The Wye House is a unique historical property that traces its origins back to the 1650s. The early colonial plantation grew to thousands of acres and enslaved hundreds of humans during its early decades, demonstrating that slavery was ubiquitous throughout the colonial period. Edward Lloyd acquired the land in the mid 17th century and 12 generations of the Lloyd family have owned this property since that time. The home remains one of the oldest to remain in one family and one of the best-preserved antebellum plantations in the United States. The Georgian main house demonstrates Federalist influence in its architecture and was built from 1781 to 1784. The home was renovated and took on its current form by 1799. Numerous outbuildings and cabins that were home to enslaved persons dotted the plantation’s landscape. The property was opened to the University of Maryland as an archeological dig site in 2006 and has been a National Historic Landmark since 1970. Demonstrating how historical interpretations change over time, the property is best known today because Frederick Douglass spent part of his childhood enslaved at this plantation.
Backstory and Context
Welsh Puritan, Edward Lloyd, first settled the land that would become the Wye Plantation in the late 1650s. It is not known when the first slaves were brought to the plantation, but it is known that the Lloyd family became one of the largest landholders and slave owners in Maryland by the late 1700s. It is thought that the original main house was destroyed by fire in 1781, the same year Edward Lloyd IV, who represented Maryland at the Second Continental Congress, began construction on the current dwelling. Its center section was completed in 1784 with two detached structures flanking it on either side. It is believed that Annapolis carpenter, Robert Key, who constructed the house also designed the dwelling. The main house took on its current form when the three buildings were connected by 1799.
The property also contained numerous out buildings, to include slave quarters, that were associated with ensuring the plantation ran smoothly and turned a profit. One of America’s most prominent African American abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, spent about 18 months as a young slave on the plantation during the 1820s. In his autobiography, Douglass described the plantation as “…literally alive with slaves of all ages, conditions, and sizes.” and that “…shoemaking and mending, blacksmithing, cartwrighting, coopering, weaving and grain-grinding were all performed by the slaves on the home plantation.” These out buildings were all contained on a mile-long strip of land between the overseer’s cabin, who owned Douglass, and the Wye River called the “Long Green” to include a dormitory-style building thought to house slaves known as the “Long Quarter.” Unfortunately, most of these buildings have been lost to history with the notable exception of the orangery (or orangerie) which was built in 1785. Used to grow orange and lemon trees as well as herbs and medicinal plants, it is thought to be the oldest extant greenhouse in the United States.
At their peak, “the Lloyds of Wye” as they came to be known, owned over 42,000 noncontiguous acres and enslaved over 1,000 human beings on that land. Nine Edward Lloyds came to own the plantation in succession, to include Edward Lloyd V, Governor of Maryland from 1809-1811 and U.S. Senator from 1819-1826. It was Edward Lloyd V who owned the plantation during Douglass’ enslavement, and it is his brutality described by Douglass in his autobiography. Douglass would return to the plantation in 1881 and Mary Tilghman, a descendant of Edward Lloyd who died in 2012, related the story, told to her by her grandfather, of how he and Douglass sat on the front porch and enjoyed drinks and conversation.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, many of the newly emancipated African Americans founded and settled in nearby Unionville and Copperville and some of their descendants remain there to this day. Also at the war’s end, former Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, dropped by Wye House in 1867 after visiting a Confederate naval officer who lived nearby. Davis left an autographed photo which is still displayed at the house. Edward Lloyd IX joined the U.S. Navy in the mid-20th century and transferred the property to his brother, Charles. The property was then inherited by Charles’ daughter, Elizabeth Lloyd Schiller. The Wye House then passed to her niece, Mary Tilghman.
It was Tilghman who opened the former plantation to various tour groups and for fund raisers by local groups such as Preservation Maryland and the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. However, when she opened it as an archeological site to the University of Maryland in 2006, its full history came to light. In conjunction, students also began to examine the Lloyd family archives at the Maryland Historical Institute in Baltimore. This archive includes family journals, letters, ledgers and slave census records that includes their full names, ages and occupations, an invaluable historical resource. Mary Tilghman passed in 2012 and the property is now in the hands of her son, Richard Tilghman Jr. and his wife Beverly.
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Ydstie, John. "Plantation Dig Reveals MD Town's Painful Past." National Public Radio. October 20, 2007. Accessed February 29, 2020. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15383164
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