Our Year of Building Bridges



Sotterley Descendants Project

Stories from descendant perspectives add richness to Sotterley and the lives we reach, teach, and touch. Descendants from all across the nation and the world visit Sotterley and already feel the connection. We want to know your powerful stories. Memories of your life and your ancestors help us tell Sotterley’s story as well as enrich the lives of others searching for their past to bring meaning and relevance to the present and future. Whether you know you are descended from Sotterley’s people or just think you are, you are welcome to fill out a form, visit, and keep in touch.

Historic Sotterley has always had descendants who were and are connected and involved with the museum. However, we knew there were others out there that were looking for their roots, other family members, searching for their history, and as a museum, we wanted to grow our “official” list of descendants. In April 2017, Sotterley dedicated the 1830’s slave cabin exhibit to the late Agnes Kane Callum, a Sotterley descendant and Sotterley Board emeritus. It was a wonderful gathering of community and descendants of workers, owners, and enslaved, with speakers and storytelling. It was then that Sotterley announced the beginning of a formal Descendants Project. We get new registrants every week, because Sotterley has descendants all over the world!

We can’t wait to meet you and hear your story!

Six Degrees

Do you know how Sotterley is connected to notable people like Fredrick Douglas or Francis Scott Key? If you have ancestors that came from Maryland, don’t be so sure you are not connected. Sotterley’s owners were from large prominent families and had large families that married into other large prominent families. There are descendants that have ancestry from more than one Sotterley ancestor. Human nature doesn’t change that much over time, so people had children outside of marriage, and possibly produced children from their enslaved; this is sad but probable and a reality over Sotterley’s long history. Because of disease and death, many adults married multiple times.

Can’t find your ancestor through the paternal line? You can find riches from you maternal lines. Women were usually the keepers of the family history too. Having your DNA done might help you find some connections, but finding your story can start as simply as talking to parents and grandparents or getting out the old family Bible. Write it down and label your photographs before it is too late!

Because of slavery, many Sotterley people escaped or left during war and ended up in Canada, England, or the Caribbean, as well as family migration that happened to all families across the United States to new lands, or looking for financial opportunities. Do you think there is no chance you will ever find any information about your enslaved ancestors? Think again. More and more records and documents are becoming digitalized. If you didn’t find anything six months ago, it’s time to try again. Making common connections, as people have at places of heritage like Sotterley, can help make those connections that lead to the discovery of our past.

Healing & Heritage

The first step to healing, is understanding the truth about our history. This grounds us and gives us strength to endure and face our struggles today. As we study history we find out about how our ancestors struggled and persevered, and even how they made the wrong choices or the right choices. It gives us a layer of power and resilience to know our stories and where we came from, our heritage, and how really connected we all are.  The American myth of the loner individualist that only relied on themselves turns to dust, as we realize our ancestors relied on others in the family, community, servants or slaves, or even total strangers to give them support somehow, through employment, through their very lives, though charity or just encouragement, love and companionship.


Once we know the true story, then we can accept our past, all of our past, the good and the bad. We can examine our own lives to see ourselves and maybe think about an issue in a new way, or seek other perspectives on the same issue. Even though we aren’t responsible for our ancestors’ mistakes, maybe on closer examination, we are still making the same mistakes.  Ancestors pass on more than their DNA!


One’s own experiences of lives lived are powerful testaments to future healing, happiness and resilience. It makes us strong, and that strength and lessons learned can and should be shared with future generations.


Historic Sotterley is a place that anyone can visit and learn about lives lived to find history, heritage and healing. Listen to the past as we build our collective futures.

Middle Passage

Historic Sotterley and the Middle Passage

Sotterley knew from the research of Elizabeth Donnan from the 1930’s that James Bowles, Sotterley’s first owner, was involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the early 18th century.  However, it was a push in 2010 and 2011, for more research to achieve an inclusive and truthful interpretive story that led to officially connecting Bowles to a specific ship, the Generous Jenny, and documentation of its arrival here in 1720.  

Fortunately, at about the same time, Sotterley then made a connection to the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, Inc. (MPCPMP), a non-profit founded in 2011, with the mission to honor the two million captive Africans who perished during the trans-Atlantic crossing known as the Middle Passage and the ten million who survived to build the Americas.  They partner with historical and cultural societies, academic institutions, churches, visitor and tourist bureaus, and community organizations to promote African Diaspora history and culture, especially related to the Middle Passage.  Ann Chinn, executive director of MPCPMP and Ann Cobb of Baltimore, paid a visit to Sotterley to review the research. In November, 2012, Sotterley held a ceremony honoring those who perished on the middle passage to Sotterley. In 2014, another ceremony was held to place a marker to tell the story of Sotterley’s roll in the middle passage and remember and celebrate ancestors. Sotterley is one of five documented middle passage sites in Maryland and the first to have a marker. Sotterley is open to the public year-round.

Slavery was and is a morally bankrupt economic system. Before and during the very founding of America, this inhuman system was justified by racism and financial gain. Racism permeated the society and laws of the new country.  It shaped attitudes and behaviors. Although slavery has now been made illegal in this country, the legacy of slavery in America still permeates our society.

Racism allowed people to brutalize other people, murder them, rip their children away, sell them off, put them in slave ships, starve them, beat them, use them for sex, make them work for no wages, and no freedom of their own. Slaves were not allowed justice or basic human rights.  Considered property like the livestock, their suffering was not considered equal to white people’s suffering. Their pain was not considered equal to white people’s pain. Their monetary worth to the owner was based on how hard and fast they could work and compliant behavior. They were villainized and demeaned in order to justify their treatment. “Kind” and “benevolent,” became skewed words masters would use to define themselves for providing food rations or a scrap of clothing.  Dependable and compliant slaves, or slaves with lighter skin, were seen as trustworthy and more intelligent. Any joy or faith slaves would steal from life was seen as contentment with their enslavement. Free black people also suffered from the same racist laws and practices, and still do.

Even with unspeakable hardship, terror, children and families ripped apart, abuse and fear; many of Sotterley’s enslaved survived this cruel system. Some also took flight and freed themselves from bondage. Some outlived slavery.  They not only survived, but thrived culturally and spiritually. This is Sotterley’s story. The story will be told.

Sotterley preserves our buildings and landscape to help us tell the story.  We research people from long ago and their descendants so we can tell the story.  Historic Sotterley will continue to preserve our heritage and tell the story. It is often a hard and painful story.  Sometimes it is a triumphant story. Everyone must learn the story.

Part of this process of healing and reconciliation is learning and accepting the truth about the story. The beginning of Sotterley’s story was built on slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.