In Memory of the African Americans buried in the Hartford Ancient Burying Ground


“Native People, Africans and African Americans in Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground”

By Katherine A. Hermes

     When Louis Berbice died at the hands of his Dutch master in Hartford in 1639, he may have been the first man of African descent buried in the town. Adrian Block visited Suckiog, the Native town that became Hartford, in 1614, and eventually the Dutch built a fort and small settlement, the House of Hope, on the banks of the Connecticut River. In 1631 the sachem of Suckiog sent an envoy to Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony to invite the English to settle near his village. He hoped they might be a buffer between him and the Pequot people to the south. In 1637 English colonists arrived under the leadership of John Haynes, the first governor, and Rev. Thomas Hooker, the first minister of the Congregational church. They received land from the Wangunk sachem, Sequassen, the son of the grand sachem, Sowheag. Hartford became a multiracial and multiethnic settlement at its inception. Native people remained in the meadows abutting the English settlement, as did the Dutch. Not long after settling Connecticut, the English declared war against the Pequot, forming alliances with the Narragansett to the east and the Mohegan to the south. After conquering the Pequot nation, settlers took Native people as captive servants into their homes. The Dutch continued to occupy a small enclave next to the English around Hartford, but eventually many moved into the English settlement. The resting place where Berbice and the early Dutch settlers lay was a burial yard near the Little River (now paved over) and the old House of Hope, disrupted by construction in the nineteenth century.  The English settlers began using land for a burial ground that now lies between State House Square and the corner of Market Street and Kinsley Streets, but abandoned this site early and no evidence of it now exists.[1]

     Hartford’s English founders laid out the town burying ground in late 1639 or early 1640 on the corner of the road between the meetinghouse and the mill, and the road that went from the Palisado to the Centinel. Today this corner is the intersection of Pearl and Main Streets. The first reference to a burying place in the English land records in February, 1639/40, says it was abutted by parcels belonging to John Skinner, who sold it to John Biddell, on the west (Main Street), Thomas Lord on the south (Gold Street) and Seth Grant on the north (Pearl Street) (HLR, 117, 159, 309). Richard Lord also had land abutting the burying ground on the south (HLR, 130, 133). It was enlarged by “two roods more or less Abutting vpon the buryeing place” (approximately half an acre) when the town acquired land from Richard Olmstead (HLR, 255).

Excerpt of William S. Porter, "Hartford Map 1640"

Excerpt of William S. Porter, “Hartford Map 1640”

     The burying ground was a place for all of Hartford’s deceased. The Congregationalists, or Puritans, believed in a degree of separation of church and state. The ground was not consecrated as it would have been in England, so one’s religious status, and even one’s origins, made no difference when it came to burial. After a death occurred, there were several tasks for families to do. There was no sacramental funeral rite, but occasionally there were processions and speeches. A coffin had to be made, usually costing between 6 and 10 shillings, and the grave dug for another 6 to 9 shillings in the seventeenth century. When the African-American Phillip Moore, Jr. passed away, Jonathan Ashley made his coffin and dug his grave for 16 shillings. Moore’s costs were similar to those for the burials of white colonists, such as Dr. Jepson, whose estate was charged 9 shillings for a grave and one pound for his coffin.[2] The minister might deliver a eulogy, as Dr. Flint of the South Church did for the last Black Governor, Boston Nichols.[3] Interment occurred as quickly as possible, usually within a day or two, though hard winter freezes could delay it. If the family could afford it, they could have a stone headstone and footstone carved. A study of Long Island, to which Connecticut Colony laid claim between 1641 and 1664, shows that Native people eschewed stone carvings and opted for wood posts or stone mounds; African Americans who could afford stone markers chose to have them, and those who could not may have had wooden posts, crosses, or carved tablets.[4] It seems likely this was also true for Hartford’s non-white population. A few black residents were accorded funerals with pomp, like the celebrated Boston Nichols, who was laid to rest in 1808 with his sword and his cocked hat, but most had simpler interments.[5]

Map of Old Burying Ground at Main and Gold Streets

Map of Old Burying Ground at Main and Gold Streets

     No remains of an African-American section exist in the Ancient Burying Ground. It is possible that Hartford did not segregate its burial ground like other towns did, such as Wethersfield and Middletown. In those cemeteries carved headstones for blacks exist today, separated by a short distance from their white contemporaries.[6] It is also possible that the graves of blacks were clustered on the Main Street side of the cemetery covered now by a lawn and a widened street, or near Pearl Street adjacent to the Gold Building and One Financial Plaza, built in 1973.

     People of African descent in Hartford suffered aspects of social death, such as the loss of legal personhood, if enslaved. Local record keepers tended to render them invisible as well. Even when a minister or sexton recorded the deaths of African Americans, they frequently omitted the person’s name, writing “a Negro,” “a Negro man,” “a Negro girl” or similar designation, even when they knew the person’s age and cause of death, indicating the recordkeeper knew the individual. The burials of nearly 115 unnamed people of African descent and five unnamed Native people can be documented.

     In probate records, estate administrators and inventory takers rarely reported the existence of objects that might have reflected African heritage. Yet if the people of African descent in Hartford were anything like their contemporary peers in other places, African customs and practices, including burial traditions, crossed the Atlantic with them, and they continued that practice for generations.[7] In the grave, they may have defeated the social death that haunted them in life, and historical archaeology, rather than public records, may provide the tools to decolonize our understanding of Hartford’s African and Native past.[8] Native people were also buried in the cemetery when they died in Hartford. Some, like Japhet, lived in the town as a householder, while others were bound in servitude for a term of years or for life. Occasionally Native people were visiting when they died, as was likely with “Old Robin,” otherwise known as Doctor Robin, a Wangunk medicine man whose usual abode was in the area of Middletown. As late as 1795 a Native child was laid to rest in the Ancient Burying Ground.

     Burials in the Ancient Burying Ground stopped sometime before 1815. By then the town had a second cemetery in the South End at Maple and Benton Streets and a third in the North End.[9] The town began to encroach on the territory of the older cemetery. In 1737 the First Ecclesiastical Society built a new meeting house on a corner of the Ancient Burying Ground, and in 1807 that building was replaced with the present Center Church. Storefronts occupied the front perimeter. In 1827 the town officers considered an application to build a firehouse in the burying ground for the use of the city department. Not long after, the Society brought an application before the town meeting with a request to erect a building for a sabbath school and other uses.[10] The city began to pay attention to its newer cemeteries like the North Burying ground, where it planted shade trees. The Connecticut Courant’s editors imagined people strolling among the alleys of the burying ground lined with shrubbery, opining that it “might easily be made a delightful place.”[11] The Courant, repeating a call from the Observer, urged its readers to support a plan to do the same for the Ancient Burying Ground, asking for an enclosure to be erected and trees to planted.[12] Nevertheless, the area around the burying ground began to decline.

     By the end of the nineteenth century, Gold Street had become a lane of horse stables, gambling dens, houses of prostitution, and tenement residences for the urban poor, many of whom were black. It was Hartford’s red-light district, a clogged artery through which traffic and “respectable people” could not pass, according to the white reformers who wanted to change the landscape.

Emily S. G. Holcombe

Emily S. G. Holcombe

Emily S. G. Holcombe, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), made it her mission to clean up Gold Street, arguing that it had become impossible for the descendants of the people buried there to tend to their ancestors’ graves. She engaged Reverend George Leon Walker to give a lecture on the history of the burying ground, raised over $36,000 in funds for the restoration project, and set about to have the tenements on Gold Street demolished. The reformers razed the buildings and planted a lawn.[13]

Image of entrance to Burying Ground

     In the late 1880s the construction of the Waverly Building on Pearl Street unearthed 75 graves, and while some bones were carefully reburied in the cemetery, workmen cast other bones into a common grave. Gates were erected at the front entrance on Gold Street to create an imposing entry way to the cemetery. African Americans who had raised their families on Gold Street were displaced. At this time a number of the other elements of the Ancient Burying Ground were lost. The DAR restored gravestones and cleaned up the cemetery, fencing in the memorials it wanted to honor. They very likely fenced out the resting places of some of Hartford’s African Americans, whose graves lacked permanent headstones. Following the restoration of the cemetery, a foundation being laid for a chapel between the Waverly Building and Center Church unearthed another 50 graves. The bones and dirt from the graves were dumped behind the Hartford Club as land fill. Later, William DeLoss Love, author of The Colonial History of Hartford, had the bones reinterred in the cemetery.[14] The chapel and the Waverly Building are gone now, but their construction displaced many of the dead. These remains may well have included a large number of African Americans.

     The same era saw a rewriting of Hartford’s history, and the writing out of Native and African people. This was especially true when it came to the Ancient Burying Ground. Local historians and societies published several catalogues of burials in the old cemetery, leaving out more than two-thirds of the African and African-American people buried there. One list of burials, called “The Sexton’s List,” was originally compiled by Mary K. Talcott from records at the Connecticut Historical Society. Her compilation was published in Connecticut Magazine (later known as Connecticut Quarterly) between 1898 and 1899. This list was similar to, but not exactly the same as, the list published in the Historical Catalogue of the First Church. A history of the Second Church also listed names of its dead.[15]  This may have been an attempt to minimize the role of slavery in Connecticut in the post-Reconstruction Era by making it seem as if Hartford had fewer blacks than it actually did. The few Native people included on the published lists seemed to confirm the dominant narrative of the “vanishing Indian” rather than proving the persistence of indigenous people in the capital city. Written for Hartford’s white elites, these publications were part of an increasing interest in heritage and genealogy that separated founding families from new immigrants.[16]

     Interest in the history of the Ancient Burying Ground was revived in 1995 when three of Billie Anthony’s students from Fox Middle School began investigating stories they had heard about black governors. Andriena Baldwin, Christopher Hayes, and Monique Price did research to uncover the lives of several black men who had served as elected leaders of their community in Hartford. These governors were not “official,” but their customary posts became a tradition in the eighteenth century. The students learned through their extensive research that the black governors were buried in the Ancient Burying Ground. Articles in the newspapers extolled their work and helped raise awareness about a custom long forgotten or ignored by most of the public and professional historians. The students raised funds for a monument in 1998 that now commemorates the contributions of these men.[17]

     The cemetery today is approximately four acres, reduced from its original expanse that may have been between five to six acres. Cemetery planners today assume that 800-1000 graves can fit in one acre, and about 6,000 people are presumed to have been buried in the Ancient Burying Ground.[18] Many graves surely lie under Main Street itself and the buildings that border the yard. Buildings placed atop the cemetery on Main were torn down in 1983.[19] What exists now is only a remnant of the original burying ground. The monument to the Black Governors and to the African Americans buried in the cemetery helps us remember that Hartford was a more diverse colonial town than we might have first imagined.


[1] Isaac William Stuart, Hartford in the Olden Time: Its First Thirty Years, ed. W. M. B. Hartley (Hartford: F. A. Brown, 1853), 79, 266-267; William Hosley and Shepherd M. Holcombe, Sr., By Their Markers Ye Shall Know Them: A Chronicle of the History and Restorations of Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground (Hartford: Ancient Burying Ground Association, 1994), xii.

[2] Connecticut Church Records, Connecticut State Library (CSL), Reel 505, “Records and Papers,” 160. The coffin and grave information is from the Talcott Memorandum Book, Private Record, CSL, 81; account of Dr. William Jepson, Connecticut Probate Packet, Hartford County Probate Court.

[3] Stuart, 40.

[4] Gaynell Stone, “Material Evidence of Ideological and Ethnic Choice in Long Island Gravestones, 1670-1800,” Material Culture 23, no. 3 (1991): 7, 17-18.

[5] Billie M. Anthony, “Ancient Burying Ground: Monument to Black Governors,” in African American Connecticut Explored, 47.

[6] Glenn A. Knoblock, African American Historic Burial Grounds and Gravesites of New England (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016), 155-156.

[7] James C. Garman, “Viewing the Color Line through the Material Culture of Death,” Historical Archaeology 28, no. 3 (1994): 79.

[8] Ross W. Jamieson, “Material Culture and Social Death: African-American Burial Practices,” Historical Archaeology 29, no. 4 (Dec., 1995): 40.

[9] Hosley and Holcombe, 8.

[10] Advertisement of Annual Town Meeting, Connecticut Courant, Nov. 19, 1827, 3; Advertisement of Town Meeting, Connecticut Courant, Mar. 1, 1831, 3.

[11] “Hartford,” Connecticut Courant, May 14, 1833, 2.

[12] “The Old Burying Ground,” Connecticut Courant, July 25, 1836, 3.

[13] Peter Baldwin, “Antiprostitution Reform and the Use of Public Space in Hartford, Connecticut, 1878-1914,” Journal of Urban History 23, no. 6 (1997): 715-717; “Gold Street Improved,” The Hartford Courant, Jun. 19, 1899.

[14] Baldwin, 717; Douglas M. Fouquet, “Who’s Who in the Old Burying Ground?” Sunday Magazine: The Hartford Courant, Jul 30, 1950.

[15] The Connecticut Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly, Vol. 5, 426-525 and Mary K. Talcott, “The Sexton’s List,”; Historical Catalogue of the First Church in Hartford, 1633-1885 (Hartford: The First Church, 1885).

[16] Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 139.

[17] Constance Neyer, “Black Governors in Connecticut? There Were Many, but They Are…?” Hartford Courant, Feb. 1, 1998; Billie M. Anthony, “Monument to the Black Governors,” Connecticut Explored (April 7, 2015),

[18] Valerie Capels & Wayne Senville, “Planning for Cemeteries,” Planning Commissioners Journal no. 64 (Fall 2006): 1,

[19] Charles McCollum, Courant, Staff Writer. “Demolition Begins for Cemetery Project,” Hartford Courant, Oct. 13, 1983, D3.

Uncovering Their History: African, African-American and Native-American Burials in Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground, 1640-1815 is a project of the Ancient Burying Ground Association, and was funded in part by the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office of the Department of Economic and Community Development with funds from the Community Investment Act.