Hallowed Ground

An investigation of old grave sites in New England is unearthing hard truths about yankees and slavery

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Even though the midday sun is high in the sky, my companions and I can hardly see the headstones lying half-hidden in this dense Connecticut forest. Warren Perry is an anthropologist at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. Gerald Sawyer is working on a doctorate in archaeology from the City University of New York (CUNY), where he is also a graduate instructor. For the better part of three years now, they have been studying scores of humble grave sites scattered across my family’s ancestral lands here in the rolling countryside near New London. These are the resting places of slaves who died more than two centuries ago.

As we walk from site to site, Sawyer, a tall man wearing jeans and sporting a ponytail, keeps up a running commentary. "Those cairns," he says, pointing toward mounds of rocks piled high in an oval shape, "are more like burial markers found in Guinea, West Africa, than anything in this country." He speculates that the mounds might represent traditional African burials, whereas the rounded headstones we just examined may designate the grave sites of slaves who became Christians. When I ask how people from Africa were able to survive our harsh Connecticut winters, Perry answers, "A lot of them didn’t."

As the recent furor over Yale University’s close ties with slaveholders in the 1700s and 1800s made clear, many Americans are just beginning to understand that for a long time slavery was as ubiquitous in the North as in the South. The first African captives arrived in Massachusetts in the middle part of the 1600s. A century later, there were more slaves in New York City than anywhere else in the colonies except Charleston, South Carolina. Despite the fact that Quakers condemned slavery in Philadelphia as early as 1693, there were at least 3,000 slaves in Pennsylvania by the mid-1700s, and Connecticut had more than 5,000. Although it’s uncertain how many there were overall in New England, slaves at one time may have made up as much as 5 percent of the total population in Connecticut and 10 percent in Rhode Island.

According to Sawyer, Northern slaves worked much as slaves did in the South—farming, and doing industrial labor and household chores. "There were many large plantations in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island," Sawyer says. "Most of them shipped agricultural goods to the West Indies in exchange for molasses, which was used to make rum. Newport, Rhode Island, alone had more than 30 distilleries in the mid-18th century."

Perry, an ebullient scholar whose long dreadlocks are flecked with gray, found out about the burial grounds from a local authority on black history in 1995. Not long after, he assigned Sawyer, then a graduate student at CUNY, to head up a field study. To locate grave sites, Sawyer surveyed the land with an electronic device that detects disturbed soil. "Based on some of the old documents we’ve looked at," Sawyer tells me as we pause at the edge of the woods, "we think your people brought in as many as 60 captive families to clear the land." To verify that, he not only has to find their graves; he must also discover artifacts that conclusively identify the deceased as of African origin.

From where we stand, we can see one wing of the "great house" where my ancestor John Mumford and his descendants lived. High on a hill across the valley is the graveyard where my father, Mitchell Bingham, and his six brothers and many forebears, including several Lucretias, were laid to rest.

I’ve always been proud to be a Bingham. My family has lived in Connecticut for the better part of three centuries. We’ve been farmers, doctors, teachers, preachers. One Bingham was a United States Senator—Hiram, who served from 1925 to 1933. Over the years, everyone in the family has told stories about how we helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom on the Underground Railway. Not much has been said, though, about our own slaveholding past.

Even when a relative undertook some research on the subject 30 years ago, I didn’t fully grasp what had transpired. By the time Sawyer and Perry began looking at the grave sites on our property, I’d started examining family records and accounts, and reading old books that had been gathering dust on my shelves for years. The Yankee slave trade "created much of the wealth and culture of Boston and Newport," I learned in one text on the subject.

As was the case in the South, Africans in the North were considered property to be passed along like furniture. The will of one Mumford listed 14 slaves in his "inventory." In an autobiography published in 1798, a former slave wrote: "I was bought on board by one Robertson Mumford, a steward of said vessel, for four gallons of rum and a piece of calico, and called VENTURE, on account of his having purchased me with his own private venture."

When landholders no longer needed their slaves, or could not afford to keep them, large numbers were set free, most of them between the late 1600s and early 1700s. In 1690, a "black code" was written into Connecticut state law forbidding the wandering of slaves outside the towns to which they belonged without a pass from the owner. And so, since they had nowhere else to go, most abandoned slaves probably ended up squatting on inferior town lands usually referred to as "common land."

One morning, I drive down a country lane with Perry and Sawyer to a place just outside the Bingham property called New Salem. In the woods, I’m surprised to come across what looks like the remains of an entire village. There are dozens of three-sided stone structures here. "We think this was a settlement of freed captives who may have lived here with local Native Americans," Sawyer says. It’s hard to imagine the kind of lives those squatters must have had to endure.

A while later, I find Sawyer and two students crouched over a burial site near the house. The area has been measured and divided into grids marked by string, and the archaeologists are methodically digging and sifting for artifacts, one grid at a time. Out of respect for the dead, they explore only the top four to eight inches of soil.

Sawyer tells me the painstaking work is paying off. He has turned up several dozen sherds of Mocha ware, a common pottery made in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In West Africa at that time, collections of small items precious to the dead in life—often including pottery—were ritualistically left on top of graves. These findings hint at the age of this burial site and the origins of at least some of my ancestors’ slaves.

But that’s not all. Sawyer shows me a timeworn headstone nearby. Photographs of it taken recently with special lighting techniques revealed the initials PH and two heart-shaped symbols which, in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa, are called Sankofa. "We know that a man named Pomp Henry was an African captive here in the mid-1700s," Sawyer says.

As I ponder this latest discovery, it occurs to me that Perry and Sawyer aren’t just studying graves. They’re telling stories. "Written histories are often biased," Sawyer acknowledges, "but the material record that has been left in the ground by our ancestors reveals the truth. Eventually we hope to learn how these people lived, how they died, how they resisted their captors. Their voices are in the things we find here."

As a Bingham, I, too, need to hear what those voices have to say.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus