Before Europeans began to widely explore the world, their homeland was covered with a forest whose size rivaled today’s Amazon Basin. In 1890, Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer postulated that tree growth in early history was so dense, “scattered clearings must have appeared like islets in an ocean of green.” While each country’s path to deforestation took its own twists and turns, during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, the disappearance of trees in England was a direct effect of both the rise in exploration and the demand for a large navy. The amount of wood required to fuel England’s ambitions is almost impossible to comprehend. Each vessel that fought at the Battle of Trafalgar, for example, was constructed from about 6000 mature oak trees.
Shipbuilding was interrelated with another significant wood-guzzler: iron production. Iron provided weaponry and structural support for many ships, but manufacturing it required large furnaces that burned through voracious amounts of firewood. By the mid-eighteenth century, England simply did not have enough timber within its borders to sustain a domestic iron industry.
The ruin of England’s forests brought an incredible opportunity to entrepreneurs in America’s northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Maryland, a colony remembered more today for its tidewater tobacco plantations, had very suitable land for iron production – its western frontier. In 1719, the Maryland General Assembly passed “An Act for the Encouragement of an Iron Manufacture within this Province” to spur development at sites naturally rich with ore.
Decades later, iron had become a way of life in western Maryland’s Monocacy River Valley. In late 1774, the four brothers of the Johnson family began to take steps to construct a furnace complex at the foot of the Catoctin Ridge. For a little over a hundred and twenty-five years, various owners smelted ore in the furnace and cast iron implements of all kinds. Today, the pyramidal remains of the forge are still accessible off of Route 15 between Frederick and Thurmont, protected under the jurisdiction of Cunningham Falls State Park.
England’s transference of iron manufacturing could have brought about a parallel doom on Maryland’s ecosystem, but at Catoctin Furnace, the land has largely recovered with new growth. In 1979, when excavating an unmarked cemetery for African slave ironworkers on a hill to the south of the furnace, archaeologists found several skeletons intermingled with tree roots. Nature was reclaiming an industrial landscape. But perhaps in the nick of time, researchers salvaged certain clues from the graves that reveal the interesting singularities of this particular group. Genetic tests showed that each of the 35 sets of remains found belonged to a first or second generation, full-blooded African immigrant who died between 1790 and 1840. For fifty years, the population lived in white society and managed to remain black. How they maintained this racial purity and asserted independence through it is related to one factor: the successful transfer of iron technology and expertise from their homeland.
The dozens of enslaved ironworkers at Catoctin Furnace were not doing work with which they were unfamiliar. At the height of the Atlantic slave trade, Africa was a metallurgical hotbed. In the early 19th century, Tunisian scholar Mohamed el-Tounsy, traveled in Chad and Sudan and observed iron products “more elegant and graceful” than any made by European hands. In Nigeria’s Yoruba country, iron technology was a key part of spiritual life and skilled artisans enjoyed elite status in society. The Bantu people also enjoyed military and agricultural superiority with the high quality of their iron weapons and tools.
The African mining tradition also had gendered divisions of labor. While men traditionally performed the smelting and smithing, women and children were responsible for labor-intensive tasks such as mining ore in the surrounding area and preparing it for transport. Catoctin Furnace Cemetery contains equal amounts of men, women, and children arranged in related groups, showing that families were either brought from Africa intact or quickly formed at the time of settlement.
In contrast to the Africans’ expertise, members of Catoctin’s white population would have been total newcomers to the iron trade. Catoctin’s whites were primarily Germans or German-speaking Swiss who had recently fled religious persecution in Europe. Most of them had once been farmers or independent artisans. Thus, intricate knowledge of the iron trade, such as how metal behaves at certain temperatures, would have been highly desirable to operators at Catoctin Furnace. These skilled African artisans were thus placed at the crux of national importance. Not only were they relied on to fuel a global shipbuilding trade, but also to form the backbone of a revolution. In defiance of colonial law, the Johnson brothers’ operation served as a supplier of munitions for the American Revolutionary War.
Experience led to efficiency. Surviving documents reveal that Catoctin ironworkers were provided opportunities for “overwork.” Under this system, slaves could work overtime in return for cash or supplies. This likely would have allowed families an improved standard of living. More importantly, however, it may have helped foster a master-slave dynamic that avoided a tragically common consequence of American slavery: sexual exploitation. The Catoctin Furnace Cemetery shows a complete lack of Caucasian interbreeding, unlike similar cemeteries found throughout the South and Caribbean. By earning from their masters an honest appreciation of their skills, they may have been able to protect themselves from bodily abuses.
The Africans’ expertise also gave them the power to think critically about the nature of their bondage. In July 1799, the Johnsons allowed John Frederick Schlegal, minister of the local Graceham Moravian Church, to sermonize the ironworkers during a midday break. In his diary, Schlegal described approaching the “poor Negroes” at the center of their working environment, the furnace cavity. The minister preached to them until “the signal was given for pouring and each of them had to go back to work.”
It is likely that the Johnsons allowed Schlegal to give his sermon because he hoped it could be a subtle way to enforce their slaves’ dependence. By bringing the Word of God to exhausted men in their workspace, blame for the slaves’ condition could be placed on the environment rather than the masters themselves. According to historian John Bezis-Selfa, Schlegal’s message was an attempt to spare Johnson “any direct responsibility for his slaves’ well-being.” However, it is unlikely that Johnson’s slaves would have been fooled by the ruse. Remembering the freedom they enjoyed as bosses of their own iron furnaces back in Africa, they would have fully recognized that their bondage was a calculated condition.
Knowledge is power. Africans at Catoctin complicated the power dynamics of the master-slave relationship due to their retention of skills learned from a strong African metallurgical tradition. Without African expertise, not only would a global industry have floundered, but slave individuals themselves would have been ill-equipped to protect themselves from further compromises to their humanity. In April 2015, researchers announced plans for further study of the genetics of the Catoctin Furnace Cemetery remains. Hopefully, their findings will paint a better picture of an incredible legacy imprinted in the bucolic wilds of the Maryland frontier.
Edmund F. Wehrle, Catoctin Mountain Park: A Historic Resource Study (National Park Service, March 2000)