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  • Elizabeth Anderson Comer, Catoctin Furnace Historical Society

Engaging the Descendant Community of Catoctin Furnace.

In 2014, the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society (CFHS) began a search to identify the descendant community of enslaved and free African American ironworkers at the revolutionary era furnace. This ambitious project was also aimed at increased public awareness of the role of African Americans in the iron industry at Catoctin Furnace and elsewhere. Lacking an identified descendant community, a collective kinship model was applied to vault the proverbial “brick wall” of genealogical research and connect individuals to the legacy of skilled Catoctin ironworkers. At the same time, CFHS began a groundbreaking “Recovering Identity” project to apply the science of genetics as well as historical research, oral tradition, and self-identified affinity connecting living descendants of enslaved workers with their ancestors.


Excavated by Mid-Atlantic Archaeological Research, Inc. in 1979 and 1980, the Catoctin Furnace cemetery is thought to be the most complete African American cemetery connected with early industry in the United States. Thirty-five graves located within the proposed path of construction for US Route 15 were excavated and the remains of 32 individuals recovered. In 2015, the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, Inc. received grant funding to begin reanalyzing the cemetery remains utilizing technologies not available at the time of the initial excavation. In partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and the Reich Laboratory for Medical and Population Genetics at Harvard University, CFHS undertook analysis of ancient DNA and the human genome of individuals buried in the Catoctin Furnace cemetery, resulting in 27 successful genome sequences.


The stated goal of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, Inc. in undertaking this research is to identify a descendant community for the Catoctin African American workers (enslaved and free); to connect the individuals within the cemetery to their ancestral areas of Africa; and to share the discovery process and its results with the public. As revealed in the August 4, 2023 Science article, more than 41,000 people have been identified as descendants of enslaved workers at Catoctin Furnace with nearly 4,000 direct descendants.


In February 2024, CFHS and 23andme informed a Hagerstown area family of their direct genetic connection with burial #12, a female toddler. Sharing a “huge” amount of identical DNA, 23andme utilized an unpredicted research IBD (Identical by Descent) protocol to compare ancient DNA with modern DNA resulting in this connection across two centuries. The identity of the toddler in burial #12 is unknown but she is either a half-sister to Henson (later known as Henson Summers) or a first cousin. Henson (sometimes spelled as Hansen) was enslaved at Catoctin Furnace, Rose Hill Manor in Frederick, and Antietam Ironworks in Sharpsburg, Maryland, first by Baker Johnson and his daughter Caroline Johnson Graham and later by John Brien and his son John McPherson Brien. Hanson’s mother and father were Wally and Christina. Henson Summers married Caroline Daphne and had eight children. Jeremiah Cornelius, their second child married Susan Keets and they had a son, Emory Waters (William) who married Annie Elizabeth Cook. Their son, Gilbert Raymond married Sallie Loven Jones. Their daughter, Agnes Louise is directly related to the toddler in burial #12.


To coordinate and communicate with families interested in exploring their connection with Catoctin Furnace, CFHS recently received National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funding to hire a descendant communicator to work directly with descendants of Catoctin’s ironworkers including those identifying through collective kinship, family tradition, collateral kinship, deep time connections, as well as direct genetic IBD. The appointment of the descendant communicator marks a transformative chapter in heritage preservation and community engagement. The communicator is fostering meaningful connections between living descendants of 18th and 19th century enslaved and free ironworkers linked by genealogy, oral tradition, and/or DNA to Catoctin Furnace while carefully and closely listening and discussing the desires of the community as they attempt to get over the proverbial brick wall of African American genealogy and claim their rightful legacy as builders of American industry.


Figure 1: Facial reconstruction of an enslaved 30-year-old woman who worked at the Catoctin Furnace.


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