Archaeologists discover lost slave cemetery at Founding Father’s 18th Century plantation

Heather Michon

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John Dickinson's Poplar HallImage courtesy of the Historic American Building Survey / Public Domain

After two years of intense searching, state archaeologists in Delaware say they have located the burying ground for the enslaved workers at Poplar Hall, the Colonial-era plantation of Founder John Dickenson.

Using archival research and aerial photographs, historians identified some potential locations for the cemetery and an archaeological survey located the site in early March.

The burial site is about 170 feet by 160 feet and contains no headstones or markers.

It is a very compelling find, because slaves were people who -- quite honestly -- were not meant to be remembered, as one of my colleagues said,” Tim Slavin, Director of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, told Delaware Public Media. "And this find, - of this burial ground, really begins a process of restoring dignity to those people and reconnecting their lives to their stories.”

PENMAN OF THE REVOLUTION

John Dickinson (1732-1808) was known as the “Penman of the Revolution” for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, a series of essays challenging British rule in the American colonies. He went on to draft many of the foundational documents of the First and Second Continental Congresses in Philadelphia.

However, as a moderate, he declined to follow the majority of the delegates in approving the Declaration of Independence. Arguing that the risk of separating from Britain was too great and that they were trying to “brave the storm in a skiff made of paper,” he abstained from the final vote and did not sign his name to the document.

After the war, he helped draft the Articles of Confederation and was a delegate for Delaware in the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Dickinson lived most of his life in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, serving as both President of Delaware (1781-1783) and President of Pennsylvania (1782-1785).

He was also one of the area’s largest landowners in the region, owning a total of 12,000 acres across the region. Most of his wealth came from the sale of tobacco and grain from these different properties.

At one point, he owned around 40 slaves, many of whom worked at the 5,000-acre Poplar Hall near Dover.

Dickinson and his family rarely resided at Poplar Hall. Records indicate he was there from 1776-1777 and again from 1781-1782.

As a Quaker, he came to believe that slavery was wrong, and in 1777 decided to free his slaves. Under the law of the time, manumission was a lengthy and expensive process, and it took almost a decade to complete.

Now called the John Dickinson House, the 450-acre property is owned by the State of Delaware, and is one of six sites within the National Park Service’s First State National Monument.

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Charles Willson Peale Portrait of John DickinsonPublic Domain

SACRED GROUND

State officials say little is known about the cemetery at this point. Some references say it may have been used as early as the 1720s, before Dickinson owned the property, and may hold as many as 400 bodies. But there are no records of the interments or the names of those who were buried there.

The next steps are to study the site and continue researching the history of slaveholding at Poplar Hall.

Slavin said they will try to learn the names of those held in bondage, and if possible, reach out to descendants to chart a path forward for commemorating the site.

No bodies will be removed from the cemetery, and archaeologists will take pains to make sure they don’t disturb remains as they work.

“This is sacred ground for Delaware, and we will continue to treat it with the honor and respect it deserves. 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,” says Slavin.

The cemetery site is currently closed to the public.

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