A trove of historic papers was saved from the garbage earlier this year when a damaged house was being emptied of its contents ahead of demolition. The historic site had been in the same family for generations and several houses had been built on the Chestertown, Maryland site over the years. The papers were found in a garbage bag in the attic by the homeowner, Nancy Bordely Lane, who initially thought it was a bag of junk. However, the documents were saved at the last minute and sent to auction instead of being discarded.

Chestertown MD water front
Historic style boats on the Chester River, Chestertown, MD. Via: Mike Boswell/Flickr

The papers in question total at around 2,000 pages and date from the late 17th century to the early 19th century. Among the papers are letters and financial documents, including around 100 documents relating to slavery.

One document from the stack was a wanted poster for a runaway slave named Amos that dates from 1793. The poster tells the reader that he was a “smart fellow” living in “Queen Ann’s County” and might have been headed to where his mother lived. It was common for enslaved family members to be sold or loaned out to other plantations far away, as keeping the family together was not considered important by slave masters. The reward offered for the return of Amos was $30.

According to Historian, Adam Goodheart, who saw the flyer in person, there are only about 10 such wanted posters from the 1700s that still survive today. The flyers were printed on thin “rag” paper and thrown away not long after they were put up.

Another heartbreaking story told through the papers was about a young white child whose clothing and other needs were to be paid for from the labor of 3 slaves, one of whom was merely a child himself.

20th century depiction of enslaved women processing rice harvest
20th century depiction of enslaved women processing rice harvest. Via: NYPL Digital Collections

The papers also relate to the purchasing of land and farming practices of free mixed-race individuals. The documents altogether offer an in-depth look at many aspects of slavery in the US, something that is invaluable to historians today.

The papers were purchased at an auction held by Dixon’s Crumpton Auction for a sum in the 5-figure range. The purchasing party is a coalition of African American community members, activists, and historians and alumnus from the nearby Washington College. The papers are now being held at the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience on the Washington College campus.

One alumni, Darius Johnson, said that the papers give a chance for the younger generations to become more involved in history. Johnson referenced past generations’ connection to history and said that, “It’s not that far out of reach, it’s attainable”.

When the homeowner learned of the sale she commented to the Washington Post, “I love it. History should be acknowledged.”