Archaeology of the Bruin Slave Jail
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Archaeological and historical investigations of the Bruin Slave Jail in the West End of the City of Alexandria, Virginia, revealed a fascinating and complex history. From 1844 to 1861, the house belonged to Joseph Bruin, a slave trader, and housed the most successful and well-known slave trading operation in Alexandria. In 1848, Bruin purchased several slaves who were captured on board the schooner Pearl in one of the largest escapes ever attempted. Bruin and two of the Pearl refugees, Emily and Mary Edmondson, inspired some of the characters and events in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe included the true story of the Pearl refugees, and the Edmondson sisters in particular, in her comprehensive survey of the domestic slave trade, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This study of the material culture and other archaeological data, along with extensive historical records regarding Joseph Bruin’s slave trading business and the stories of several slaves purchased by Bruin after the Pearl incident, illuminates the ways in which the internal slave trade changed the nature of slavery, and the ways slavery was contested by slaves and by abolitionist groups. It also demonstrates the ways in which African Americans were commodified in the slave markets. Analysis of the complementary historical and archaeological data reveals the ways these forces impacted the lives of enslaved women enmeshed in the slave trade particularly, and the ways they negotiated and resisted their sale by the slave traders who made their living buying and selling human beings in an increasingly corporate, and contested, political and sexual economy.