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Soldiers, Slaves and ­Scientists

The past comes to life at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Only two brick chimneys remain from the original ante-bellum Contee mansion.

On the banks of the Rhode River in Edgewater lies a hidden landscape of forests and wetlands called the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Enter, and you’ll discover miles of wooded trails and wildlife. Look more closely, and you will also discover traces of the past.
    This is not a museum where objects remain behind glass with black placards. Here, the past lies in the ruins of old plantations and pre-Columbian shell middens. It lives in the trees. Centuries of farming, fishing and logging transformed the terrain, still shaping how forests grow back today. The history of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s land mirrors the history of Maryland.
    So here, where scientists seek to uncover the planet’s future, another Smithsonian mission plays out: understanding America’s past. Through listening to descendants and locals, combing through records and digging into the earth, this is the story that has slowly come to light.

    The first inhabitants were likely Nanticoke Native Americans. They hunted deer and fished oysters, as we know from their giant piles of oyster shells, some dating back 3,000 years. Since no signs of permanent villages have been discovered, they probably used the land during summer and fall — until European settlers arrived and changed the landscape forever.

Jonathan Sellman, left, was a general in the American Revolution. His family lived in the area from the 18th until the early 20th century. The Sellman plantation skeleton still stands on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center grounds.

Jonathan Sellman, left, was a general in the American Revolution. His family lived in the area from the 18th until the early 20th century. The Sellman plantation skeleton still stands on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center grounds.

    From the late 1600s to the Civil War, the land became the domain of plantation lords. Families came and went, but one endured longer than any other: the Sellmans.
    Records indicate that William Sellman brought his family to the area in the 1730s. The son of a British immigrant and indentured servant, Sellman built the red plantation house that remains intact on a Smithsonian hilltop today.
    The upwardly mobile Sellman followed the standard practice of planters at the time, according to the Oral History of Smithsonian Lands, building “on the highest available ground, to be free of mosquitoes and also to be able to look downward over his lands and see how the slaves were working.”
    Sellman’s descendants occupied the land for nearly two centuries. When the Revolutionary War broke out, grandson Jonathan Sellman fought with the Continental Army at Valley Forge. A century later, the Civil War pitted Maryland Sellmans against Ohio cousins in the Union.
    The Sellmans relied on slaves for much of their wealth. An 1810 inventory listed 26 slaves working for the family, more than half the value of the entire inventory.
    The neighboring plantation shifted hands more often, including a Quaker, a tobacco farmer and finally a Navy officer, the absentee-owner John Contee.
    Contee came onto the scene in 1819. A veteran of the War of 1812 , he fought aboard the USS Constitution in defeating the HMS Java. Legend says he used prize money from the victory to buy the property. He never lived on site but named his new plantation Java after the defeated ship.

Robert Lee Forrest took possession of Java in 1915, turning it into a dairy farm. When he died in 1962, he willed the property to the Smithsonian. By 2008, the center had acquired the ­Sellman land and the other half of the Contee farm, bringing all three farms together.

    Contee favored tobacco production on Java, which apparently prospered, as his estate listed 84 slaves living on the plantation in 1840. After his death, his two sons divided the farm into the Contee and Java sections.
    The Civil War was not kind to either Sellmans or Contees. The Sellmans never recovered from the loss of slave labor and the economic depression of the 1870s, but they remained on the land until the early 1900s. Sharecroppers like Thomas Hammond replaced slaves, farming corn and tobacco. As for the Contees, farming deteriorated on both farms and the two brothers drifted into debt. In a final stroke of disaster, lightning struck the mansion on the Contee farm in 1890. The resulting fire — and bad repairs — rendered the mansion uninhabitable by 1920. Today only two brick chimneys remain.
    But some fortune smiled on the second half, Java Farm. A new owner took possession in 1915: the eccentric but progressive businessman Robert Lee Forrest. He would make Java the birthplace of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Farmland to Field Biology
    Forrest turned the ailing property into a thriving dairy farm. He paid farm hands $1 a day, almost twice the going rate. High wages earned him some enemies, as neighboring landowners watched their help leave to work at Java.
    “You run your farm and I’ll run mine,” Forrest reportedly replied.
    Work was hardly easy. Forrest was a strict supervisor, especially regarding sanitation. Workers were required to wear white uniforms with rubber boots while handling the cows, which received a thorough scrubbing twice daily. Once the milk was bottled, delivery was its own ordeal.
    “The truck only drove 25 mph, it had to be driven while standing up, and the entire delivery took 14 to 18 hours, often requiring a stop for additional blocks of ice in very hot weather,” Oral History of Smithsonian Lands tells us.
    When World War II arrived, farmhands across the state left to fight. Meanwhile, Forrest was growing older. In 1940 he began dismantling the farm, selling cows, machinery and equipment. Some say he left to help the Allies plan the invasion of Africa or develop submarine warfare; others say he worked in the South Pacific. He had abandoned the dairy farm for good by 1947. Java fell victim to disrepair and misuse.
    Forrest died in 1962, leaving a surprise legacy. He willed the farm to an astonished Smithsonian Institution.
    Uncertain what to make of the bequest, the Smithsonian sent a scouting party to explore.
    “The old barns had deteriorated from 20 years of vandalism, vines and weather,” recalled David Correll, future director of the center and part of the expedition. “They were primarily homes for black snakes.”
    Yet the Smithsonian saw hidden potential. It transformed the defunct 368-acre farm into a research site of forests, wetlands and protected shoreline. By 2008, the center had acquired the Sellman land and the other half of the Contee farm, bringing all three farms together.
    There are gaps in the story and questions still waiting for answers. Who were the slaves who worked the land, and how did they live? How else did farming transform the scenery?
    It’s a story that belongs not only to the Smithsonian but to all of Maryland. So the archaeological digs continue with scientists and citizen scientists — perhaps with you.

Archaeology Dig Day:
Uncover History with the Smithsonian

    Join the Smithsonian Saturday, June 13, and help excavate a 17th-century plantation on the Rhode River.
    Before the rise of the Sellmans, a family called the Shaws farmed Smithsonian land from the late 1600s until the mid-1700s. Sift through the soil alongside archaeologist Jim Gibb, and search for clues about how this family lived and their environmental footprint. You’ll also discover how three centuries of farming transformed the landscape: Alison Cawood:

Kristen Minogue, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s science writer, tells a fuller story at SERC’s June 16 7pm lecture, Stories of Our Ancestors: A 3,000-Year History of SERC Land: 443-482-2325;