Bayly Cabin found to be a home

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper For just two weeks, the Bayly Cabin property has been a whirlwind of activity. Seen here are some of the artifacts recovered from the site.

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
For just two weeks, the Bayly Cabin property has been a whirlwind of activity. Seen here are some of the artifacts recovered from the site.

CAMBRIDGE — The Bayly House, at 207 High Street in this city, has long been considered the oldest dwelling in Cambridge, dating back to the 1740s. It is believed that the house was originally built in Oxford, then moved to Cambridge in the 1750s to the site where the court house is now located.

It is called the “Backwards House” by some, because when it was moved across High Street, no one thought to turn the house around–the front of the original house actually faces the back yard. Because of the uniqueness of the “Backward House” story, the Bayly House is a popular tourist site on High Street. But, apparently the real history question lay in the provenance of a humble shed in that back yard.

According to Dorchester County Tourism, Architectural Historian Stephen Delsordo has evaluated the building and has stated that it was constructed prior to the middle of the 19th century by reusing material from older buildings, along with new building material. And according to Bayly family tradition, the outbuilding served as quarters for the house servants.

In addition, Kate Larson, historian and Harriet Tubman scholar, has confirmed that the John Caille family (the original owners of the house) and the Bayly family, particularly Josiah Bayly and his son Dr. Alexander Hamilton Bayly, owned slaves.

Digging begins
The property was purchased by the prominent Bayly family around 1830, and occupied by Dr. Bayly (1814-1892) and his descendants until 2003. To date, then, it has been surmised that the Bayly cabin was a residence of enslaved persons at one time. To determine the truth, some real digging was going to have to be done.

Recently, the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area (HCCHA), Dorchester County Tourism, and Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) reached an agreement with current property owner Catherine Morrison to allow an archaeological survey to take place on the property, to determine exactly what the former use of the cabin might have been.

Led by Dr. Julie Schablitsky, SHA’s chief archaeologist, a team of archaeologists spent two weeks carefully digging and evaluating what they found, and in an on-site press conference on September 20, the team is ready to confirm that the Bayly Cabin does indeed appear to be a former slave cabin.

“It’s amazing. This cabin is like a time capsule,” said Dr. Schablitsky. “It’s like somebody shut the door in 1900, and it’s been waiting for us since that time. It’s been an amazing two weeks; we’ve learned so much. Our big question was, ‘could this be a house? And could this house be a place where African-Americans lived?’ And I can tell you without a doubt that this was definitely a home.

Hidden treasures
“You can tell by the broken ceramics, from the buttons that were lost through the cracks in the floor,” Dr. Schablitsky said. “All these things that trickle down through the floorboards, and the things we find under the floor, those things are really speaking to these people’s lives. We came across a crab claw. We’re finding fish bones; we’re finding things people ate then tossed away. All these little bits are going to tell us who these people really were. These people weren’t documented in files and archives. What they have left is written in stone and bone and ceramics.”

According to a report from Dorchester County Tourism, there are mid-1700s Rhenish ceramics found on the site, which were made in Germany, traded to the British and shipped to Maryland. Dr. Schablitsky told us about a Dalby’s Carminativ medicine bottle, which would have been imported from England in the mid-1800s and administered to colicky babies.

There have been numerous buttons found on the site – the kind used on fancy waistcoats as well as simple undershirts. There are a pair of 19th-century sewing scissors and part of a wine bottle with a pontil mark, which indicates it was blown freehand. There have also found clay tobacco pipe stems, which could possibly yield human DNA through genetic testing.

‘Awe and appreciation’
Property owner Morrison has been involved and amazed by the team and the dig since the first day. “My awe and appreciation for (this property’s) history and its people have grown immeasurably in this time,” Ms. Morrison said.

In a short two weeks, the team have uncovered a treasure trove in the Bayly back yard. Even as the dig was wrapping up, on press conference day, one of the archaeologists was carefully scraping dirt away from the brick foundation of a former privy adjacent to the cabin. It was easy to see that a vast amount of history is still buried just under the grass in the Bayly back yard — an enticing temptation for the archaeology team.

“It sounds like the landowners will have us back,” said Dr. Shablitsky, “and I’m excited to come back in the spring. If the cabin is going to be rehabbed, remodeled and shorn up, we need to get under the rest of the floorboards and be sure (what’s under there) is not impacted by the new construction. I’m excited to come back and learn more.”

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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