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Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground

In 2005, the discovery of human remains during sewer construction in Colonie, NY offered a unique view of slavery in rural colonial America. Historical and bioarchaeological studies identified the unmarked burial ground as a place once used by individuals enslaved by the prominent colonial Schuyler family. 

The area known as Schuyler Flatts is located along the Hudson River about 5 miles north of Albany, NY. Frequented by Native Americans for thousands of years, the river flats were an ideal location for hunting, fishing, horticulture, and trade. Dutch colonists also recognized the potential of the Flatts and settled there shortly after Killean Van Rensselaer established his patroonship in 1629. By 1672, the prominent Schuyler family had made the Flatts their home and continued to live there for most of the next 300 years. 

Excavation of the Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground

Archaeological investigations by Hartgen Archaeological Associates Inc. identified several graves in the path of the sewer construction. Twelve intact burials were removed and fragmentary remains of another individual were found in disturbed soil. One other individual whose remains were found during an earlier construction project in 1998 was already in the care of the NYSM.

The Burials

The graves were arranged in roughly two rows and oriented with the person’s head to the west and feet to the east. Each individual was wrapped in a winding sheet or burial shroud that was fastened with small brass straight pins and buried in coffins made with white pine boards and hand wrought iron nails. No personal items were found with the graves but the brass pins and wrought iron nails indicate the burials may date to the 18th or early 19th century. 

Slavery at Schuyler Flatts

Historic records indicate that numerous individuals were enslaved at the Flatts over a period of about 150 years. While there is scant information about their lives, the few who are known by name attest to the harsh reality of rural enslavement.

Jan, 1682

The earliest name of an enslaved African at the Flatts is Jan, who according to 1682 court records, was stabbed during an altercation between his owner, Philip Schuyler, and an Indian from the “north” (probably Algonquin). Jan’s injuries required the care of a surgeon for 13 days at a cost of 65 floren in seawan, or wampum, and a physician’s fee of 4 beavers.

Jacob, Charles, Peter, Thom, Anthony, Mary, Bettie, 1711

In 1711, Pieter Schuyler took over control of the farm at the Flatts. An inventory of the property that belonged to his parents included seven slaves who were listed along with horses, cows, sheep, pigs, and other possessions. 

 

Diana and Maria, ca. 1760s 

The most detailed information about slave life at the Flatts was written by Anne Grant, who spent time on the farm as a child and later wrote her reminiscences of Margaret Schuyler (link to in Memoirs of an American Lady. She specifically describes two elderly women, Diana and Maria, who came from Africa when they were young and spent their lives enslaved raising their own families to serve in the Schuyler household.

“In the summer the negroes resided in slight outer kitchens, where food was dressed for the family. Those who wrought in the fields often had their simple dinner cooked without, and ate it under the shade of a great tree.” “…the domestic friends of the family occupied neat little bedrooms in the attics or the winter-house.”

“The hospitalities of this family were so far beyond their apparent income, that all strangers were astonished at them. To account for this, it must be observed that, in the first place, there was perhaps scarce an instance of a family possessing  such uncommonly well trained, active, and diligent slaves, as that I describe. The set that were staid servants when they married, had some of them died off by the time I knew the family; but the principal roots from whence the many branches, then flourishing, sprung, yet remained. These were two women, who had come originally from Africa while very young; they were most excellent servants, and the mothers or grandmothers of the whole set, except one white-woolled negroe-man; who in my time, sat by the chimney and made shoes for all the rest. The great pride and happiness of these sable matrons were, to bring up their children to dexterity, diligence, and obedience. Diana being determined that Maria’s children should not excel her’s in any quality, which was a recommendation to favour; and Maria equally resolved that her brood, in the race of excellence, should out-strip Diana’s. Never was a more fervent competition. That of Phillis and Brunetta, in the Spectator, was a trifle to it: and it was extremely difficult to decide on their respective merits; for though Maria’s son Prince cut down wood with more dexterity and dispatch than any one in the province, the mighty Cesar, son of Diana, cut down wheat, and threshed it, better than he. His sister Betty, who, to her misfortune, was a beauty of her kind, and possessed wit equal to her beauty, was the best sempstress and laundress, by far, I have ever known; and plain unpretending Rachel, sister to Prince, wife to Titus, alias Tyte, and head cook, dressed dinners that might have pleased Apicius. I record my old humble friends by their real names, because they allowedly stood at the head of their own class; and distinction of every kind should be respected. …

The prevention of crimes was so much attended to in this well regulated family, that there was very little punishment necessary; none that I ever heard of, but such as Diana and Maria inflicted on their progeny, with a view to prevent the dreaded sentence of expulsion; notwithstanding the petty rivalry between the branches of the two original stocks. Inter-marriages between the Montagues and Capulets of the kitchen, which frequently took place, and the habit of living together under the same mild, though regular government, produced a general cordiality and affection among all the members of the family, who were truly ruled by the law of love; and even those who occasionally differed about trifles, had an unconscious attachment to each other, which shewed itself on all emergencies” (Grant 1809a:151).

“By the time I came to live with her, Mariamat and Dianamat were almost superannuated, and had lost, in a great measure, the restraining power they used to exercise over their respective offspring. Their woolly heads were snow white, and they were become so feeble, that they sat each in her great chair, at the opposite side of the fire; their wonton jealousy was now embittered to rancour, and their love of tobacco greater than ever.” (Grant 1809b:103)

 

Piet, 1792

Stephen Schuyler, who took over the farm from Margaret and Philip Schuyler, is listed in the 1790 federal census with nine slaves. In 1792 when Stephen divided the property among his sons, it was with the provision that the “Negro boy Piet” would remain his servant until his death and then be given to his son Peter. A second agreement stipulated that his sons were obligated to provide “sufficient meat, drink, washing, and lodging” to Stephen and his servants during their natural lives.

After Stephen Schuyler’s death, Piet may have been among the 7 slaves counted in Peter Schuyler’s household in 1800. Peter’s brothers John and Philip, who lived nearby, also were slave owners.

 

Deauna, 1804

Passage of the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1790 had little impact on slave owning but may have encouraged some enslaved individuals to seek their freedom, such as Deauna, who fled from Peter Schuyler in 1804. 

Sabina or “Sibby”, 1862

The last record of a slave at the Flatts was Sabina or ‘Sibby’ who was bought by Philip S. Schuyler from the Vandenburgh family in Schaghticoke around 1800. Although Sibby was eventually freed, she continued to live with the Schuylers until her death in 1862 at 90 years of age.

 

Bioarchaeological Analysis

To learn more about the individuals from the Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground, a bioarchaeological study of the human remains was conducted. As living tissue, bones and teeth change as we grow and age. They also respond to various stresses encountered during life and can bear evidence of poor nutrition, infection, and disease as well as activity-related behavior. Analysis of the Schuyler Flatts individuals shows clear evidence of musculoskeletal stress and early onset arthritis from a lifetime of hard work. They also suffered from poor dental health and some teeth show marks of habitual activities such as pipe smoking. They exhibit less evidence of nutritional stress when compared with their urban counterparts at the New York African Burial Ground possibly as a result of rural enslavement. 

A total of 14 individuals were recovered from the burial ground. It is believed that other graves may have been disturbed in the past or remain unmarked at the burial ground. Half of individuals recovered were children including five infants who may have been stillborn or died shortly after birth. Their remains…

The other individuals recovered were adults including 6 women and 1 man.

Burial 3 is a woman who was 35-45 years old when she died. She stood about 5’3” tall. Some of her back teeth had been lost and others had cavities. She once fractured a bone in her left wrist but it was long since healed. She had strong arms along with mild arthritis. She was identified as of African ancestry based on the shape of her bones but DNA analysis identified her maternal ancestry as Native American and possibly Micmac, a tribe in the Canadian maritimes.

Burial 7 is a woman over 50 years old who had lost all of her teeth long before she died. She stood about 5’3” tall and was robust for her size with muscular arms, legs, and hands. Hard work caused her to have arthritis in all of her major joints and may have led to fractures earlier in life to vertebrae in her neck and lower back. Her bones were osteoporotic and she sustained four broken ribs shortly before she died, possibly due to a fall. She was probably born in New York but DNA analysis suggests her maternal ancestry was from west or west-central Africa.

Burial 9 is a woman 50-60 years old. She was about 5’4” tall and robust for her size. Even her back was muscular where some of the vertebrae fused from arthritis after years of hard work. She had lost several teeth and the ones that were left had cavities and some were worn from smoking a pipe. Her left arm was shorter than her right and the base of her skull was misshapen suggesting she may have held her head to one side. It did not however, prohibit her from working hard all of her life. She was probably born in New York but her DNA analysis indicates her maternal ancestry was from Madagascar where there was an illegal slave trade at the turn of the 18th century.

Burial 12, the youngest woman, was 25-35 years old. She was about 5’2” tall and not quite muscular as the others but still had the early stages of arthritis in her back and joints. She had cavities in her front teeth and the back ones were nearly destroyed by decay. At least one of her back teeth was also abscessed. She was probably born in New York but her DNA analysis indicates that her maternal ancestry was from Madagascar.

Burial 13 is a woman who was 30-40 years old. She was about 4’9½” tall and moderately robust for her size. Her arms, legs, and hands were muscular and she had arthritis in her back, shoulders and jaw. Her teeth show marks that she experienced a period of health stress as a young child and she may have had an infection before she died. Her back teeth were destroyed by cavities and her front teeth have small notches in them that may have been made by pulling thread or other material across them repeatedly. She was probably born in New York but DNA analysis indicates her maternal ancestry was from the area of East Africa.

Burial 15 is a man 40-50 years old. He was between 5’6” and 5’7” tall and very muscular with arthritis in his joints most severely in his neck, elbows, and hips. He once broke a toe on his left foot that was misaligned and fused at the joint when healed. He had cavities in most of his teeth with many of the back ones lost to decay. His front teeth also show wear indicating he may have smoked a pipe. He was probably born in New York but DNA analysis indicates his maternal ancestry was from the area of East Africa.

Burial 1998 is a woman who was 30-35 years old. She was between 4’8” and 4’9” tall and robust for her small size. She was muscular had begun developing arthritis especially in her lower back where she may have had an injury. Like the others, her dental health was poor with several teeth destroyed by caries and an abscess. Some of the teeth on the left side of her mouth had wear suggesting she may have smoked a pipe. She was probably born in New York but DNA analysis suggests her maternal ancestry was from Africa.