The Search for the Remains of the Town of Milan’s Early African American Community Leads to Identification of Burial Ground

    This article was written by Bill Jeffway, Executive Director of Dutchess County Historical Society

     The identification of “lost” African American burial grounds is not limited to downtown Manhattan.  In examining a more complete history of the Dutchess County town of Milan (pronounced MY-lun) during the bicentennial year of its incorporation, we wanted to better understand what had happened to our town’s early communities of color. Part of the answer rests in a small burial ground, beneath a handful of rough, blank stones within a triangular stone wall.

     With the opening up of the west and migration to cities between 1820 and 1930, the population of rural Milan dropped to one third its size; from 1,846 to 622.

     In 1820 there there were 65 persons of color. In reverse proportion to prior decades, the majority of them, 47, were identified as “free colored” while 18 individuals were noted as enslaved. By 1930, there were only 6 persons of color, aging descendants of two of the early founding families, the last of whom would die in 1952.

     To find evidence of the remains of these earlier individuals or their extended families is challenging because of the early 19th century practice, which you’ll see lasted into the 20th century, of burying persons of color not only separately, but with temporary or no markers.

     We knew of one location for burial of persons of color. “Section E” of the cemetery in the adjoining town of Rhinebeck was established in 1853 for this purpose.

     We learned of a second location, the southeast corner of Yeoman’s cemetery in Milan. Oral histories and the discovery of newspaper references led us to understand that burial of persons of color took place in this section, allowing only wooden crosses or no marker. Not a single headstone stands.

     We now know of a third place.

     Within a 1-acre parcel on Turkey Hill, there is a 1,000 square foot area right at the road that is enclosed by a stone wall. Today it has five visible stubs or headstones. An earlier town historian noted that there were eight in the 1970’s. There is no visible writing.

     Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that there is a 1935 NYS Education Department historic marker which we will address later, the history of land ownership tells the story. The 1-acre lot was purchased in 1813 by Jacob Lyle and his wife, Betsy, both of whom are identified as persons of color in census records. Jacob served in the Revolutionary War in his home state of New Jersey. We know this through dozens of pages of sworn testimony in pension applications. We believe the Lyle’s died in the 1840s, aged in their 80s. But we are not certain of the year they died. We believe they were buried on their homestead as was the practice of many at the time—and that this was the start of the “cemetery for colored people” as it was called in the early 1900s. There are several similar, roadside, extant home cemeteries nearby.

     The lot was subsequently owned by a women indicated as “black” in census records. Nancy Bradford had bought a similar, small, adjoining lot after the Lyle’s had bought their lot. She came to own both after the death of the Lyle’s. She died in 1865 and we believe she was also buried in the cemetery.

     We believe this, in part, because the property deed (from the 1870s to today) references the cemetery as “Nancy Crow Lot or Place.” We believe “Crow” is used in this instance as a racial epithet to describe African Americans, a use common for a half-century from 1840 in the north, according to the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan, and other sources.

     The published obituaries of Ellsworth Jackson and Lemuel Jackson in 1917 and 1927 respectively, report that they were buried in this cemetery. They are identified as “black” in census records. In the latter case, the obituary reads, “burial will be in a private cemetery for colored people at Turkey Hill.”

     Now a word about the New York State historical marker at the burial ground.

     On October 8, 1934, Edith Harrison (sometimes Mrs. C. V. Harrison), submitted one of what would be a total of over 100 successful historical marker applications to New York State. The sign still stands and reads, “Indian Burial Ground. Chief Crow and other Mahican Shacomecos of Moravian faith buried here. Last burial about 1850.” In terms of historic significance and sources she notes, “Last Indians of this section buried here,” and “Old men of this section tell of their grandparents seeing these daily and of their burial in this place.”

     A Chatham Courier article of June 28, 1934, four months before the sign application, reports on a historic meeting hosted by Mrs. Harrison at her home.

     At that meeting, Herman Case tells the story that he says was frequently told by his mother. In summary, Mary Allendorf (1835—1911) was frightened as a small child by the “war whoop” of old Chief Crow. The article reports that the Chief lived in a wigwam (later referenced as a log cabin) given to him to live in after he sold land to white settlers. Seeing her cry, the Chief swept her up in his arms and took her to school. The article goes on to report that the Chief was married to a woman named Nancy, who was, of course, Nancy Crow. The story goes that they are buried in the “Indian cemetery” and that is why it is called, “Nancy Crow Lot or Place.”

     There are several technical difficulties in the story, such as Chief Crow being old enough circa 1840/1845 to have sold land to white settlers, but young enough to make a marathon run to the school carrying young Mary. It is entirely possible that Mary Allendorf told that story. And it seems certain that Herman Case told it in 1934. The “Shacomeco” reference is to a well-documented Moravian mission set up to convert Native Americans to Christianity that existed from 1742 to 1746. It was located fifteen miles to the southeast of this cemetery in what is now the town of Pine Plains. The mission was ordered to disband and persons ordered to leave the colony of New York as it had come to be perceived as a group (without evidence) that was conspiring with the French and “Papists.” Between the ban and threats of assassination from some locals, the mission was completely shut down and evacuated in 1746.

     The timing, then, of 1850 burials of those from the mission is hard to reconcile.

     We only recently found the newspaper article describing the Chief Crow story, and believe there are lessons to be learned from the stories of all. If there are sometimes vague lines separating fiction, folklore, and historical fact, there are equally overly-strict-and-simple lines of black, white, and mulatto in the census-takers’ notebook, in a multi-racial historical area.

     It is comforting to see the gradual emergence of the names of those who genuinely rest below the blank stones. The Town of Milan has added Jacob Lyle to its honor roll of Revolutionary War Veterans at the Town Hall.

     More information at www.historyspeaks.us/milan-burialground

     Bill Jeffway is the Executive Director of the Dutchess County Historical Society, Milan Town Board liaison to the Milan Bicentennial Committee and Trustee of Historic Red Hook.