How many times over the past years I have thought of the residents of the tiny cemetery nestled near the pond and woods that used to be behind my childhood home?
The local legend (1) was that it had been a slave cemetery sometime between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. There was a black slave cemetery here with the first mentions of it in articles (August 26, 1937 and another in 1938) by Charles Bodine, local Walden historian, in his “Historic Walden” column in the Walden Citizen Herald. He says “the earliest burial place in our village was a negro graveyard at Liberty Street on the West Side.”(2, 2a) Thank you to Walden resident, Ruth O’Reilly for putting me on the track of Bodine’s mention. Ruth (a long time neighbor and cousin) has published an interesting letter (3) about the cemetery and some early statistics about slaves and free blacks in the Town of Montgomery. My mother, Dorothy Yeaple, who passed away in 1986, found several stones at the edge of the woods in the 1970s. The area was grown over, filled in with decaying leaves so that only the tops of a few stones showed above ground. My father, Lawrence Yeaple, carefully removed one, cleaned it with water but found no markings and replaced it. He methodically checked the area as much as a concerned individual could at the time and found what appeared to be 6 grave stones and became an unofficial care taker. They were “slabs of irregular size, guessing slate, approximately 2 feet tall by about 10″ wide and 1-1/2 to 2” thick,” my Dad recently confirmed to me (my first size and location notes made while visiting are dated Feb 6, 1999).
During the 25 years between finding the graves and land development, my father showed the graves to a number of different people, among them Sam Phelps (of Feathers and Fur fame, who also wrote about them in his column in the Wallkill Valley Times on Feb 12, 1997)(4), and to family and friends. When showing them to Walt Sweed of Walden, Walt found more stones –12 stones in total—possibly 6 graves with foot stones but more likely 12 graves. A number of reporters visited including Alan Snell of the Times Herald-Record who wrote an article that appeared on Feb. 12, 2002 (5). My Dad had a number of visitors at the house asking about the graves including representatives on several occasions from the NAACP. But sadly, it was deemed too small for them to be able to investigate further. So, without written record of the cemetery (this was before finding Bodine’s mentions (2 & 2a)), it seemed nothing could be done.
Primarily wetlands, a natural gorge (about 6 ft deep when I was a child), runs down the hillside above and to the right of us and delivered fresh natural spring water directly into our pond, creating a beautiful babbling brook during the high water months. Early in my lifetime this pond became the local skating rink in winter and the best pollywog/frog source with “peepers” to serenade us in spring.
When a developer built two houses on the last bit of undeveloped land between us and a tall wooded hill, the wetland included the pond and cemetery, the DEC was luckily on hand to step in and protect the cemetery. I lived in California during this time and recall visiting during the construction and seeing tape cordoning off a remaining small cluster of trees–protecting the small cemetery area. The rest was cleared, filled in and leveled. The developer probably had no idea when buying the land of the obstacles he would encounter. The natural water source flowed directly into the middle of where he intended to build. (Water still flows from this natural spring and has since been diverted into a culvert added at the end of the street.)I know it must still be here, but today there is no trace of the elusive little cemetery–most of the trees are gone, no noticeable stones, and still no account of who the occupants might be or how many souls rest here. Many people don’t even realize that New York State had slaves. While not the preferred solution for the early New York province, a farm labor shortage in the Hudson River Valley, brought the first 11 slaves to our area as early as 1626.(6) Early Statistics are surprising. “The Black Minority in Early New York” states that there was phenomenal population growth [in New York State] in the years directly before the American Revolution–total New York State population of 18,067 (2,170 Negro) in 1689, to total population of 168,007 (19,873 Negro) in 1771.(7) In 1781 a law was passed promising freedom to any New York slave in return for 3 years of military service in the American Army. It is important to note that many of the black population of early New York State were free citizens… and never slaves.
One significant “effect of the Revolution in New York State removed the economic benefits of slavery as a labor institution: The influence of the natural rights philosophy, the realities of war-induced changes, and the demographic and economic transformations of the war years”–and “…after 1817 no New Yorker could own a slave.”(8)
Slave or free, native or pioneer, or all–just who is buried in our little cemetery? We may never know for sure…but with newer modern technology, especially GPR (ground penetrating radar) (9,10) would show not only the exact location but also the number of graves. Hopefully others will have interest and ability to conduct this type of survey to find out and this tiny obscure cemetery will not be totally forgotten.
1) I personally first heard the legend of a slave cemetery as a youngster in approx 1960 from an elderly Uncle, Jesse Terwilliger (b. 1903-d. 1971) who was raised in a house on Liberty Street at Seeley. My Dad, Larry Yeaple, built our house beginning in 1950 on the extension of Liberty Street and we moved in during the summer of 1952 and remained the last house on the cul-de-sac street until the 1990s.
(2) Charles Bodine, Citizen Herald, August 26, 1937.
(2a) Charles Bodine, Citizen Herald, 1938 [References updated, 6-20-16]
(3) Ruth O’Reilly, Letter to Wallkill Valley Times, Feb. 2002
(4) Sam Phelps, Jr.,” Feathers and Fur” column, Wallkill Valley Times, Feb. 12, 1997
(5) Alan Snell, “Historians to study graveyard,” Times Herald-Record, Feb. 12, 2002
(6) David Kobrin, The Black Minority in Early New York, 1975. (University of the State of New York, The State Education Department Office of State History, Albany 1971 and reprinted by New York State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission in 1975), Page 3.
(7)_____ ibid., 8, 9.
(8)_____ ibid., 41, 42.
(9) Personal communication, Oct. 10, 2002, John R. Lukacs, PhD (Professor of Anthropology, Director of Graduate Studies, UO), friend and former Walden Resident.
(10) Deborah Medenbach “Imaging, not digging, will unearth details of slave cemetery,” Times Herald Record, Jan. 31, 2002