Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Forgotten African-American Burial Ground in Kinderhook

Columbia County is a very rural area between the upper Hudson River and the Berkshire Hills, and most of its population is concentrated in pleasant country villages resembling nearby New England. The northwestern corner is within easy commuting range of the state capital in Albany, and the southern and eastern sections contain the second homes of many prosperous residents of New York City. Agriculture is one of the primary industries. 

And a drive through the county’s bucolic countryside would leave the impression that nearly everyone  is of European ancestry.  

Only in the city of Hudson is there a sizable number of citizens of African descent, and  many of them are concentrated in the city’s public housing .  For most who live, or visit, it might seem that the rest of Columbia County is like a 1940s Hollywood film, a small town and entirely white America. This was not always so.

Ignoring our multi-racial past has its price, and racial tensions are bound to erupt from time to time among young people unaware of their common history and humanity.  On December 5 Stephanie Lee of the Albany Times Union reported on one such incident. An African-American father, Michael Moore, was outraged by the bigotry which his son reported experiencing from fellow students in the Hudson public schools, and his outcry quickly led to his own ostracism by school authorities:
     Then, on a bus in spring 2008, a Hispanic student handed a shoeshine brush to the 14-year-old special education student and told him to use it as a hairbrush, Moore said.
     Outraged, Moore marched to the microphone at a school board meeting, insisted he'd learned that his son's experience was not isolated and bluntly declared he knew of a white student who called blacks "niggers." He said that hateful word -- repeating it over and over, as if to splatter its shame on everyone.
     Weeks later, then-Superintendent Fern Aefsky responded to Moore, whom she had recently commended for volunteerism: He was barred from school grounds.
   "There's so much racism that happens at the Hudson City School District," said Moore, 56, "it's morally incompetent."

The article goes on to describe the two sides of Hudson revealed by this incident:

Warren Street, a classy main street lined with cafes and antiques stores, greets visitors to the city. But in many ways, it is like a movie back-lot facade. A block or two away lies a cloister of high-rise towers filled with black and other low-income occupants. Some 24 percent of the city's roughly 7,500 residents are black, and a quarter live below the poverty level, according to the latest available census data.

Judging by the present residential pattern in the county, young people of European descent are likely to see their African-American peers as interlopers,  while young African-Americans probably have little awareness of how deep their roots are in this county, or how much of it was built long ago by their ancestors.

In the 18th century this state had the largest slave population of any colony north of Maryland. Slavery in New York State, where it was gradually abolished beginning in 1799, was the most widespread here in the Hudson Valley, where the huge estates of wealthy Anglo-Dutch families rivaled Southern plantations in their reliance on slavery.

Robert Livingston on right, with Jefferson and Franklin,
working on the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence

Robert Livingston, renowned  for being part of the small group who drafted the Declaration of Independence, was, like Jefferson and Washington, a slavemaster. Clermont, the elegant manor home of the Livingstons south of Hudson NY, depended in part on slave labor, as well as on that of tenant farmers of European origin. The official Clermont website reports that some wealthy landowners may have disposed of their human property in a way that avoided the financial loss imposed by statewide emancipation: 

Some authors have also suggested that once the Gradual Manumission law was passed, Northern slave holders were beginning to sell their slaves to Southern owners to protect their financial investment. In 1827, manumission was completed, and all remaining enslaved peoples were legally free.

 Clermont, manor home of the slave- owning Livingston family

As the great semi-feudal estates were replaced by family farms following the Anti-Rent War of the 1840s, there was little room for the remaining African Americans who had done so much to create the prosperity in which they never shared. Their memory was forgotten, and even the graves of generations of hard-working people were forgotten and lost.

In the quaint village of Kinderhook, a scant dozen miles from the housing projects of Hudson, is one such burial ground, now so completely vanished that only the oldest residents of the village have a memory of its existence. And I believe that the unmarked burial ground is  located on land owned by the county’s historical society.

The Center for Columbia County History at the Vanderpoel house.
Probable site of African burial ground is in woods to right rear of house.

 According to  Edward Collier’s History of Kinderhook (1914) land was set aside for the internment  of African-Americans on the property of the Vanderpoel house, which was owned by a man whom Rev. Collier calls "somewhat erratic." Evidently, John Rogers was more tolerant than his contemporaries and felt sympathetic to families unable to bury their loved ones in cemeteries like  that of the nearby Kinderhook Reformed Church, reserved for  families of Dutch and English descent, including that of our 8th president:

“While the Vanderpoel place was owned by the somewhat erratic John Rogers, he set apart a portion of his land for the free burial of our colored people. It was thus used until every available inch was taken up; in some cases, it is stated, with coffin piled upon coffin. It was then, as it now long has been, closed against additional burials."

Captain Franklin, in his 1878 history of Kinderhook calls John Rogers an Irishman of convivial habits, but withal a good business man and says that he built a store and was on the board of a village bank in 1853, which would place the origin of the burial ground in the years between about 1821 and the Civil War.

When I first visited the Vanderpoel house several years ago, it was not hard to locate the most probable site for the forgotten burial ground  in a wooded quadrangle on the northwest corner of the property. The area presents an anomaly among the yards and gardens characteristic of the block, due most probably to a respect accorded to the small parcel of land by earlier property-owners of the neighborhood.  Neighbors of the parcel say that they had heard stories of the old graveyard, and an older resident of adjacent Albany Avenue, Mrs. Snyder, told me that when she was a child, the stones were still there. At some point they were just taken away, she said, and the graves were forgotten.

 Possible site of an unmarked grave in the parcel of land 
near the Vanderpohl house

I thought about the unmarked final resting places of so many people who worked to build this county, and was saddened to find no reminder of their lives. Doubtless, many of the simple markers were of wood and vanished even before the last gravestones were carried away, although it is clear that as late as 1914 the site was still recognized as a cemetery.

When I recently shared my discovery with the historical society’s executive director, Ann-Eliza Lewis, she said that she thought that the African burial ground was farther west, where the Little League field now exists, and directed me to the grave stones on the edge of that field.  She did agree that the wooded parcel of land on the Vanderpoel site was probably a burial ground, but she thought that it was that of the Pomeroy family. I thought this an unlikely possibility, considering the respect shown to  English and Dutch forebears in this region.

 The grave of the 8th president, Martin Van Buren, is set amid
stones honoring the memory of many of Kinderhook's early 
settlers of European origin.

However, Ann-Eliza  was open to the possibility that such an African  burial ground might exist on property owned by the historical society and hoped that, if verified, a suitable recognition of the site could become a central part of next year’s sesquicentennial remembrance of the Civil War.

 UMass archeologists at work near the Vanderpoel house, June 2009

In June 2009 a group of archeologists from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst did some careful excavations near the Vanderpoel house, and uncovered number of interesting small artifacts. Doubtless, the expertise of the U Mass team could be consulted again to evaluate the probable burial ground.

 Grave markers  have been moved to this location near
the Little League field on Rothermel Lane

 One marker, that of "Sylvestes," may be that of a freed slave.

As to the gravestones near the ball field on Rothermel Avenue, to which Ann-Eliza referred me, they have clearly been moved from the actual location of the resting places they once marked. The very neatness of the quadrangle and the arrangement of the 13 headstones and four footstones  in size order, without regard for family names, is clear evidence that they have been moved and rearranged. Also, they are not the markers of slaves or freedmen, but of local families of European descent such as Van Valkenburgh and Leggett.  Only one stone, bearing the single name “Sylvestes,” who died in 1860, suggests an individual who was born as a slave. 

Confirming  the  location of  the village’s African Burial Ground, and providing appropriate recognition to these forgotten builders of the county, would be a small but significant step toward increasing an awareness among young people of our shared heritage, and might even contribute a to a greater understanding.

NOTE: I first presented these findings, or perhaps I should say this theory, in a letter published in the Hudson Register-Star in 2009.

Update October 2011: I received some interesting information from Annie Cooper, director of Columbia County Tourism, who reported the following from a person she considered extremely knowledgeble about Kinderhook history:

I am not sure about any stones being moved there. One of the stones that still stands is that of Mrs (Hannah, I think) Burgert who was wife of the AME minister in the village (at the little black church on Sunset). I think a lot of the stones have been stolen.

The cemetery began around 1814 or 1816, when John Rogers died. He was the owner of the Burgoyne / van Schaack mansion after David van Schaack had died; and in his will he provided that that land be set aside as a burying ground for the "colored people of Kinderhook". (John Rogers himself was an Irlishman and did not own slaves.)  Collier wrote in his book (1914) that by that time the cemetery was filled up.
In the 1970s or so, there was a Boy Scout project to clean up that cemetery which was badly overgrown etc. I believe at that time, they moved the remaining stones to one place to make it easier for DPW people to mow around. There are sure to have been more stones than there are now ... though I expect that not every black person could have afforded one.

I have never heard that slaves burials were moved there / though I suppose it is possible. I don't know of another black burial ground, though I am aware that some slaves were buried in the family plots of the people who had owned them.

When abolition was made law in NY state in the 1790s, the law said that anyone born to a slave after that time was free ... and that slaves themselves would become free in 1827 (i.e., a "generation" after the law had passed) unless individual slave owners decided to manumit their slave(s) before that date. — So when John Rogers bequeathed that land, there were still slaves in the community who might have been buried there. After 1827, a goodly number of black people lived in the village or in nearby rural areas and they are likely to have been buried there as well. I have tried a bit to see if there was any record of burials there, but have never been able to locate any church records for the Kinderhook African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The former A.M.E. church, now a private home

This well-researched 2008 historical novel by N.E.  Sartin offers a very interesting glimpse of the African-American community in Kinderhook in the 1880s.  The story centers on the important but little remembered  trial of "Battice" Jackson, a black man,  for the murder of Gertrude Hover, a white woman.

Update June 28, 2017

The Columbia County Historical Society has provided welcome recognition of the African American burial ground in Kinderhook. A state historical sign on Rothermel Lane and an informative sign at the site of the surviving grave markers refers to the estimated five hundred slaves and freed people buried on the land bequeathed by John Rodgers.


  1. How interesting, Dad! I wonder what information you could find about the gravestones next to the little league field in an archive? What is the history of that little plot?

  2. Stumbled on you blog by mistake. Pleasant surprise. Laud your initiative.

    Though you touched on it for only a sentence or two, the origin of African-Americans in Hudson is actually quite complex. The white hipsters on Warren St., interlopers themselves, are not wrong to consider their black neighbors (at least most of of them) as interlopers as well. Many of Hudson's African-American families arrived as a result of riverboat traffic and later during prohibition. Many were relocated to Hudson from White Plains and Yonkers as a result of old-style urban renewal in the 1960s. And, more recently, many have migrated from New York thanks to a host of societal imperatives.

    In terms of discrimination, I'd say Columbia County's African-American community has never experienced greater discrimination than now. There is no work. Nor is there any I can see in the future. Schlepping for antiques dealers is about the best one can expect. I fear Columbia County will become like the South Fork of Suffolk County which is slowly but surely "relocating" its African-American community.

    Again, enjoyed you blog -- one of the very few I've ever found worth reading.

    Ansi Vallens

  3. An entry in a coroner's report in the Proceedings of the Rensselaer County Board of Supervisors includes “Sept. 27, 1930 Unknown skeleton (colored) uncovered at Schodack Landing; Negro burial ground”. No specifics about where that burial ground was.

    The Rensselaer County GenWeb "Rensselaer County
    Cemetery Locations" pages refer to others. East Greenbush is stated to have had a Slave Cemetery "Believed to have been in Riverside area". Pittstown, one "Was located on Otter Creek Road between Presbyterian Cemetery and Yates Cemeteries; no names are available". In a letter in a scrapbook in the Troy Library, it's stated "The part of the [Trinity] church yard [in Lansingburgh] taken and now under the side walk on the west side of Fourth Ave. is the part where slaves were buried."
    Dr. C.M. Nickerson., Trinity Rectory, to Jessie F. Wheeler, Philip Schuyler Chapter D.A.R., February 28, 1917.

    One could go on and on. Granted, it's not just African-American cemeteries that have been forgotten.

  4. I can't thank you enough for sharing this information. No doubt you have put many hours into uncovering history and it shows. My 3rd great grandmother, Catherine Moore Cornelius, is likely one of those buried behind the Vanderpool house. I have searched unsuccessfully for her grave for several years, asking local record keepers for info. She was of mixed heritage, married in the Dutch Reformed Church of Kinderhook. Thank you for your work. I'll consider this case closed.