In March of 2013, graduate student Meagan Ratini and a team from UMass Boston’s Fiske Center for Archaeological Research conducted a GPR (ground-penetrating radar) survey of Mount Gilead’s cemetery to non-intrusively map both marked and unmarked graves. This field survey was combined with documenting all known and suspected grave markers and conducting extensive archival research in an attempt to not only identify graves in the cemetery but also better understand the people who made up the congregation of Mount Gilead in the 1800s.
The research specifically sought to confirm whether the graves marked by rough field stones represented graves (and most did!) and whether there were any connections to the Underground Railroad that could be proven through the cemetery itself. The latter goal proved somewhat elusive—which fits for the nature of the Underground Railroad since the community needed to protect itself in order to stay free. Research was able to confirm, however, that some individuals had indeed been enslaved and even identified a possible Underground Railroad conductor. The identities of many, many African American conductors have been lost to history.
Meagan is happy to share her findings with you today. You can read her entire thesis at https://scholarworks.umb.edu/masters_theses/280/ or in a condensed format as Chapter 10 in the book Archaeologies of African American Life in the Upper Mid-Atlantic (University of Alabama Press, 2017).
Some conclusions from the 2012-2014 research:
- The church as a congregation may date back as early as 1822, but the physical location for Mount Gilead came later on. The cemetery likely started about 17 years after the first church was built here in 1843.
- In 2013, researchers found 243 marked graves, 124 of which were marked only by fieldstones. An additional 59 graves were identified through the archival record. The GPR survey suggests there may be upwards of 478 graves present overall.
- The earliest known grave is that of Ann Hartless, who died in 1861. Her marker is small and made of brownstone. The inscription on her stone can be difficult to read.
- Individuals in the cemetery represent a cross-section of the African American community of Buckingham and surrounding areas in the 1800s. Buried in this cemetery are laborers, farmers, craftsmen (including a blacksmith and a lime burner), merchants, servants, barbers, and a washerwoman. Many of the women were listed as “keeping house.”
- Many of the individuals in the cemetery were born free, but some had been enslaved before freeing themselves from slavery or being set free by slaveholders. Andrew Hartless, identified through archival records as having been buried in the cemetery, was likely a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
- It’s possible to see increases in literacy rates in the Mount Gilead community in the later decades of the 19th century. This may be due to the fact that the AME Church placed a lot of importance on their congregants becoming literate in order to uplift their community.
- In the 19th century, this was a geographically dispersed community, coming together to worship and for periodic larger gatherings such as Harvest Home festivals, which attracted both African American and European American members of the surrounding communities.
- The hardships that community members endured, such as enslavement and its aftermath, are not what is primarily reflected in this cemetery. Instead, people chose to remember family members for their kinship ties (mother, sister, father, brother) or their accomplishments.
Marked in the Cemetery Today…
- Ann Hartless – A small brownstone marker assumed to indicate where Ann Hartless was buried in 1861. This is the earliest known grave in the cemetery.
- William E. Teat – A baseball player in the Negro Leagues.
- Moses Hopkins – Said to have escaped slavery with Benjamin “Big Ben” Jones who may have been integral to the community in the church’s early days. His descendants cared for the church in recent decades. He and his son were day laborers in the area, cutting wood, clearing land, and working in vineyards.
- Gregory A. Jeffries – President of the first class of Central Bucks East who was tragically killed in a car accident right before graduation.