HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — Archaeologists in Hampton have made a stunning discovery. They’ve dug up trenches believed to hold information about people once enslaved, but determined to be free, right here in Hampton Roads.
We know Hampton Roads plays a significant role in America’s history, but as Fort Monroe is being developed with Freedom’s Fort as a focus, historians are learning more of the details of that story. Archaeologists think they’ve come across the place where thousands of slaves came during the Civil War after making the decision to leave the plantations that enslaved them.
“We opened up this big long trench, just to see what was there. We did find a possible well,” said Joe Dietmeier from the James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc. “We do have a possible alley way. The soil is a different color, so you have a nice clear brown stripe running across. We did find a button that predates the Civil War. It looks like it’s somewhere between 1812 and 1830. We found stuff right away, and pretty much everything we found was in the first week or so.”
Historians, like Michael Cobb from the Hampton History Museum, say the Grand Contraband Camp began when Union Major General Benjamin Butler, then Commander of Fort Monroe, encountered three slaves and gave them asylum.
Historians say slaves escaping across Union lines would be considered “contraband of war,” and it’s estimated by the end of the Civil War 7,000 to 8,000 more salves seeking asylum came to call the camp outside Fort Monroe home.
“They weren’t completely free, but they weren’t completely slaves. He put them to work, and soon after 10, 20, 100 contraband started showing up every day at Fort Monroe,” Cobb said. “What they wanted out of life is what we all want — they wanted freedom, education and land.”
Some historians say the camp was the first self-contained African American community in the United States. But what’s certain is that historians are eagerly waiting to see what the site near the intersection of Armistead Avenue and Lincoln Street holds.
“When this happened and we actually uncover history and the archaeologists are working, it’s like every day you go by and look it’s like opening a page of a book,” Cobb said.
Right now, archaeologists are just in phase one for the work in uncovering what is at the dig site. But on July 18, there will be an open house there so the public can see what’s been found so far. You’ll be able to see the excavation, artifacts and meet the archaeologists.