|Detail, Adams Map of Richmond, 1858, showing the area formerly |
the site of the African Burial Ground
The question of the location and boundaries of the Richmond's historic first African-American Burial Ground has generated a series of conflicting reports, amplified by the undoubted sensitivity of the topic and the unpopular attempt to build a new ballpark in its immediate vicinity. Attempts at resolving the question have assisted in focusing attention on the small tract of land that condensed the realities of degradation and death for Richmond's enslaved and free black population in the first half of the nineteenth century.
This study purports to show that the first Burial Ground for Negroes very likely shared a portion of its boundaries with a busy tract of publically owned land on the edge of the Shockoe Valley settlement. Careful consideration of the ownership of land in the area of the burial ground can help to solve the thorny question of exactly where it was located. The parcel of city-owned land appears on later maps and deeds but is poorly documented in the public record.
Watson’s Tenement on the inset map of Byrd’s Lottery on Richard Young’s 1809 Map of Richmond. This map originated in 1768 and includes the platted town of Shockoe west of the creek labeled “Town Land.”
Background- Watson’s Tenement
In 1780, when Richmond became a city, the majority of residents lived east of Shockoe Creek on the grid established by William Byrd in the 1730s. The plateau to the west on Shockoe Hill was laid out in streets in 1768 on the lands of William Byrd III and was incorporated into the city as the Town of Shockoe in the following year. The tract on Shockoe Hill was slow to develop, but one area, just at the top of the hill, attracted merchants and tavern operators along the old “County Road” that climbed the steep hillside and connected the town to points east and west.
A large tract of undeveloped land on Shockoe Hill to the north and east of the County Road pre-dated the lots of 1768. It was known as Watson’s Tenement because it had been leased by Philip Watson, a merchant, from William Byrd III. It is not clear when Watson acquired the lease, but it appears to have been renewed in 1757, at which time it comprised 128 acres. At some date after that, Thomas Turpin purchased Watson’s Tenement from William Byrd III, as noted in a deed of 1783, when Turpin sold 93 1/2 acres, the remainder of the tenement after the sale of lots on the hill, to his son, Dr. Philip Turpin. This undeveloped remainder of Watson’s Tenement ran east from the Shockoe Hill lots down to Shockoe Creek. The southern portion of this sloping land, containing Philip Watson’s brick residence, had been considerably improved and was valued by a jury at 4,000 lbs specie. The sloping land of the portion to the north was considered less valuable and was assessed at only 1,000 lbs.
Owing to the loss of records, including those pertaining to the General Court in Williamsburg, where the Byrds recorded most of their transactions, the history of the property is vague. Thomas Turpin acquired Watson’s Tenement in its entirety after the lease was vacated, well before 1779. It was in that year that Thomas Jefferson, during his term as governor, occupied a house near the corner of Thirteenth and Broad belonging to Turpin.
The Turpin tract was entirely in the hands of Philip Turpin by 1775. He laid out the flat part at the top of the hill in lots that extended the adjacent Shockoe Hill grid pattern by 1775, when he sold lots no. 781 and 782 to James Monroe [Richmond City DB 1:43]. The land on Council Chamber Hill and sloping down to the Shockoe Creek he sold in larger unnumbered tracts. These less likely tracts became acceptable sites for public and civic uses. In 1786 he sold a lot to the trustees of the Quesney Academy [Richmond City DB 1:119]. This became the site of the Richmond Theatre, which after its destruction in a horrific fire, was replaced by Monumental Church. At that time, Turpin guaranteed that Broad Street (“the Main Street on Shockoe Hill”) should be extended along the entire frontage of the “Academy lot.” The city’s Baptists acquired a lot east of the Academy.
At the bottom of the hill, in a bend of Shockoe Creek, the city invested in an irregularly shaped tract. While the date of purchase is not known, this property was to serve numerous secondary purposes over the following century and plays a key role in the search for the Burial Ground. The corporation’s tract of land is first seen on the Bates Map of 1835 containing the City’s jail and principal public school. Angled property lines separating the city’s parcel and the other tracts along the west side of the creek from the lots on higher ground to the west probably correspond to the shapes of the bluff dividing them. On this map, the formerly inaccessible tract has been divided and joined to the rest of the city by extension of the streets to the north, east, and south, while the formerly winding Shockoe Creek has been channeled into a new bed to the east.
“The Land Belonging to the Corporation”
The public functions on the west side of Shockoe Creek are first shown on Young’s 1809 map of the city’s lots. These civil uses are identified as a magazine for the storage of gunpowder, the site of the gallows, and a “Burial Ground for Negroes.” The location and extent of the Burial Ground as shown on this map has proven difficult to pin down with any certainty. Commentators have suggested that the graveyard was on “common land” and that it may have expanded into the area where Broad Street is located today, although the city’s original “commons” were located along the east side of Shockoe Creek as it ran in 1737 and along the river. Some commentaries have given the Burial Ground’s boundaries an elastic quality that seems unrealistic in the litigious climate of eighteenth-century Virginia land speculation and boundary disputes.
It is most likely that civil uses, including the Burial Ground, were officially restricted to public land already belonging to the city. At the same time, it is not unreasonable to assume that the boundaries of the Burial Ground were poorly marked at the time and that burials might, as was suggested at the time, have strayed onto private land. It would, however, be unusual for the litigious members of the Turpin family, owners of Watson’s Tenement after c. 1780, to have approved of a public graveyard, gallows, and powder magazine on their land without a formal transfer of property to the city. The Turpins pursued lawsuits for decades over issues related to land acquired by the state. The size of the city tract was, in fact, probably large enough for its purpose, even adjusting for the steepness of the site, when compared with the two-acre site of the city’s official graveyard on Church Hill that served the city’s white population until 1822.
Jeffrey Ruggles has drawn attention to the 1811 account by the free African-American author Christopher McPherson of a visit to the Burial Ground ["The Burial Ground: An Early African American Site in Richmond, Virginia, 2009 ()]. McPherson described it as located to the east of the Baptist Meeting House. The city’s tract was, in fact, due east of the site of the meeting house, not southeast as shown on the 1809 map. He seems to confirm public ownership of the tract when he commented that “many graves are on private land adjoining” owing to “want of knowledge of what was public ground.” He adds, as well, the humiliating fact that “this is the very express gallows ground where malefactors are interred.” In fact, Richmond was the site of the executions of white felons from all over the state from 1780 to 1785, and the site on Shockoe Creek appears to have been used for that purpose. Prior to 1780, Henrico County had been required to send all white felons to Williamsburg for execution and probably placed the temporary gallows used for the execution of slaves wherever it was most convenient on the common land. From 1785 until its removal in 1816, most Richmond and Henrico County felons were executed there.
The public nature of this tract helps to explain the close association of the gallows, the magazine, and the Burial Ground. The powder magazine, always liable to explode, was shared by both the city and the state governments, and by both public institutions and private persons. A magazine was established by ordinance in 1788 [Records of Common Hall]. This appears to be the same structure shown as the magazine in 1809, placed where it was remote from most habitations. Temporary repairs were made to it in 1808 [Common Hall, 16 May 1808]. This was probably designed to extend its life until completion of a new state magazine near the penitentiary two years later would allow the city to abandon the structure [Common Hall, 10 June 1810].
Neighbors and Developers
Some have suggested that the Burial Ground extended into the right-of-way of Broad Street. The city was, however, vitally interested in keeping clear the future locations of public ways like Broad Street. The act of 1769 that extended the city boundaries to embrace Shockoe Hill stipulated that existing tracts like Watson’s Tenement could be divided into half-acre lots, provided they continued the street grid through their lands. Until they subdivided their property they were not allowed “to erect any house on any of the said tenements, so as to obstruct the prospect of any street which terminates at the said tenements, that may hereafter, when the same shall be laid off in lots, stop the said streets” [1769 Act, quoted in John W. Reps, Tidewater Towns, 1972, 269]. On the other hand, the city’s irregular tract of public land officially blocked the path of Marshall Street, which ended to the west at the top of a slope that was too steep to ever accommodate traffic.
The 1809 map contradicts conventional assumptions about the use of public land for public purposes. It places the Burial Ground directly north of Broad Street. The deed record, however, indicates that the question needs to be carefully approached. The land between the corporation’s parcel and Broad Street was purchased at some point in the late eighteenth century from Phillip Turpin by James Goodwin, who was living there at the time of his death in 1807. This parcel had never served as public or common land and was likely utilized by Goodwin as part of his domestic establishment. Some burials may have extended south onto Goodwin’s lot by error, but is unlikely that there were enough to disrupt the residential use of the property during the same period.
Another portion of the tract between the future jail lot and what would become Broad Street was sold in 1811 to Charles Beck and Company. They sold it, in the form of two narrow lots extending between an alley (Church or College Street) and “Shockoe Creek as it meanders,” to Thomas Rutherfoord in 1814 [Richmond DB 8:255]. Rutherford built a long line of houses facing Broad Street after it was extended east in 1845, but at the time it was probably already the site of houses fronting on Church or College Street, the same or predecessors of those shown in the 1865 photo by Andrew J. Russell analyzed in the article by Jeffrey Ruggles.
The principal problem in resolving the question of the relationship of the burying ground to the “property belonging to the corporation on which the magazine lately stood” has been in identifying when the city acquired the land. This not only included the City Jail (1830), but also a yard behind the jail itself, and the Lancastrian School (built on the same lot belonging to the city in 1816). The lack of any lot lines in this part of the 1809 Richard Young Map has given the impression that this was just open land, but a larger property transferred from Turpin to the city in 1799, including the future site of Shockoe Hill Burying Ground, are not shown either. The explanation becomes clear after looking the larger map. Young only drew lots and streets on city land. The land on which the jail and school were built was not annexed to the city until 1810 and was officially laid out in streets in 1812. This is why lots are not shown in 1809 but are on the map of 1817.
These illustrations show the 1830 jail at the time of the execution of a notorious murderer in 1885 [Courtesy of Shockoe Examiner blog]. The jail is a the left, concealed behind high walls that mask its flanks. The jailer's residence to the right.
A New City Jail
In the years before 1830, the county and city shared operating and repair expenses at the jail beside the Henrico County Courthouse. Henrico carried out all local executions until 1830, when Richmond built its own jail. At first, executions took place on a temporary gallows erected on the north side of Broad Street in or near the Negro Burying Ground, and either the Negro Burying Ground or a possible adjacent “potter’s field” served as the place where executed criminals of whatever race were interred. As we have seen, one contemporary witness, Christopher MacPherson, implied that they were the same.
The city shifted its priorities in 1812. The sharing of the Henrico County Courthouse and Jail was drawing to an end. At first the city council or “common hall” was of a mind to spend $1,000 to rehabilitate the upper floor of the Market House to accommodate a relocation of the city's Hustings Court. An entirely new and grander conception intervened: on 18 May 1812, the common hall rescinded that vote and began the search for a new courthouse, the one eventually completed to the designs of Robert Mills in 1819.
As we have seen, the city owned a largely inaccessible tract at the base of Shockoe Hill that contained the Powder Magazine, but also likely held the “gallows ground” and the Burying Ground for Negroes. Here they decided to place a new jail, on the same day that they voted to demolish the cage or lockup beside the market house. In 1816-17, the Common Hall, prompted by complaints from the jailor, considered building its own “jail and jailor’s house” and selected the tract “belonging to the corporation, opposite to the Lancastrian School” [Records of the Common Hall, 20 Oct 1817].
The southern half of the city’s land is labelled “City Jail” on the c1817 map by Richard Young, although the jail would not be built for fourteen years. The city even had plans for the jail drawn up by Robert Mills (serving at that time the architect of the Richmond City Hall) and Otis Manson (architect of the Union Hotel) [Records of the Common Hall, 17 March 1817]. The new jail was to be built at about the same time as the opening of the new Court House or City Hall on Shockoe Hill, but in the end the city decided to join with the county to build a new jail at the county court house [Records of the Common Hall, 17 March and 6 May 1818].
|Prison Bounds of 1830, showing where trusted prisoners were allowed to go, including Monumental and First Baptist churches (Ruggles report)|
After the city had annexed the land west of the creek in 1810, the common hall authorized an extension of Marshall and Clay streets through the existing, irregular lots, including “the land belonging to the corporation on which the magazine lately stood” and “the land of John Adams, commonly called Fleisher’s Garden” [Common Hall, 18 May 1812 and 20 July 1812. At the same time, a newly created 15th Street was created to run north and south though the section. It seems that Shockoe Creek had already been straightened and pushed to the east to permit this new land to be opened for development. As a result, the eastern edge of the land belonging to the corporation, which would have corresponded to the curving bed of the creek, was straightened and the size of the tract reduced.
Overlay of the 1835 Bates Map with the boundaries of city's tract shown in red. The southeast edge that was formed by the creek is approximate.
|Similar overlay on the 1889 Baist Atlas Map produced by the online Baist Atlas Project at VCU libraries. This shows |
the jail and school, but also shows another City of Richmond tract nearby. This would have been mostly on the east
side of Shockoe Creek before it was straightened.
Richmond’s new City Jail occupied a terrace that comprised the entire southern section of the city’s property, about an acre in size. The commission advertised for bids and awarded the contract for the jail to Curtis Carter, who completed it in the early months of 1830 [Common Hall Minutes, 14 July 1828]. The only alterations to the contract were the need to remove earth from the uphill side of the “Jailor’s Lodge” and the paving of the yard within the walls of the jail and the jailor’s lodge. Jeffrey Ruggles introduced the testimony of Ernest Walthall, who wrote an unusual memoir in 1908 called Hidden Things Brought to Light.
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.
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 [Jeffrey Ruggles, “The Burial Ground: an early African-American site in Richmond: Notes on its history and location,” 2009].
New Uses for the Public Land
On 18 June, 1810 “sundry persons of colour” petitioned the Common Hall for new ground for a graveyard. The request was delegated to a committee to prepare a report. The Common Hall received the report and granted the request several months later [19 Oct. 1812]. It doesn’t appear that any action was taken until 1816, when the city established a new Negro Burying Ground (later shown as “Potters Field”) in a location near the Almshouse and what became Shockoe Cemetery. An inadequate and delayed response to the petition of 1810, the new burying ground included separate areas set aside for free blacks and slaves [Minutes of the Common Hall, Richmond, Vol. 5, p. 23 ; Richmond Enquirer, 22 Feb. 1816, cited in Jeffrey Ruggles, Burial Ground, 2009]. The venue for public executions moved along with the new Burial Ground in 1816. Later, a new powder magazine was built nearby, completing what seems to have been a full recreation of the earlier site.
|The Potters Field shown on the Beers Map of 1877. Fifth Street has since cut through the Potter's Field to run |
over Bacon's Quarter Branch on a viaduct and he hillside has bee reshaped in relation to the railroad tracks
that run at the bottom.
|City Jail and repurposed Lancastrian School seen at center bottom of Sanborn Map of 1924. Note the curve of Shockoe Creek to the northeast.|
The building of the Lancastrian School in 1816 and the selection of the tract as the site for a new jail coincides precisely with the establishment of the new Negro Burying Ground. There is no record of what happened to the remains of those buried in the burying ground. If their remains were mostly confined to the area of the jail and school, then they were either deposited with the fill that was removed or perhaps moved to the new potters’ field. This seems to expand on Christopher McPherson’s prediction in 1810 that, since “many graves are on private property adjoining, [they are] 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).
A group of six free blacks had made a similar request of the Philadelphia government to consider establishing a burying ground separate from the common potter’s field as early as 1782. As many as a dozen of these burying grounds have been identified in Philadelphia, most of which were ignored by later development. The abandonment of potter’s fields without relocation of the graves was widespread in densely settled cities. With no advocate able to defend their memories, only a few were exhumed and reburied.
The new land was no more suitable for burial than the former: a contemporary account by Frederick Law Olmstead describes its location along a “crumbling bank” and its “graves ascending in irregular terraces up the hill-side” [Olmstead, Cotton Kingdom, 1861, quoted in Veronica A. Davis, Here I lay my Burden Down: A History of the Black Cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia (Richmond: Dietz Press, 2012)].