth into the Branch called the Pyny Branch [apparently now Watt’s Branch, not the modern Piney Branch] the said Branch falling into Potomack against an Island formerly laid out for Walter Evans containing 600 acres.” (Got that? This is why the land grant research by our volunteers is so fantastic; I don’t have to figure out what all this means.) Edward Offutt (ca. 1698-1749) in turn subdivided “The Outlett,” leaving 200 acres to his son William and “all remaining portion” to his wife “during life, then to son Nathaniel and heirs forever, 259 acres of that ‘Outlett’ then the remaining of that ‘Outlett’ to Ruth and Mary, daughters, in equal shares. . . Ruth and her husband to have the piece on which [they] now dwell.”

Okay, so the awesomely complicated legal language doesn’t really have much to do with the knife itself, but it does give us clues as to what was happening on the land. Both William and Edward are described as “planters,” so there was cultivation going on somewhere. William Offutt’s primary residence was in Upper Marlboro, but Edward may have lived on “The Outlett,” as it is the only property referenced in his will. The last bit of Edward’s will quoted above seems to indicate that, even if Edward lived elsewhere, his daughter Ruth and her husband did live here.  “The Outlett” wasn’t just sitting there untouched.

Dr. Adams, the MCHS curator in 1964, hedged his bets and called this a “reaping knife” rather than Ms. Hendricks’s “sickle.” Grass and grain cutting tools have a very long history, and the hand tools used today have not varied too much from the ancient forms; “sickle” generally describes a more curved blade, while scythes and knives have a straighter blade at a right-ish angle to the handle. Our artifact resembles the tobacco and corn knives that can be found in collections of farm implement afficionados (and are still used by the Forest Service).  This piece has no maker’s marks (at least not any that remain visible). Ms. Hendricks did not provide us with any material from the Smithsonian, so the reasoning behind the “1712-1716” date is unknown; not being an expert on early American tools, however, I am happy to let it stand until proven otherwise.

Agriculture in 18th century Maryland centered around tobacco, with a gradual switch to wheat. I haven’t yet found anything to specify what was being grown on “The Outlett” – Edward’s inventory might give some clues – but the presence of a reaping knife of such early vintage would seem to indicate that at least some of the land was cultivated, probably with tobacco.  So our corn/tobacco reaping knife fits into that story. It is important to remember, however, that farm ownership and farm work are not the same. Father and son were not necessarily wielding Ye Olde Reaper themselves. William and Edward were, like many of their peers, slave owners; one or more these enslaved African Americans were the likely users of this knife – but we know much less about them. William’s will, written in 1732, mentions only one specific person (“the Youngest Negro I shall be possessed of at the time of my Decease” was willed to Edward, along with the real estate); perhaps other people were included in “the Rest Residue and Remainder of my Estate both Real & Personal.” Edward’s will, written in 1749, names Charles, Hercules, Pegg, Sue, Jack, James, Gulloby and Butcher.

I would be remiss if I did not include the perspective of a historical archaeologist. We can’t really fault Ms. Hendricks, who found this knife by accident on her own property, for not starting up a full-scale scientific survey. And, yes, through legal records and comparison to other, better-documented tools we can guess at some of its story; it’s an interesting piece. However, had this artifact been uncovered during an archaeological dig, with its context and provenience intact, we would almost certainly know more about its history and use.  Archaeologists don’t simply dig to get the artifacts out of the ground; they also study the surrounding soil, which tells you more than you might think.

To learn more about archaeology in Montgomery County, visit the websites of Montgomery Parks – Archaeology or the Archaeological Society of Maryland Mid-Potomac Chapter.

*Ms. Hendricks also donated to us an “Indian stone ax,” likewise “dug up near the Spring.”  To talk about that piece – perhaps in a future post – we’ll have to go back even further past the “original” country club!

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