In April of 2016, during our week long Descendent Expedition Program, a pipe bowl was uncovered at the site of the West Smokehouse. The white-clay decorated pipe, formed from a mold during the early 19th century, had a series of images surrounding the completely intact bowl: sheaths of corn extended across the facing side, while a stag or deer skull faced the smoker. An ibis graced one side of the pipe, while the final side displayed a square and compass, the symbol of the Masonic Order.
Such a find sparked immediate speculation among our crew: was James Madison a Mason? Historical evidence shows that Madison explicitly proclaimed that he was not a Mason, but it was a secretive society. Perhaps the archaeology is telling us something different? Perhaps it was his father, who was rumored to have associations with the Masons? Members of the descendant community were quick to speak up, however: the Masonic Order also played a strong role in the African American Community, dating back to the late 18th century. Considering the context of the artifact, discovered among the South Yard, a space occupied and lived in by enslaved African Americans where we have located hundreds of personal items belonging to enslaved persons, why shouldn’t we consider this pipe bowl as something owned by a member of the enslaved community?
The Prince Hall Freemasons
African American participation in the Masonic order has a long history in the United States. Masonry was an appealing call for free blacks, since it was founded on principles of liberty and equality. The earliest pioneer was Prince Hall, a free African American living in Massachusetts during the 18th century. He and 14 other free black men petitioned for admittance to the white Boston St. John’s Lodge prior to the American Revolution, and were denied. The Grand Lodge of Ireland, however, admitted the free black masons through Lodge No. 441 on March 6, 1775. After Prince Hall’s death, an independent African Lodge was formed in 1827, and has since expanded significantly over the centuries, known as Prince Hall Freemasonry.
The role of Masonry in the African American community has been significant. Masonry’s commitment to concepts such as liberty and equality were obvious factors that drew African Americans to the order, and which they regularly practiced through action. Archaeologist Cheryl LaRoche writes that it was one of many important groups that participated in the Underground Railroad, providing an organizational structure and extended community network.1LaRoche, C. J. (2013). Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad. Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. Many notable free African Americans were members of the Prince Hall Masons. This included David Walker, the author of David Walker’s Appeal, which called for African American revolution during the 1830s and had been widely distributed throughout the South.2Walker, D. (1965). David Walker’s Appeal. New York: Hill and Wang.
Others discuss the importance of Masonry to African American masculinity. One particular component of this was the concept of the artisan: Freemasonry is an order focused on the craft of masonry, and therefore the concept of skill and craft are central to its formation. In the United States at this time, the artisan represented characteristics such as “muscular labor, capitalist production, economic independence, and masculine self-sufficiency”.3Wallace, M. (1997). “Are We Men?”: Prince Hall, Martin Delany, and the Masculine Ideal in Black Freemasonry, 1775-1865. American Literary History, 9(3), 396–424. Becoming a mason made a man a “symbolic craftsman”, embodying many of the idealized characteristics of masculinity. For African American men, who simultaneously lived lives of forced labor while also being repeatedly emasculated through enslavement, an organization that provided such symbolic iconography was a meaningful attraction.
Despite this attraction, there is no documented evidence of Freemasonry within the enslaved communities. However, this does not mean that the enslaved men were not aware of the importance of the Order, and of the different things that it stood for. Undoubtedly, due to these elements, outward discussion of belonging to the Prince Hall Freemasons would have been a significant risk and likely disallowed by slave owners in the South.
Further analysis of the pipe bowl indicates that this is likely the case. First, it was not the only other bowl discovered at the site, making the liklihood of two of the same pipes being broken by a visiting European American and disposed of the in the South Yard unlikely. Second, smoking pipes are not commonly found in deposits associated with the Madison family and their guests, but are commonly recovered from excavations at slave quarters. Lastly, andmost importantly, was the modifications made to the pipe bowl. It is clear that the pipe bowl was broken, but a semi circle bored below the stag’s head indicates that a new stem hole was worked into the piece, extending the life of this decorative bowl through the use of a reed stem replacement. James Madison or an elite guest would have likely purchased a new smoking pipe, rather then reworking a broken bowl. A member of the enslaved community, however, would have made this modification to extend the life of a symbolic and beautiful piece of property.
So, this begs a new question: what does the ownership of a Masonic pipe bowl by an enslaved African American mean? Material culture often provides us with information beyond the practical application of a tool or object: in this case, the iconography on the pipe bowl provides a glimpse into the lives of enslaved laborers, and the way they used material objects to project their personal beliefs.
Freemasonry at Montpelier
Despite it missing from the documentary record, the importance of the Prince Hall Freemasons to the enslaved community is present in the archaeological record, where we are often able to see pieces of the past that were never recorded. The presence of these two pipe bowls within the enslaved context at Montpelier demonstrates this fact. Understanding the context of Prince Hall Freemasonry, we can provide additional meaning to the pipe bowls that were discovered in the South Yard, and what they meant to their owners.
This individual owned a pipe that bore iconography associated with the Masonic Order, a pipe that he likely carried with him and used daily while engaged in his labor. Associating himself with an organization that stood for concepts of liberty and equality was a subtle act of daily resistance to his bondage. His association with a group that reclaimed manliness and masculinity similarly challenged the emasculation that was a critical strategy used by slave owners to control enslaved men.4Berry, D. R. (2007). “Swing the sickle for the harvest is ripe”: gender and slavery in antebellum Georgia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Lastly, it allowed him to claim ownership over his labor by identifying himself as an artisan. This is in direct conflict with the role of an enslaved laborer, who’s work was intended for the benefit of his owner. By claiming his labor as a craft, he humanizes his skill and talent. By owning this pipe one could outwardly symbolize an aspirational desire for freedom and control over ones labor, life, and outlook.
Archaeology allows us to see these nuances within the story of the enslaved community, and reveal elements of their lives neglected by the documentary record. More importantly, our work with members of the descendant community allows Montpelier researchers to broaden our gaze on the archaeological record, and begin to ask new and exciting questions about the items we discover. It was our work with African American descendants that challenged us to reconsider our preconceived and narrow view of who were Masons in the 19th century. In doing so, we have discovered new avenues for addressing questions about humanizing African American work and masculinity, and how enslaved laborers challenged their bondage in different ways.
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Terry P. Brock, PhD
Assistant Director for Archaeology
Terry Brock has served in the archaeology department since 2014. He directs the field excavations at Montpelier, and has research interests in publicly engaged scholarship, plantation archaeology, and digital cultural heritage. Terry received his PhD in Anthropology from Michigan State University.