The Burial Ground: an early African-American site in Richmond

Notes on its history and location © Jeffrey Ruggles, Dec. 2009

FIG. 1 AT THE BURIAL GROUND SITE, NOV. 2009

The Burial Ground for Negroes is probably the oldest site in Richmond, Virginia, with a specific African-American association. In use from the 1700s to about 1815, it is overlooked by the standard city histories and was largely forgotten until recently. Now the Burial Ground has become a matter of public discussion. This paper explores the history of the cemetery and its site and works toward an answer to the question of the day in 2009: the exact location of the site in the modern landscape. McPherson’s account The appearances of the Burial Ground in the historical record can be counted on one hand: one contemporary map shows the cemetery and a few old books mention it. No bones or artifacts are known. The only direct contemporary description of the Burial Ground for Negroes appears in the 1811 narrative of Christopher McPherson. McPherson (1763?–1817), a free black, worked as a clerk in Richmond, probably as a freelance legal copyist, and is himself quite an interesting story. McPherson was dissatisfied with what he called the “disgustful old burying ground,” which he complained was made “inaccessible to a carriage by a steep hill”—a carriage being McPherson’s preferred means of travel. 1

Christopher McPherson, A Short History of the Life of Christopher McPherson, alias Pherson, Son of Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords; containing A Collection of Certificates, Letters, &c., Written by Himself, Second Edition, (Lynchburg, Va., 1855), p. 21, 28. Available online at <http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/mcpherson/menu.html>. An obituary for McPherson recalled him as “notable for his eccentricities” and asked “ye men of goodness” to “weed clear his grave. . . for he was your brother.” The Virginia Patriot and Richmond Daily Mercantile Advertiser, 8 Sept 1817.
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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

FIG. 2 VIEW OF RICHMOND ABOUT 1805 Detail, “The City of Richmond,” inset engraving to A Map of Virginia, by James Madison, (1818, orig. 1807). Virginia Historical Society. (Attributed to Saint-Memin in Weddell, Richmond in Old Prints.) The James River is in the foreground and the Capitol is on the left. At center right are the steep bare sides of Council Chamber Hill, a spur that projected out to Shockoe Creek on the right. The namesake Council building is just to the right of the seam. Further right, the building partly seen about halfway down the slope is probably the Baptist church; on the hillside below it, not visible in this view, was the Burial Ground.

“On the 16th day of June, 1810, the free people of color in this city, petitioned the common hall to grant them a new and eligible burying ground,” wrote McPherson. Some six months later the Council had still not acted, he continued: I had an inspection, the other day, made of the present burying ground. It lies directly east of the Baptist meeting house, uninclosed, very much confined as to space, under a steep hill, on the margin of Shockoe Creek, where every heavy rain commits ravages upon some one grave or another, and some coffins have already been washed away into the current of Shockoe stream, and in a very few years the major part of them will no doubt be washed down into the current of James river; added to this, many graves are on private property adjoining, liable to be taken up and thrown away, whenever the ground is wanted by its owners, (this is owing, either to confined space, or want of knowledge of what was public ground;) and furthermore, we may add the humiliating circumstance, that this is the very express gallows ground where malefactors are interred. 2 The information from McPherson conforms with the placement of the cemetery on an 1809 map of Richmond (Fig. 6). Drawn by Richard Young, the City Surveyor, the “Plan of the City of Richmond” shows the “Burial Ground for Negroes” above Broad Street between Shockoe Creek and the Baptist Church. As per McPherson, the letter “N” representing the gallows is located in the middle of the cemetery space. In October 1812 the Council “revived” the “memorial of sundry free people of color praying that a grave yard be granted to them.” That memorial sounds like the 1810 petition that McPherson wrote about. In 1816 an ordinance established a new “public burying ground” for “free people of color” and “for slaves in the City.” The new city cemetery for paupers and blacks was located up the valley from the old Burial Ground, about a mile away on the hillside below the Alms House. 3
2 3

A Short History of the Life of Christopher McPherson, p. 21. Minutes of the Common Hall, Richmond, Vol. 5, p. 23 ; Richmond Enquirer, 22 Feb. 1816 2

FIG. 3 THE “SEVEN HILLS” OF RICHMOND Uncredited, probably by Richmond Dept. of Public Works, c. 1930s. Ancient Rome was built on seven hills and by selectively counting Richmonders made the same claim. The map oversimplifies the terrain but is a useful overview. On Council Chamber Hill, the Capitol is at the “H” of “Hill,” and the Burial Ground for Negroes was located at the notch on the upper side above the letters “ER.” (Navy, French Garden, and Council Chamber Hills have disappeared as distinct features. Between Union and Church Hills, the stream was covered and the declivity filled in the 1880s to become Jefferson Avenue.)

A transformed landscape One difficulty in determining the exact location of the site is that the terrain in the vicinity of the Burial Ground has been much altered. The main hill in downtown Richmond, where the State Capitol and MCV Hospital sit, is Shockoe Hill. In the 1700s, the side of the hill facing east rose from now-vanished Shockoe Creek at its foot and was considerably more irregular and steeper than today. A ridge-like arm of the main hill called Council Chamber Hill projected out to the creek and its slopes were among the steepest. 4 Over two centuries, a series of projects has altered the topography of that hillside. The biggest change was the 1956–58 construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (today I-95), which wraps around the hillside and moved a large quantity of earth. Before that, in 1926–27 the City converted Shockoe Creek from an open stream to a covered sewer. During the c. 1900–15 construction of Main Street Station and its associated freight handling facilities, the C&O and Seaboard railroads raised the floor of Shockoe Valley in some places to as much as fifteen feet over the original surface. And efforts to reduce the city’s hilliness began long before then. In 1860, the chronicler Samuel Mordecai remarked that “the original and the present surface of the city may be compared to the contrast of the waves in a storm, and their subsistence during a calm.” 5 Among the ground-shaping projects that calmed Mordecai’s earthly swells was one in 1830 and another in 1845, both to be described shortly, that took place directly on the site of the Burial Ground.
For simplicity, although Richmond streets are not oriented exactly north-south and east-west, the cemetery and its neighboring streets are described as if they are. 5 Samuel Mordecai, Richmond in By-Gone Days, (Richmond, 1946, orig. 1860), p. 62
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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

A key question is whether there is anything left of the Burial Ground hidden beneath the modern surface. Inspired by the 1991 discovery in Manhattan of a very old African cemetery, preserved under alleys, there is the hope—for some, belief—that under the modern features, old graves survive in Richmond, too. But the possibility of finding any remnant seems far from a sure thing. Given the turbulent development history of the space, at most a minor fraction might remain, for the majority of the cemetery is certainly gone. The Burial Ground rediscovered The renewed interest in the Burial Ground for Negroes is one sign of heightened attention to the history of African Americans and of sites associated with that history. In this case several things have come together: research into early black cemeteries by historians, a successful campaign to commemorate Gabriel with a marker at the site of his 1800 execution, and reflected light from the nearby Lumpkin’s Jail archaeology dig. Little notice was taken in 2008 when an arm of Virginia Commonwealth University purchased a parking lot at 16th & Broad Streets, down the hill from the Medical College of Virginia, a division of VCU. However VCU’s intention to pave the lot did get noticed. On the grounds that VCU would be paving atop gravesites, public protests were organized to oppose the work. 6 Because of the controversy, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, DHR, undertook a study of the Burial Ground. The DHR inquiry into the “the location and probable condition of the former Richmond free black and slave burial ground known as the Burial Ground for Negroes (ca. 1750-1816)” was conducted by archaeologist Christopher Stevenson in 2008 and is available online. 7 Stevenson used a method called georeference to locate the site. Working from the presumption that the cemetery site corresponds to the lettering of the 1809 map, he obtained digital images of the 1809 map and of a modern aerial photograph of the area, sized them to the same scale, found common reference points, and superimposed them. As shown on its page 11, the DHR report finds that the site of the Burial Ground lies mostly under I-95, with a portion extending into the parking lot that VCU had planned to pave. This finding of the DHR report was the basis for VCU officials to agree, after a meeting at DHR, to set aside and not pave the area of the potential overlap. 8 In 2009 the reserved area has been partitioned off by a metal picket fence that runs from Broad to about the south line of Marshall Street (Fig. 1). The DHR way for locating the Burial Ground puts a lot of trust in the old map. That approach might be called the “1809 map method.” The discussion that follows will look at some of the premises of that approach, in particular at the purposes for which the 1809 map was made, and suggest reasons that map might have a significant margin of error. Then another approach, the “topographical method,” will be offered, with a similar but not identical conclusion to the “1809 map method.”
The process that has brought the cemetery to public awareness is one of the topics discussed in the 2009 video, “Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim Richmond's African Burial Ground,” produced by Shaun Utsey, Chair of African American Studies at VCU. The video was presented to a full house at VCU’s Grace Street Theater on 23 October 2009. 7 “Burial Ground for Negroes, Richmond, Virginia: Validation and Assessment,” by Christopher M. Stevenson, 2008, available online at <http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/pdf_files/SlaveCemeteryReport.pdf>. A listing of media reports about the Burial Ground appears pp. 1–2. 8 A “Joint Statement by the Richmond Slave Trail Commission and Virginia Commonwealth University” was issued in July 2008.
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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

Early Settlement at the Falls How early was the origin of the Burial Ground for Negroes? Settlement at the Falls of the James was underway during the latter 1600s. When Fort Charles was built at the Falls in 1645, it was a military post beyond the frontier of colonial settlement. In 1675, when the overseer at Nathaniel Bacon’s plantation was killed by an Indian raid, the frontier of settlement was today’s Jackson Ward. In 1699 French Huguenots helped to move that frontier west when they settled on the James River above the Falls. On both sides of the river, the land at the lower end of the Falls came to William Byrd I by the 1670s. When his son, William Byrd II, died in 1744, an inventory of the estate listed 11 plantations at the Falls. By the early 1700s, at the mouth of Shockoe Creek was a small scattered settlement that Byrd II called Shaccos. No date certain for its beginning is established. Byrd II’s storehouse there was built in 1712. The name is mentioned in Hening’s Statues at Large in 1730 and in Byrd II’s writings in 1732. It was a center for the Byrd Falls plantations, with a boat landing at the height of tidewater navigation, Byrd’s trading post and warehouse, and a mill. By 1724 there was also a chapel, the original location of which apparently gave Chapel Island at the mouth of the creek its name. Gathering on Sundays to attend the chapel was likely a primary community tie for early residents of the Falls. 9

FIG. 4 “A PLAN OF 956 ACRES OF LAND BELOW SHACCOE CREEK” Property map, c. 1710–30, in “Title Book” of William Byrd II, VHS (Mss5:9 B9965:1) In this early map of future central Richmond, the most evident feature, Shockoe Creek at center, is invisible today. The property line that intercepts the creek is one mile (320 poles) from the river. Its big tributary from the east is probably the stream that separated Church and Union Hills and joined the main stream in the vicinity of modern Broad or Grace streets. On the bank opposite and upstream was the Burial Ground. Gillies Creek is to the right of the map.

“Inventory of the Estate of William Byrd… in the County of Henrico at the Falls of the James River in the Yeare 1746,” in The Correspondence of the Three William Byrds of Westover, Virginia, 1684–1776, (Charlottesville, 1977), vol. 2, p. 599; William Byrd II, “A Progress to the Mines in the Year 1732,” in The Prose Works of William Byrd of Westover, ed. Louis B. Wright, (Cambridge, MA, 1966) p. 339-42; W. L. Burton, “Annals of Henrico Parish,” in History, Henrico Parish and Old St. John’s Church, ed. J. Staunton Moore, (Richmond, 1904), p. 12.
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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

Among these residents were numerous African Americans. As early as the 1670s William Byrd I made promises, as a condition for obtaining land, to settle a certain number of people at the Falls, a count that included African slaves. Byrd I is known to have been an owner of a ship bringing slaves from Africa in the 1690s. The 1746 inventory made after Byrd II’s death counted in the eleven plantations at the Falls altogether some 242 slaves. No doubt black inhabitants of the Falls plantations gathered at Shaccos on Sundays too, some as the oarsmen for the boats that carried the whites to church, or assigned to handle the horses, but perhaps for religious services or Sunday school as well. Evidently gatherings of blacks for special events were not uncommon, for an act of the Virginia Assembly in 1680 opened with the statement that “the frequent meeting of considerable numbers of negroe slaves under pretence of feasts and burials is judged of dangerous consequence.” 10 If Africans began to arrive at the Falls plantations in numbers during the 1690s, burials for some might have been necessary by 1700 or so. The “Buriall of Servants” had been addressed in a 1661 act of the Assembly, which among its provisions stated: “Be it enacted that there in every parish three or fower or more places appointed… to be sett apart and fenced in, for places of publique burial… And be it further enacted that noe persons whether free or servants shall be buried in any other place then those soe appointed.” 11 These circumstances suggest that the Burial Ground for Negroes could have begun before the founding of Richmond in 1742, as a cemetery for the Byrd plantations at the time of the Shaccos community. The site of the Burial Ground would have been a plausible choice for an early period, as land not prominent or likely to be productive, and neither too close nor too far away. A possible scenario is that the plantation burial ground was designated as a municipal site around the time the town established a municipal cemetery in the yard of St. John’s Church in 1751. 12 When Richmond was founded in 1742, the land between Shockoe Creek, the town border on the west, and the first street, today’s 17th Street, was designated as Town Commons. The Public Market evolved in this space and the “Cage,” the lock-up, was also put there. The Burial Ground was on the opposite side of the creek from the commons, outside the original town limits, but facilities near it suggest that its vicinity also became commons (municipal records that might confirm it are lacking). In 1809 not only was the cemetery there but also the powder magazine and the gallows. McPherson implied the Burial Ground was considered commons when he wrote that “many graves are on private land adjoining” owing to “want of knowledge of what was public ground.” 13
Louis B. Wright, “William Byrd I and the slave trade,” Huntington Library Quarterly, v.8 (1944-1945), p. 379387; Hening, Laws of Virginia, Vol. 2, p. 481. 11 Hening, Laws of Virginia, Vol. 2, p. 53. The necessity of the act seems to have arisen from an incident or incidents in which a master killed a servant and then buried the body secretly to forestall inquiry. In the 19th century “servants” meant slaves, but in the 17th century it could also refer to indentured servants. The fencing was to keep wild hogs from uprooting the corpses. By the mid-1700s the law was no longer on the books, but it does show that attention to such subjects began early. 12 In early years, not all Virginia places had committed to the custom of separate black and white burials. It is quite likely that a number of early burial sites at the Falls went unmarked and unrecorded and therefore are not known. St. John’s did not obtain that name until the 19th century. 13 Originally, at the founding of the town, the land between Cary St. and the River was also designated commons. That strip of riverbank seems to have been relatively park-like until the city sold it in the 1810s. The creek-side commons was more functional with clothes washing, the slaughterhouse, and the tan yard.
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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

Young’s 1809 map The 1779 act “for the removal of the Seat of Government” from Williamsburg to Richmond established a board called the Directors of Public Buildings. Initially headed by Thomas Jefferson, the Directors of Public Buildings not only created Capitol Square and built the Capitol, but also managed planning for the city, laying out and naming streets and so forth. After the initial directors were appointed, however, no new ones ever were. By 1800 deaths and unavailability inhibited the functioning of the Directors, which in turn impeded the progress of the city. Finally an act in 1805 devolved certain planning powers from the state Directors to the city, and the Richmond Common Council began to fend more for itself in such matters. 14 The 1805 act authorized the city to hire a “mathematical surveyor” on the same basis as in counties: he would prepare all property plats within the jurisdiction for a set fee. The men of property who sat on Council understood the value of well-defined plats, especially because that body had become the arbiter for a series of property line disputes that took up a good deal of its time. With its new authority, later in 1805 the Council called for “a general survey of the city” by the city surveyor, to include “three fair and complete plats or maps, thereof.” This task awaited the surveyor who was eventually appointed, Richard Young. The City’s need was for an accurate map to help to define property and to show plans for streets. Most of the property titles in the city traced back to Byrd family holdings, as parcels from Byrd II’s 1737 map or from Byrd III’s 1768 lottery map. Thus a map that laid out the numbered Byrd parcels provided a stable basis for property ownership. When Young did produce the map, it was not simply for historic interest that he included as an inset “A Plan of the 100 acre Lots in Byrd’s Lottery” of 1768. Only a single original of Young’s map is extant—if the three copies called for by the Council resolution were made, two have not survived. 15 One imagines Young combined his own fieldwork with information from plats and deeds filed with the court. One characteristic of the Young map is its combination of the built and the planned. Indeed, Young’s title for it

Ordinances of the Corporation of the City of Richmond and the Acts of Assembly Relating Thereto, (Richmond, 1831), “An Act, for the removal of the Seat of Government,” 1779, p. 6; “An Act, for locating the Publick Squares, to enlarge the Town of Richmond, and for other purposes,” 1780, p. 9; “An Act, authorizing the appointment of a Mathematical Surveyor of the City of Richmond, and for other purposes,” 1805, p. 25. Two 1805 letters from “A Citizen” argued for “a general survey” of the city and establishing street right-of-ways. Virginia Argus, 16 Nov, 4 Dec. 1805. The state Directors redid the city’s street grid c. 1781, switching street names so the original 1st St. became modern 17th St. and placing a new 1st St. to the west (where it remains). By 1808 a Common Council committee provided names for streets the state group had overlooked. 15 “A Plan of the City of Richmond,” by Richard Young, c. 1809–10. The original is at Library of Virginia (G3884.R5 1809 .Y68). In 1916 a tracing of the original was made by William J. Moll of the City Engineer’s office. The tracing, probably on thin paper, does not survive, but a negative photocopy of it is at LV (G3884.R5 1809 .Y68 1916). The 1916 version does not include the Burial Ground for Negroes. In 1932 W. F. Beaman of the Bureau of Survey & Design, City Dept. of Public Works, produced a copy of the 1809 map that is the one reproduced and used today. For a photocopy in 1932, first a negative was made and then a positive from that. Beaman likely had access to the original but probably also worked from a photocopy. A photocopy of the original in 6 parts is at VHS, probably the copy supplied to Alexander Weddell, who checked Beaman’s interpretation and sent several letters suggesting changes (Mss2 W4127 b, Weddell Correspondence, 1932).
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Fig. 5 A PLAN OF THE CITY OF RICHMOND, by Richard Young, manuscript, c. 1809–10 The original of Young’s 1809 map at Library of Virginia is well worn, with stains, tears, and missing segments.

FIG. 6 DETAIL FROM 1932 COPY OF YOUNG’S 1809 MAP, VHS (Map F234 R5 1809:1 (1932 facs.)) The James River is below, and Broad is the topmost street that crosses horizontally. The Burial Ground is at center towards the top; the path of Shockoe Creek is only faintly visible on this reproduction. Around the Burial Ground is blank space, explained by terrain the map does not indicate: the steep slopes of Council Chamber and Shockoe Hills and the valley of Shockoe Creek.

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is “Plan of Richmond.” Not all of the streets shown on the map had been opened in 1809. In many cases the right-of-ways for streets had been designated but the land remained fields or woods; the map recorded both the city’s accomplishments and its intentions. In particular, Broad street had not yet been opened up the slope of Shockoe Hill. From the top of the hill on the west, the street descended only to the Baptist Church at today’s College Street. 16 From the east, Broad stopped at Shockoe Creek. On the map, the section of Broad Street drawn as if it was next to the Burial Ground did not physically exist; it was only a plan. The map’s apparent indication that the Burial Ground was bounded on the south by Broad street was not actual; the cemetery could have extended below the line of the street. 17 Another characteristic of Young’s map is that all of its features are not equal. It is a mix of the measured and the approximate. The measured are the streets and plats that conform to the relevant ordinances and property records. The approximate are about a dozen features on the map that Young probably did not have a plat or court paper to work from, or a good reason to go to the trouble to survey accurately. One example is Shockoe Creek, which is simply sketched. The creek was changeable, nonetheless another surveyor a few years before—with reason to do so—rendered the meanders of the creek with a good bit more accuracy (as will be seen in Figs. 8 & 9). One key question is whether the words “Burial Ground for Negroes” as lettered on the map are spaced to represent the extent of the cemetery. It is reasonable to assume Young had that intent to some degree. The follow-up question is whether he carefully positioned the words or approximated, as with the nearby creek. A further question is which definition of the cemetery Young was describing. Recalling McPherson’s statement that “many graves are on private property adjoining,” there would be two ways to describe the Burial Ground: the “official” cemetery, located on public commons land, versus the actual extent of the graves, which went beyond the public land. As the City’s maker of lines, one assumes Young would have recognized only the “official” bounds and not legitimized the trespassers. Further, given that the cemetery was unfenced, that burials had begun many years before, and presumably few graves—if any—were marked by cut headstones, could the mapmaker in 1809 have even known the full extent of burials well enough, if such had been his aim, to mark it accurately? Possibly not. Perhaps the fuzziness of the official and the actual was a reason Young did not draw the Burial Ground with a boundary line. The “official” cemetery was not as extensive as the actual burials but also was undefined on the map. For the City Surveyor to have given the Burial Ground a boundary might have been more official recognition than was desired. As the city grew, the sloped land that was centrally located but difficult to develop began to be more attractive, because with higher property values the cost of making it useful could be recouped.
16 The Baptist Church was thus down at the end of the street and somewhat at the edge of settlement on Shockoe Hill. No doubt pedestrian paths did ascend the slope but not necessarily where streets were planned. No streets climbed Shockoe Hill north of Franklin Street until the 1840s. (Broad St. also did not ascend Church Hill to the east for a long time—that hill was reached via 25th St. The climb from Main St. up 25th to St. John’s was likely the original “church hill” that came to name the neighborhood.) 17 To draw the Burial Ground as extending below Broad St. would have complicated Young’s visual design. It would also have put the planned route of Broad street across a cemetery, possibly a complication the mapmaker preferred not to suggest.

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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

In 1811 and 1812, the City petitioned the General Assembly for permission to sell its Commons, presumably including land along the creek. In 1813 the state authorized the City to do so. If that intention was already under discussion when Young was drawing his map, an undefined Burial Ground for Negroes might have seemed easier to disestablish. 18 Finally, as one more possible imprecision, Young’s map includes, along with streets and properties, notable buildings and places in the city, lettered A to Z. Close by the Burial Ground is a square dot labeled “M,” listed in the legend as the magazine. 19 Located in the middle of the Burial Ground is “N,” which marks the gallows. If, when drawing his map, Young marked the gallows with a dot and “N” before he lettered “Burial Ground for Negroes”—and that sequence is the way it appears—the placement of the latter on the map could have been affected by the placement of the former, particularly if the former was drawn before the notion arose to mark the latter. Young presumably wished to show by the placement of the word “Negroes” that the cemetery extended east of the gallows site, but in order to not write too closely to the “N” that word might have been pushed too far right. Because precision regarding the cemetery was not a priority, Young might have fudged a bit on the cemetery location to achieve readability. 20

FIG. 7 DETAIL OF YOUNG’S 1809 MAP, VHS (Map F234 R5 1809:1 (photo)) Seen through a good bit of visual “noise,” the map section is enlarged from a c. 1930 negative photostat (at LV)of the original 1809 map. A tear in the original has taken away portions of the words “Ground” and “for,” and also the square dot representing the gallows, and part of the “N”.

Thus we may summarize the potential difficulties with Young’s 1809 map regarding the “Burial Ground for Negroes” as these: 1) the focus for Young’s accuracy was on properties
Common Hall, 16 Dec. 1811, “to dispose of commons,” Reel 221, Box 277, Folder 20; Common Hall, 9 Dec. 1812, “to dispose of commons,” Reel 221, Box 277, Folder 27, in Legislative Petitions, LV. 19 The Magazine was for the storage of gunpowder and was probably under the control of the Public Guard, the state’s small standing military force, established after Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800 and stationed at Capitol Square. 20 One presumes the gallows, like the other alphabetic structures, was marked by a square dot, but the original map is torn at that place and no mark is visible. Whether the square dot was to the left of the “N”—as drawn in the 1932 copy—or below the “N” is not evident from the reproductions available; possibly in the original there is a vestige of the dot on the edge of the tear. Typically gallows were not left standing between uses but were erected when an execution was scheduled; thus the “N” marked the spot that a gallows would be set up, not necessarily a structure that remained in the cemetery.
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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

and streets, and because the cemetery was neither, his drawing of it might have been less precise; 2) Broad Street, drawn as a border to the Burial Ground, was not yet built but only a planned right-of-way, so the cemetery could have extended farther in that direction; 3) the mapmaker’s mission would have been to describe the cemetery as it existed on public Commons and not necessarily the full extent of its burials; 4) future development possibilities provided a motive to minimize and leave undefined the cemetery; 5) as a lower priority map feature, legibility may have been more important than precision for the cemetery. Each of these suggests a possible reason for less trust in the map’s delineation of the Burial Ground. 21 Evidence of topography A different way to position the Burial Ground site is to look at the topographical history. Young’s 1809 map is relied upon for the general location of the cemetery but does not contain information about topography. Other maps and pictures do. Especially useful are maps from c.1800, 1830, and 1835, and photographs from c.1920, 1948, and 1865. The cemetery is not known to have been rectangular, nonetheless the bounds or limits will be discussed as if it were four-sided. Burial Ground site, east side: a physical limit A map created for a court case offers a valuable bit of geographical information (Fig. 8). The maker was Benjamin Bates (1769-1812), long the surveyor for Hanover County. Because the legal dispute was over a property line, the map is measured and attentive to features such as trees, ditches, and the former paths of the creek. 22 The key detail: to the left, or west, of the creek, just above the line of Broad street—right where the Burial Ground was located—is the description: “High Bank.” That the words are written very close to the stream also implies the bank had a steep slope (Fig. 9). At least along that portion of the creek, just above Broad, this high bank probably represents the eastern edge of the cemetery. A high bank at this location fits well with what else is known of the Burial Ground. It would place the cemetery at a higher level than the creek bed, but still well below the top of the hillside. It works too with McPherson’s description: “on the margin of Shockoe Creek, where every heavy rain commits ravages upon some one grave or another, and some coffins have already been washed away into the current of Shockoe stream.” No view of that high bank is known, but there is a photograph that offers a hint (Fig. 10). Made before 1927, it looks north from the Marshall Street viaduct and shows Shockoe Creek and its banks. From the upper end of the cemetery site, the scene is about a block north. If the high bank at the Burial Ground was similar—although perhaps not so tall—it is a reasonable assumption that no burials would have been made on a slope of such an angle. The cemetery would have spread to the edge of the bank up on top—as McPherson said, “on the margin of Shockoe Creek.” It is traditional in many cultures to locate a cemetery on a hillside,
Questions about the “1809 map method” were also raised in a Sept. 2008 review of the DHR report by Michael L. Blakey of the College of William & Mary. 22 There are two versions of this map, one at VHS illlustrated here (Mss2 B9966 c 15) and another at LV, illustrated in Virginia in Maps (Richmond, 2000), p. 66. Library records date the map to c.1800, but it could be ten years earlier or later than that. Apparently the issue in the case, Byrd v. Adams, was language in a property description that referred too loosely to Shockoe Creek and allowed multiple interpretations. In the meantime the creek changed course and created more uncertainty.
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FIG. 8 MAP FOR BYRD V. ADAMS “[Map of] copy of surveys [of Richmond, Va.] made by order of the [Virginia] high court of chancery [in the case of] [?] Byrd vs. [?] Adams taken by Benj[amin] Bates,” c. 1800), VHS (Mss2 B9966 c 15). Drawn on the model of Byrd II’s original 1737 map of Richmond by William Mayo.

FIG. 9 DETAIL OF MAP FOR BYRD V. ADAMS Lots “99” and “O” at right are at the modern intersection of 18th & Broad Streets. If the top line of Broad St. is followed left to the creek, the description “High bank” is on the left, or west, bank. Next to the creek are areas of dot pattern that probably mark low-lying creek bed, easily flooded at high water and suitable neither for building or burying

FIG. 10 SHOCKOE CREEK, C.1920. PHOTOGRAPH BY R. LANCASTER, VALENTINE RICHMOND HISTORY CENTER The view is from the Marshall St. Viaduct. It was made after the Viaduct opened in 1911 and before Shockoe Creek was covered over in 1927. Occupying this space today are I-95 and the multi-level MCV parking deck at Clay St; and King Bridge crosses the valley just beyond.

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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

but no one buries in a creek bed. If a geologist, today, could use core samples to establish where Shockoe Creek ran at its most westerly, the Burial Ground would start west of that. 23 Burial Ground site, north & east sides: the Jail & Creek projects of 1830–35 The eastern edge of the cemetery, then, would not have extended beyond the old bed of Shockoe Creek. A clue regarding the northern extent of the cemetery is found in an unusual book about Richmond. Hidden Things Brought to Light was written and published by Ernest Walthall (1848-1912). The original edition in 1908 was only 8 copies. Walthall was a Richmond printer who made the book in spare time at work, a few pages at a time, not working from a text but composing it directly in type without a paper original. It is a stream of consciousness account of memories of things about old Richmond, things he saw and things he had been told. In talking about cemeteries Walthall states, “In digging foundation for old city jail there were signs of a burial place, and the bones were so large they were classed giants’.” The jail was built in 1830, and Walthall was not born until 1848, so this is a story he heard from others. 24 Walthall’s account probably understates how many bones were found. Old City Jail was located on Marshall street, just west of 15th. There was much digging when the jail was built. During the 1820s and 30s, as Richmond became more urban, a number of terracing projects were undertaken on the slopes of Council Chamber Hill and Shockoe Hill to create lots for development. One was for the jail. The site preparation required that part of the hillside be dug away for the structure, and then more excavation carved out a jail yard. On the west line of the jail lot a tall stone wall held back the hillside, then the wall turned and went a ways east on the south line of the lot. 25 As one of the largest of the terracing projects, the jail’s impact can been seen in an 1835 map (Fig. 11). Among the most informative of early Richmond documents, the map was produced by Micajah Bates (1797-1861), who succeeded Richard Young as City Surveyor. It was issued as an engraving and is the first printed map of Richmond. 26 The reproduced detail has City Jail towards the top. The map shows that by its 1835 date of issue, Shockoe Creek was being rerouted. The “Old bed Shockoe Creek” runs up to the line of Broad Street and stops. The new bed lies to the right or east. Whereas the old bed was a natural creek, the straight section of the new bed, running from below Broad to above Marshall street (near the top of the map detail), was a stone-lined channel built like a canal. The 1830 “Prison Rules” map (Fig. 12) indicates that the old bed of the creek—the portion
23 Atop the rise of the high bank would also have been a plausible location for the gallows. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, execution was not private, rather it was a public spectacle. The sheriff would have erected the gallows in a visible spot—people were meant to see and heed the example. 24 Ernest Walthall, Hidden things brought to light, by author : family history, evacuation day, 60 years in a city, a youth's travels, the business bridge, how Capitol square has looked, (Richmond, 1908). From the two 1908 copies at VHS, a reprint was produced in 1933 by the Press of the Dietz Printing Co. that includes marginal notes by the author. 25 The walls are visible in photographs made during the construction of I-95 in the 1950s. Other terracing projects nearby included cutting Mayo Street through on Council Chamber Hill in the early 1820s, and on the lower portion of that hill “Mayo’s Addition”—the Mayo family owned most of Council Chamber Hill—on Birch Alley (15th street extended) in the late 1820s. The archaeological dig at Lumpkin’s Jail on the east side of Birch Alley uncovered a terrace wall. Photographs show several sections of stone walls along Birch Alley that may have suggested the alternate name for 15th St. used in the 1850s, Wall Street. 26 Micajah Bates, Plan of the city of Richmond drawn from actual survey and regional plans, engraving, 1835. (VHS: handcolored copy: o.s. Map F234 R5 1835:1).

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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

FIG. 11 DETAIL FROM 1835 MAP OF RICHMOND, “Plan of the city of Richmond drawn from actual survey and regional plans,” by Micajah Bates (VHS, o.s. Map F234 R5 1835:1) To the left, marked “L” and divided by the seam in the map, is First Baptist Church. The horizontal street at center labeled “66 feet wide” is Broad St., but no markings differentiate between the street where opened and where only planned. In 1835 Broad stopped at Shockoe Creek on the east (note the footbridge there), and on the west ended just below the Baptist church at Mayo street. In April 1844, in fact, a request came before Council that “the precipice of the eastern” end of Broad Street—at Mayo Street—“be protected by a sufficient railing to ensure its safety.”

FIG. 12 DETAIL FROM 1830 MAP “Prison Rules Prescribed by the Hustings of the City of Richmond,” March 2, 1830. Negative photocopy, made c. 1933 (VHS, Mss11:3 R4154:1 o.s.). The map was prepared to show the route that a prisoner—presumably a trusty—was allowed to take on errands for the jail.

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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

missing in the 1835 map—meandered as far west as the line of 15th (another planned but not built street) just above Broad before it curved back to the east. It is possible, indeed probable, that the excavation of the jail site and the filling in of the old bed of the creek were related. The earth removed for the terracing had to be put somewhere, the closer the better. The city employed a work gang of hired slaves who loaded mule-carts for such projects. The creek took up too much real estate when allowed to take its meandering way. Shifting it east to a new straightened channel fit the grid better and took potential problems of flooding and aroma farther from the jail and Lancastrian school. 27 The jail and creek projects executed over 1830–35 were consequential for the Burial Ground site. The jail excavation mostly cleared the north portion of the Burial Ground. On the 1835 Bates map, the creek bed disappears not only next to the jail, but also by the two Rutherfoord lots adjacent. These lots, central to the cemetery site, included or were very near the high bank noted by the 1800 Benjamin Bates map. The surface of the Rutherfoord lots was not lowered like the jail lot (as Fig 15 shows), but the available evidence does not indicate how the creek-filling project might have affected the lower, eastern end of the lots. In that work, the top of the creek bank might have been shaved down to make the slope more gradual. This obscure landscaping history becomes significant because this area might well reach to the 2009 grassy hillside that is within the set-aside parcel and not covered by I-95. Burial Ground site, south side The 1830 “Prison Rules” map (Fig. 12) provides a clue to the southern extent of the Burial Ground. It was drawn to show where trusted prisoners could travel when running errands for the jail. At that date, the line of Broad street below the Baptist church was only a plan, meaning the cemetery could have extended beyond that line. In fact the 1830 map depicts a gully in the middle of Broad street. This gully suggests a limit, if not to burials, because the gully might have appeared in the fifteen years since the cemetery closed, but rather to surviving graves. McPherson’s complaint of graves being washed away might as easily have been gully-induced as creek-induced. 28 A big change on the south side of the Burial Ground site came in 1845. The owners of the land at the crest of Council Chamber Hill, the Mayo family, wished to flatten the hilltop for development. They proposed to use the fill produced by the excavation to build a ramp to carry Broad Street across the valley of Shockoe Creek. In this period of active railroad construction, inclined planes were a familiar construction project. The Council agreed to the plan, and directed the city surveyor to set the bounds and angle of descent. The ramp that resulted conveys Broad Street traffic today. A visible artifact is the stonework on both sides of the street (Fig. 13), left from the bridge built 1845 as a stone arch over Shockoe creek. 29
It is possible that burials north of the jail site, or east of the jail site between there and the creek bank, were not excavated during 1830–35, and that under everything graves remain. Some of the earth from the jail excavation may have modified the slope of Marshall Street. It is within possibility that human remains were contained in the fill put into the old creek bed. 28 If not the gully itself, the slope of the hillside was likely a barrier to the cemetery extending farther south. If the gully was located on the line of Broad street by 1830, any graves that had been in its path would have been washed out, thus it would represent a limit to finding burials today. 29 In the excavation, fossil deposits were found in the top of Council Chamber Hill; therefore the ramp was built by slaves from ancient shells.
27

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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

FIG. 13 STONEWORK OF 1845 BRIDGE OVER CREEK, SOUTH SIDE OF BROAD ST. When Shockoe Creek was covered over in 1927, stones from the arch were probably recycled to close up the sides. In 1845, just up the hill was First African Baptist Church, with a congregation of several thousand, mostly slaves. On Sundays before and after church, many worshippers gathered on the nearby streets to socialize. The stones set upright on top of the walls were not only decorative but functional: they kept the black Sunday socializers from sitting on the bridge.

FIG. 14 VIEW UP BROAD STREET, PHOTOGRAPH 1948 The photograph was taken on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway trestle, looking up the Broad Street ramp to First African Baptist Church and MCV Hospital atop Shockoe Hill. City Jail is the white building at right; beyond it is the Marshall St. Viaduct. Beneath the “BO” of “Seaboard” is the stonework of the 1845 arch over Shockoe Creek. At center is the three-story Central Publishing Co. building, located a half-block east of the jail, at the site of the 2009 grassy hillside seen in Fig. 17. (The bricks of its NE corner are visible in the ground at the Burial Ground site, next to the old paved lot.)

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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

Burial Ground site, west side On the fourth side of the Burial Ground, the west, no physical feature suggests a bright line of demarcation. About two-thirds of the way up the side of Shockoe Hill was Church St. (today College St.). Buildings on the east side of that street included the Baptist Church at Broad and several dwellings, all of which perched above while the land in back fell below. The slope in these lots was probably the “steep hill” that McPherson said prevented him from visiting the cemetery in a carriage. Even if no exact boundary is evident, the combination of the private property owners and the steep upper slope would have presented a practical western limit to the spread of the Burial Ground, east of College Street. 30 The earliest comprehensive view of the Burial Ground site is in a photograph made in 1865 at the end of the Civil War (Figs. 15, 16). The Library of Congress has made available online a digital file of this image big enough to enlarge a small section. In the photograph, the steepness of the slope just below College Street is evident. Down the hillside the slope seems less severe. Because of the camera’s position, the lowest parts of the valley including the creek bed and banks are not visible. For the lower visible portions of the old Rutherfoord lots, where in the photograph are slave quarters and a barn, no evidence of any earth-moving projects has been found. There the land surface seen in the photograph could be much as it was when the cemetery was in use. 31 The Burial Ground site today Even if graves spread well beyond the area marked on the 1809 maps, most of the Burial Ground site is under I-95. The fate of the graves in the cemetery is that they either remain buried deeply or were removed. Might there be any graves that are deep-buried yet not under an immoveable roadway? VCU has installed a metal fence that partitions off a section of its 16th & Broad parking lot (Fig. 1). The fence provides two sides to a parcel of land bounded by Broad Street on the south, I-95 on the west, and the fence on the north and east. The east fenceline is based on the geopositioning of the cemetery using the 1809 Young map. The north fenceline is on the south line of Marshall St. This “cemetery parcel” has two distinct sections. On the east is former parking lot, low, flat, and paved. On the west are slopes with grass and trees that rise to I-95 and to Broad. As to where graves, in theory, might be accessible, it would only be east of I-95. The Burial Ground never extended beyond the western side of I-95. (We will assume that the sizeable I-95 median west of the southbound lanes below College St. is not accessible.) Towards the south, there could be graves underneath Broad Street—in fact this might be one of the most likely spots—but accessible graves would have to be north of Broad. 32
Vestiges of the upper slope today include bulwarks along the west side of new 14th Street from Franklin to Broad, and along the west side of Interstate 95 below former First African Baptist Church. 31 The 1865 photograph by Andrew J. Russell from which the section is enlarged is an 11x14 in. contact print. Another photograph from the same vantage point was made in 1865 by Alexander Gardner, as one plate of a panorama of Shockoe Valley made from five 8x10 in. plates. Russell may have used a better lens and did have a larger negative; the detail in his view appears to be better. 32 The DHR report noted maps and cross-section diagrams from the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike Authority that show a great deal of fill under the northbound lanes in the vicinity of the cemetery site. The cross-section images were not of good enough quality to include in the report, however.
30

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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

FIGS. 15, 16 DETAIL FROM 1865 PHOTOGRAPH, BY ANDREW J. RUSSELL Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Dept., LC-B8184-10228 The view is from Church Hill towards Shockoe Hill, shortly after the end of the Civil War. This part of the city was unaffected by the Evacuation Fire. The photographer Russell was a Union army captain. On the left is A–the Broad St. ramp; visible on its left B–the 45-degree sides of the ramp, on the right C–ten rising houses called Rutherford’s Row, built atop the side of the ramp. On the left side of the street are telegraph poles and D–the stonework of the arch over the creek. The darker buildings along the bottom edge of the image–E are on the near side of the creek, on 18th and 19th streets. The Egyptian Building–F at upper left center is on College St.; to its left is G–the domed-roof Monumental Church. Below and in front of there, behind trees and a dark house, is H–the First African Baptist Church. These buildings sit atop a steep slope. To the right of the Egyptian Building, coming down the hill is I–a winding path which continues Marshall St. Below the path is J– City Jail, somewhat obscured by smoke: a big square building with 4 chimneys and several sections. To its left is a white two-story house that sits at the top of the stone retaining wall of the excavated jail yard. Shockoe Creek flows beyond L–the Lancastrian School, and at the base of K–a steep, cliff-like bank. Possibly the smoke is from the Virginia Central Railroad yard, out of sight in the bottom, except perhaps for M–possibly the top of a water tower. The structures on the two lots identified as “Rutherfoord” on the 1835 map, prime location of the cemetery, include N–a barn, O–probably slave quarters, P–a house on Jail Alley, and on the other lot Q–also a house on Jail Alley, and R–slave quarters. From the Jail to Rutherford’s Row is the main Burial Ground site.

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The Burial Ground: an early African American site in Richmond

The key step is to locate the east boundary to the cemetery site. In the end only digging will prove the matter. If burials extended to the top of the creek bank, finding the original “old creek bed” would be a big clue and quite feasible. Earlier it was suggested that a geologist should be able to locate the bed through core samples. Once found, the ground west of that bed, allowing room for the “high bank,” might contain graves. 33 To the north, from the written description of the construction of the jail, and from examining the 1865 photograph, in which the jail appears sunken down into the ground, it is likely that all the graves that were located on the jail lot were removed in 1830. Maps reveal that the jail lot included much of the northern part of the cemetery. Within the 2009 cemetery parcel, which extends from the north line of Broad to the south line of Marshall, the upper half towards Marshall is less likely to have graves remaining. 34 The odds of burials remaining in the ground of the cemetery parcel would seem to be higher to the west and to the south. The earth sides of the Broad Street ramp, early broadened to the north as underpinning for the buildings of Rutherfoord’s Row, might have protected graves from later developments. The mostly likely place for success in an archaeological excavation is probably in the SW corner of the parcel, as close as can be dug to the corner of Broad and I-95. In the whole of the 2009 cemetery parcel this is where the ground is the highest, but there you go.

FIG. 17 AT THE BURIAL GROUND SITE, NOV. 2009

Because of the earth-moving projects 1830-35 described earlier, the creek bank closer to the creek would have been more likely to suffer surface removal, thus the likelihood of finding graves would increase moving west from the creek bed. 34 Possibly a strip of the Burial Ground site below the east line of the Jail site remained unexcavated. The available evidence is not specific enough to tell. It is hard to imagine that, given the large subtraction of earth at the jail and the large addition of earth close by at the old creek bed, somehow the strip of old graveyard betwixt them was undisturbed—still there is the chance that graves remain in the upper portion of the 2009 cemetery parcel.
33

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