Commentary: Revealing one name, one story at a time

A Delaware Day remembrance

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The mission of the Plantation Stories project is to share the stories of the people who lived, worked and died at the site of the John Dickinson Plantation, with emphasis on the stories of people who were once enslaved.

We endeavor to give voice to people whose stories have been marginalized and largely lost to time. We recognize the humanity and agency of historically oppressed people. Eventually, the Plantation Stories project will become a listing of all documented information about named individuals. This is part of a larger initiative called “Ending Erasure: Recognizing African Americans in the Cultural Landscape.”

Research into the lives of enslaved and free Black people has been ongoing at the John Dickinson Plantation for decades. It is on this work that the project builds. While the project takes an organized approach to searching through and cross-referencing documents, it is important to recognize that not all gaps can be filled in. There’s one unfixable flaw: The documents informing this project primarily come from White colonizer enslavers’ perspectives, which will never be objective or complete.

When I started working at the John Dickinson Plantation, I didn’t expect I would manage a research project like this one. I figured I would learn every ounce of history the site had to offer, but the sheer amount of information exceeded my assumptions. This project was born out of a need to thoroughly understand the whole story of this plantation. With a team committed to excellence, I feel fortunate to be able to present the first edition of the Plantation Stories project. This work has already made a difference in how the history of the site is shared.

As a starting point for this project, we chose five primary sources. Those sources are a list of people dated approximately 1775-77, the three manumission documents John Dickinson wrote and a ledger by John Dickinson’s mother, Mary Cadwalader Dickinson. The ledger has multiple lists of people, most of which are dated and attached to the handing out of clothing. The manumission documents, written between 1777-86, legally freed the people John Dickinson enslaved. One of the manumissions is located at the Delaware Public Archives, and the other sources are housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

During initial research, we encountered several challenges. First, the original documents are housed in multiple institutions in different states, which creates a logistical challenge. Second, we found multiple people with the same first name. When that occurred, we did our best to determine precisely who is mentioned in a historical document. So far, only one person has a last name listed by the enslaver in the documents we reviewed. Further research may reveal additional people with the same name or that two currently separate names are the same person.

Once we selected the documents, we reviewed each primary source for all relevant information, such as names, ages, genders, document dates and more, which was placed into a spreadsheet. Using that information, we organized the list alphabetically. Next, we cross-referenced dates, ages, genealogy and names to determine when and where an individual was mentioned. We then created a new spreadsheet of individual names, which allowed a differentiation between people who had the same name or when different names or nicknames were used for the same person. As we continue researching and compiling information, we hope to be able to share more about people’s lives.

Annie Fenimore is the lead historical interpreter at the John Dickinson Plantation, Dover.

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