The slave house at Sotterley, likely built in the 1840s, is significant for its rare building technology and as a surviving artifact of the day-to-day life of a slave in southern Maryland. The slave house is the only known extant example of the use of earth-fast posts to provide stability to a plank-walled structure. This method of construction was common among buildings of all types in the Chesapeake region during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and continued to be used for less substantial buildings well into the nineteenth century. The slave house is one of only a few structures still standing in St. Mary’s County that constituted housing for its slave population. Enslaved peoples represented well over half of southern Maryland’s antebellum residents. Sotterley’s slave house is thus a significant resource for examining lifestyles and folkways as related to the material conditions of slave populations. Plantation owner Walter H.S. Briscoe built the house as one of a group of five, but this is the only one extant. Later used to house field hands, this cabin is the last surviving example of housing for those who worked the Sotterley Plantation over the course of its history.
The house is a single-room that measures 16 x 18 feet with an unfinished loft above. It is constructed of hewn and sawn pine logs, square notched at the corners and supported at regular intervals by cedar posts mounted in the ground and attached to the logs with wooden pegs. The exterior is covered with board-and-batten siding while on the interior the logs are left exposed and whitewashed. Clay and mortar was used as chinking and there is a semi-detached brick and stone chimney at one gable end. Doorways to the front and rear provided access and cross-ventilation. The small casement windows located at each elevation were probably added about 1910. Inside, there is a large open hearth for both cooking and heat. An open, single-run stair in an opposing corner replaced the original stair near the fireplace, which was likely merely a ladder stair. The floor was originally hard-packed dirt or clay with a root cellar in front of the fireplace.
An investigation by architectural historians from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation found numerous post-Civil War improvements including the addition of the current chimney stack, vertical siding, stairway, wood flooring, casement windows, and a partition wall that separates the loft into two rooms. The house is positioned along the “rolling road” between the agricultural complex and the wharf, upon which hogs’ heads of tobacco were rolled for shipment. The slave house is downhill from the main house which meant it was not visible to those residing there. While the building technology is unique, the accommodations that it provided were common to single-room slave quarters dating from the late eighteenth century through the Civil War.
Carson, Cary, and Carl R. Lounsbury . The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Chappell, Edward, Jeffrey Bostetter, Willie Graham, and Mark R. Wenger. T he Slave House at Sotterley near Hollywood, St. Mary’s County, Maryland: An Architectural Investigation. Report prepared by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for the Sotterley Mansion Foundation, 1995.
Hughes, Elizabeth. “Slave House at Sotterley,” St. Mary’s County, Maryland. National Register Nomination Form, 1996. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.