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DNA research opens door to match slaves with relatives
May 18

Frederick News-Post

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) _ Their burial place was never peaceful.

The night they gathered to bury a mother and her child, they searched for nails to secure the lid to the wood coffins. They could see off in the distance, even through the black, the towering stone furnace, which glowed like a red eye. The ore pit _ where they labored _ sitting between them and it.

Another night they buried a young man and later his sister, or maybe it was the other way around. But like so much about the slaves of Catoctin Furnace, the details have been lost.

``It's not unusual at all for them to be lost in time,'' said Elizabeth A. Comer, an archaeologist and member of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society.

The cemetery of the enslaved workers of the iron furnace was rediscovered in 1979 _ 116 years after Abraham Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation and potentially even longer since the enslaved people of Catoctin Furnace were sold or freed.

The historical society knows for sure the years slaves tried to escape the industrial site from the reward and wanted advertisements published in the newspaper. But dating when one of them died or finding a reference in a diary or ledger of when they left the area has eluded the historical society.

Instead historians have: Cranium 387-790. Enslaved female. Age 22 to 25 years old.

``I show her cranium, because I think it's emblematic of the power that she has now as a crania, as opposed to the power she probably and _ let's face it _ she did not have as a human,'' Comer told a crowd gathered at Thurmont Regional Library earlier this month.

Her remains and those of 34 other people were exhumed from a forested patch of earth, which had been forgotten until the construction of the northbound lanes of U.S. 15. Together, the 35 former slaves were sent to the Smithsonian Institution division of physical anthropology in the 1980s, where they are now under the care of curator Doug Owsley.

And just last month, new light was shed on who they are.

The history of the European-American owners and workers at the furnace is well-preserved, but the stories and lives of the black enslaved workers have vanished.

Sometimes their lives disappeared in plain sight, as a photograph of a ``mule barn'' from the 19th or 20th century shows, if one only pauses to think.

``Anybody here that knows about a barn, knows that you don't put chimneys _ and multiple ones at that (there are three of them in the structure) _ in a barn of any sort,'' Comer said.

Today, the historical society believes the barn was most likely slave quarters.

``Catoctin Furnace, as it is today, preserves a European immigrant history,'' Comer said. ``When you drive to Catoctin Furnace, when you drive through the village, if you visit the church, if you go and visit anyone in that area _ you will see that many of the people that live there and many of the people that live in Thurmont are direct descendants of European workers.''

But just a few yards from the town's Main Street, at least 35 to 40 more slaves are still buried in the cemetery.

Much of the historical society's current work is to merge the narratives of the Europeans with those of the black enslaved people, but with no collective memory preserved in black generations alive today and very sparse written records, that is hard to do. One of the biggest challenges has been the lack of last names, Comer said.

In one spot, a pile of head and foot stone grave markers are unceremoniously piled under a tree that overgrew the cemetery. At the time the bodies were exhumed, there wasn't an emphasis on cataloging stones and rocks, which is why they are all piled together, Comer said. The original field notes from the dig have also been lost.

Unfortunately, that now means that even if the historical society were to use modern imaging equipment to re-evaluate the surface of the stones, they would not be able to link any potential names or markings to a specific grave, she said.

``We do not have _ as I said earlier _ an African-American population that has come forward and said, `I'm part of this landscape. I'm part of this history,''' Comer said. But research just completed on the DNA of half of the exhumed slaves may be the key to finding that link.

His name is David Reich, and from his laboratory at Harvard University, he is providing researchers a universal link: DNA.

On Feb. 21, 2017, Reich traveled to Washington, D.C., and collected samples from the bones of 14 of the Catoctin Furnace slaves. Collecting DNA from old bones is not as easy as it would be from a person who died today. The human DNA has to be carefully separated from extraneous environmental DNA from molds and other non-human sources, Comer said.

What is sometimes left is stretches of human DNA _ the unique code that would have been passed down from parents to children for generations.

``A technological revolution has made it possible to sequence whole genomes from ancient bones, giving us an unanticipated opportunity to understand how humans are changing,'' writes Reich Lab, which looks at DNA and population structure. ``Ancient DNA allows us to go beyond the two-dimensional map of genetic variation based on the coordinates of latitude and longitude. Now we can extend this to a three-dimensional map, adding time.''

Comer recently submitted a research proposal to the Smithsonian Institute to allow Reich Lab to collect additional ancient DNA samples from the remaining exhumed slaves, after sitting down with Reich and Owsley to discuss the future of the project. They are awaiting a response from the Smithsonian.

Reich declined through a spokeswoman for Harvard University to be interviewed for this story pending publication of an article on the findings.

In the meantime, the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society is continuing its own work by putting together a ``census of slaves'' using historical records to identify family units and jobs assigned at the furnace. The research has been hampered in extending the genealogy into the future, because of the lack of last names, Comer said.

Now, with a pool of ancient DNA results, the historical society is going to load the existing genetic profiles of each of the enslaved people to 23andMe _ a website and genetic testing company that analyzes people's 23 chromosomes, which store all of a person's genetic information. There they will be able to see if the genetic code of one of the slaves matches a person living today _ with the hope to connect someone to their ancestor.

When the slaves gathered to bury their dead, they would have been exhausted from a day of hard labor.

The jobs at the iron furnace were extremely dangerous. An atypical number of teenagers and young adults are buried in the slave cemetery at Catoctin Furnace, Comer said. Even in the 18th or 19th century, if a person made it through the first year of life, or to the age of 5, then their chances of living through adulthood were high.

Yet the people buried in the cemetery show signs of being worked overly hard for long periods of time. It was possible they were worked so hard that when a disease hit they did not have have the reserves to fight off the infection, she said.

Several of the bodies also show signs of rickets _ a condition of soft or weak bones _ which could be caused by diet and would have lifelong effects.

One young woman stands out, because her spine is compressed in a way that is usually found only in elderly people, Comer said. Her spine is yet another sign of years of hard labor. Currently, the historical society is researching if the enslaved people at Catoctin Furnace may in fact have been worked to death.

Despite all their findings, the biggest question remains: Who were they?

And, for now, that is still unclear.


Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, http://www.fredericknewspost.com

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2019