Graves of Enslaved People Discovered on Founding Father’s Delaware Plantation

A signee of the U.S. Constitution, John Dickinson enslaved as many as 59 men, women and children at one time

A small wooden house with smoke rising from the roof, framed by bright red and green fall foliage and green grass
This recreated wooden building resembles one that may have housed enslaved people on John Dickinson's Dover, Delaware, plantation. National Park Service

John Dickinson (1732–1808), often described as the “penman of the Revolution,” numbered among the wealthy American statesmen who helped foment resistance against British colonial rule during the Revolutionary War. Along with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, Dickinson signed his name to the United States Constitution in 1787.

Like many of his co-signers, Dickinson wrote frequently about the “Blessings of Liberty” while also enslaving humans. At his 5,000-acre family plantation in modern-day Dover, Delaware, the politician may have enslaved as many as 59 people—including men, women and children—at one time, notes the National Park Service (NPS).

This week, state archaeologists announced the discovery of the likely graves of at least 25 enslaved people on the Dover plantation’s grounds. Researchers remain unsure of the exact number of graves at the site, as some records suggest that several hundred enslaved individuals were laid to rest there, per the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs’ (HCA) website.

As Mark Eichmann reports for PBS/NPR station WHYY, crews dug underground to identify the contours of some grave shafts but did not disturb the burials themselves.

Graves of Enslaved People Discovered on Founding Father's Delaware Plantation
The John Dickinson mansion, pictured in 2018 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The announcement follows a two-year search of 450 acres of the property. Per a statement, the team discovered the grave site on March 9.

Though researchers had previously found documentation indicating that as many as 400 enslaved people were buried on the plantation, the absence of gravestones and other markers made locating the site a challenge, reports WHYY. Maps of the property dated to the 1930s and 1940s eventually helped the team narrow its search.

“We’ve always known, based on some of the primary source documents, that there was a graveyard on the property,” site supervisor Gloria Henry tells 47ABC’s Hannah Cechini. “We just did not know where.”

Enslaved black people and indentured servants on the Dickinson plantation mainly farmed tobacco—a lucrative crop at the time, per the NPS. Researchers now suspect that the oldest grave at the site may date back to as early as 1720. The burial ground itself measures about 170 feet by 160 feet, according to HCA.

Dickinson hailed from a wealthy family and lived on the plantation for much of his childhood. He served as president of Delaware and Pennsylvania (a position equivalent to a modern state governor) and helped found Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Visitors to the plantation can tour the family’s mansion, known as Poplar Hall, which Dickinson rebuilt after it was badly burned by Loyalists in 1804, notes HCA.

Graves of Enslaved People Discovered on Founding Father's Delaware Plantation
John Dickinson served as president of Delaware and Pennsylvania, a position equivalent to today's state governors. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the mansion stands near a reconstructed wooden dwelling that resembles a house where enslaved people would have lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“This is sacred ground for Delaware, and we will continue to treat it with the honor and respect it deserves,” says HCA’s director, Tim Slavin, in the statement. “Our path forward is to protect the site, engage with the community about how to proceed, and continue to learn more through research and dialogue.”

Unfortunately, Henry tells 47ABC, little written documentation of the enslaved people who lived on Dickinson’s plantation remains. Nevertheless, the team plans to undertake research with community members to attempt to identify the names and biographies of the individuals buried on the land. Those who may have relevant information are encouraged to send tips to [email protected].

“There were other enslaved individuals, indentured servants, tenant farmers, tradesman, craftsman and free black people living and working on this plantation,” Henry adds. “So, we do want to share all their stories.”