061519_history

This whelk shell Eric Bemezek displays is typical of the adornments used to mark Gullah Geechee graves in the late 19th century.

Along a shaded path in a wooded section of St. Simons Island, the defensive breastworks of an 18th century colonial British fort intersect with the resting place of freedmen and freedwomen from the late 19th century.

Overlapping it all are the imprints of Christ Church’s “Beloved Invader” as well as one of America’s first self-made black millionaires. It just goes to show: You can learn all sorts of interesting things if you know where to dig.

Michael Seibert and Eric Bezemek know where to dig. I met up with the two archaeologists in the muggy midmorning of June 6 on the outskirts of Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simons Island. Seibert is the onsite archaeologist at Fort Frederica and Bezemek is archaeological technician with the National Park Service’s Southeastern Archaeological Center in Tallahassee, Fla. Bezemek and his team were wrapping up a two-week search for evidence of an African American cemetery from the late 19th century.

The focus of their efforts consisted of two precisely carved rectangular shallow pits in the dirt, one distinctly smaller than the other. Bits of shell and rock fragments were sprinkled within the soil in the pit. The team had already removed and documented some of the more definitive pieces, which included whelk shells, pieces of colored glass from wine bottles, clear glass pieces, ceramic bits and broken marble. For Seibert and Bezemek, it all adds up.

“I’m pretty comfortable that we did find what we were looking for,” Bezemek said. “It makes sense. Based on what we know of Gullah Geechee practices, we’re real comfortable that we have found the burials.”

Lacking the resources to provide more lasting memorials for their dearly departed, blacks in the years and decades following emancipation often covered grave sites in shells, colored glass and other durable adornments.

The two gravesites examined in this dig were that of a youngster, registered simply as “child of Polly Jackson.” The other grave is that of a man, Miles, possibly McMillan, although the surname is barely legible.

But the evidence is solid enough that Seibert plans to establish some type of marker at the site to both protect it and honor it. For Seibert, the recent findings mark an archaeological journey that began before he even arrived at Fort Frederica in 2016.

Seibert was working at the Southeastern Archaeological Center the year before when he was contacted by folks from Christ Church, which is located a stone’s throw south of Fort Frederica on Frederica Road. Church officials had uncovered archives of a crude map marking a “colored cemetery.”

The map showed drawings of numbered grave sites, accompanied by handwritten names correlating with the numbers. It was from the year 1884-85. That is about the time that Anson Green Phelps Dodge rebuilt Christ Church and became its pastor. This son of a northern timber baron on St. Simons Island would become the protagonist for Eugenia Price’s historically-accurate romance novel, Beloved Invader.

In addition to his flock at Christ Church, Dodge ministered also to blacks on the island. It is very likely he also would have seen to establishing a cemetery for black islanders. Two intriguing names on the cemetery map’s simple registry are Thomas Abbott and his sister Celia Abbott. Both were formerly enslaved on the Stevens family’s plantation, which overlapped the grounds of Fort Frederica long before the site became a national parks monument in the 1947.

A couple of dozen yards away from the recent archaeological dig is a monument erected to the memory of these two former slaves. The monument was erected by Robert S. Abbott, the son of Thomas Abbott, who would go on to fortune and great works for African Americans as the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender daily newspaper. Abbott, who was born on St. Simons Island in 1868, returned sometime in the 1930s to christen the obelisk in memory of his father and aunt. It was placed as near as possible to the likely burial site of his father and aunt, on Stevens property. Abbott placed it there with the Stevens family’s blessing.

Abbott barely knew his father, who died in 1870 — long before Dodge came along and established a “colored cemetery.” These archaeologists are not terribly concerned with the contradiction created by Abbott family lore and Christ Church records. It might well be the resting place of Abbott and the church’s “colored cemetery” are the same place, with the particulars of how the two became one lost to time.

Bezemek and Seibert are just delighted to have pinpointed the burial site shown on the Christ Church map. It was the “weird angle” of the fence line indicated on one side of the map that finally gave the site away. It was not logical, unless that fence had to adhere to an obstacle.

Something like a bastion jutting out from the defenses of the wall of old Fort Frederica, built in 1736 to ward off invasion by the Spanish to the south. Triangular bastions armed with cannon jutted out from the walls of the fort at certain points to provide greater defense against attack. And the detailed records park service folks have on Fort Frederica indicated a bastion existed near this site. Enough of that structure’s ruins likely would have remained in place in the late 19th century to create an obstacle to fence-building, Bezemek said.

“The bastion comes out of the fort wall at an angle, shaped like an arrowhead,” he said. “So the fort wall turns at an angle, and then fence line is on the same weird angle.”

And that is how they settled on this dig site. A series of tests with ground penetrating radar, magnetic susceptibility machines and other technical gizmos helped them settle more precisely on where to dig. After the shallow excavations uncovered evidence of traditional Gullah Geechee burial practices, they took some evidence samples and covered the sites up.

We can expect to see some type of memorial honoring the site in the near future. The child of Polly Jackson and a man named Miles (possibly McMillan) deserve that much.

“Locating this burial site has been a three-year undertaking of mine,” Seibert said. “We’re going to definitely move forward with a marked memorial here.”

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