Slave Cemetery (1723-1763)
The burial ground known as the Slave Cemetery is one of many such sacred spaces on Montpelier grounds. Located near to the original homestead of Mount Pleasant, this cemetery was likely used from 1723 onwards and is the oldest sacred ground at Montpelier.
Although only 38 depressions of graves — often marked by a simple field stone — can be seen in the cemetery, it is likely that some 250–300 enslaved African Americans would have been buried in the various burial grounds. Anthropological research of slave descendant communities, however, offers a possible explanation. A common funerary rite was for living descendants to return to the grave and add soil to the inevitable ground depression that would form over time. This would serve to pay respect to, and maintain a connection with their ancestors — reinforcing the connection to the place that they lived. Archaeologically, this would also serve to obscure the grave above ground.
Therefore, the 38 depressions may represent the last burials before emancipation following the Civil War and the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
If true, this would also mean that the burial ground is far larger than can be seen above ground. Indeed, the picture to the right shows the Slave Cemetery following a light snowfall. See how the graves seem to be organized with “voids” in between them? These may represent the tended and untended graves of specific families.
View of the Slave Cemetery from the west after a light snowfall.
The Slave Cemetery is about one-half an acre in size, with 38 visible grave depressions. Given that close to 200 slaves lived out their lives at Montpelier, the graves you are viewing represent just a small percentage of the total burials. Other unmarked cemeteries have been found at Montpelier and are likely additional slave burial grounds.