A search for unmarked graves
Paul Smith’s, Clarkson students use radar to look for lost burials in Vermontville’s Union Cemetery
VERMONTVILLE — Paul Smith’s College and Clarkson University students maneuvered ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic locating technology between gravestones at Vermontville Union Cemetery on Monday morning, gliding the sled-borne equipment across a thin layer of snow.
They were searching for unmarked graves in the cemetery, which has plots dating back to the 1850s, including in the portion of graves where the Black settlers of Vermontville are buried. Their research is expected to have preliminary results ready later this week.
The students were all learning how to use the equipment, but they were at the graveyard as volunteers.
“This is not a class project or a major research project,” Clarkson professor and quaternary geomorphologist Allen Gontz said. “We’re doing this completely and totally as community service to help Vermontville understand its past and help preserve that history.”
Paul Smith’s biology professor Curt Stager has been doing geology research with Gontz and when he pitched the idea of searching for unmarked graves, Gontz was in. His radar equipment is just what is needed for that research.
“We don’t look for bodies. We look for holes,” Gontz said.
He described the ground as being like a “15,000-layer cake.” When a hole is dug in that cake, it mixes up the layers, which is detectable by radar.
As snow flurries drifted down on Monday, PSC student Nick Granone pulled the radar sled while Clarkson senior Julia George walked behind with a read-out screen. Behind them, Clarkson PhD student Gladys Pantoja wrote in shorthand in a small notebook. These notes will be used to orient them later when they bring the data to their lab. She described each line they made, like long strokes of a paint brush coating the ground, detailing where they were searching and in what direction they were moving.
After they made their passes, Clarkson students Malvern Dongo and Ted Coppers passed over the same area with electromagnetic locating equipment.
“They’re both looking for ground disturbance, they’re just looking for it in different ways,” Gontz said.
Gontz said this is a side application of what he does. His primary research is in how landscapes change.
But he has been all over the world doing this type of grave-searching with radar — from Bayside Cemetery in Potsdam to Boston Harbor and Spain. A little while back he assisted Australian Indigenous tribes in searching for mass graves from internment camps they were forced into in the 1890s to 1920s. Also in Australia, he poked around above a 25,000 year old burial site.
Stager has been unfolding the history of the Black Adirondack settlers through his research in recent years, recording the exciting, heroic and tragic stories of John Thomas, Stephen “Warren” Morehouse and Louisa Brady. Last year, Stager successfully changed the name of former “N***o Brook” nearby to “John Thomas Brook,” to honor the man who escaped the slavery he was born into and found success farming in the area.
Many of these people were granted land by the abolitionist Gerrit Smith, skirting a post-Civil War law which essentially banned Black men from voting. New York officially abolished slavery on July 4, 1827, but the state implemented a law requiring Black men to own $250 in property to have the right to vote here.
In all, Smith granted land to around 3,000 Black New Yorkers. A large portion of this land was in Vermontville, and some families stayed here for generations, farmed and were buried in the Union Cemetery.
Stager said there are potentially more unmarked resting places of these Black Adirondackers in the graveyard.
Susan Goff, who operates and maintains the cemetery with her husband Tim, pulled out a large map — a laminated replica of an original which is falling apart. The map had rows of gravesites, but looking up from the map, across the entire cemetery, some didn’t have any stones designating them on the land.
Susan said there are at least 15 to 20 such graves that are known, but not physically marked. She hopes to be able to give them a name.
“Some kind of marker. That’s our ultimate goal,” Susan said. “Let’s give them recognition. That’s the whole point of the cemetery.”
The deceased may still have family here. Tim comes from a family with a long history in Vermontville and is the fifth generation of his family to work at Union Cemetery.
Susan hates telling people that they don’t know where their ancestor is buried. Some people come and know they have family buried there, but it is frustrating when they don’t know where. And all of these people had stories of their own. Susan said Tim knows all the sites by heart. He doesn’t need the map. And they both have loads of stories about the people buried there — a man buried holding his parents’ urns, or Lewis Savage, one of the soldiers who tracked down John Wilkes Booth after Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
“Everybody’s got a story,” Susan said.
She’s proud of the story of the local Black settlers. She wants to tell the story of their personal life stories as well as how they contributed to this community as farmers, bricklayers and caretakers of children and camps.
“They were active members of the community. They were involved in the church. They were involved in all of the functions,” Susan said. “And why wouldn’t they be? They were embraced.
“That being said,” she added, “they were still segregated.”
All the Black residents of the area are buried in a corner of the field close to the road. The graves are not mixed among Black and white as far as she knows.
On Monday, the students’ radar revealed soil disturbances in some of the unmarked portions of the graveyard.
“We’ll know better when we go back to the lab and process the data, but we have indication that we are seeing soil disturbance,” Gontz said.
But a soil disturbance does not guarantee a grave. There are natural causes for soil disturbances, too. Before the field was a cemetery, it was all forested. And in clearing it, tree stumps were removed, which would create ground disturbances.
The difference is in the size and shape. A tree stump will be round or oval and pretty large. A grave will be a rectangle and relatively the same size, except for children and infants.
“There are very few things in nature that make a rectangle,” Gontz said.
He said they will process the data into a 3D grid, merge all the lines together and then have a clearer idea of if there are unmarked graves.
“While, yes, we might be seeing a whole bunch of ground disturbance, it’s too early for us to exactly say we’re identifying things that look consistent with the signature of a burial,” he said.
They won’t be able to tell what’s inside the grave. The electromagnetic locator can detect metal but metal typically wasn’t used in burials of the time. Identifying the bodies in these graves will be another process altogether.
There’s already a number of marked graves labeled “unknown” on Susan’s map. Tracking down their inhabitants takes a different sort of research — the type she does with stacks and stacks of newspapers, census records and local history books written by Tim’s great aunt Helen Tyler. Susan pours through them looking for clues in her investigation.