Archaeological digs under way in Kingston
Archaeological digs by SUNY New Paltz students are underway at the Pine Street African Burial Ground on Pine Street and at the Old Dutch Church on Wall Street.
Archaeological digs under way in Kingston
KINGSTON — Archaeological digs by SUNY New Paltz students are underway at the Pine Street African Burial Ground on Pine Street and at the Old Dutch Church on Wall Street.
Both digs are driven by a desire to find ancestors.
On Pine Street, archaeologists and Harambee are trying to discover the identities of those who were buried here from the 1700s through the late 1800s at a Black burial ground that was later built over, first by a lumberyard and then a residential neighborhood.
At Old Dutch Church, Gage DeWitt, a descendant of one of Kingston’s earliest families of Dutch settlers, is looking for the remains of his oldest ancestors on American soil, Tjerck Classen-DeWitt, Barbara Andriessen and their son and his eighth great-uncle, Andreis DeWitt.
Harambee Founder Tyrone Wilson said this dig is monumental and is one of the key reasons Harambee purchased the property at 157 Pine St. “When we purchased this property to preserve the land it was about the dig, to get into the grounds and really find some identity to our ancestors,” Wilson said. “It’s historical for all who really participated (in) bringing this site to fruition. The reopening of this ground after hundreds of years is mind-blowing.”
SUNY New Paltz Anthropology Professor Ken Nystrom, a bioarchaeologist who is helping to coordinate the dig, said things were in an exploratory phase at this point. As students used screens to sift out the dirt, he said they’ve run into some historical items from the early 1900s so far. Nystrom added that he expects the student crew to come down to burials as they excavate two portions of the site in layers four inches at a time.
Nystrom said if the lumberyard didn’t disturb the soil layers below, there’s a good chance the graves could be intact below. “We have to see,” he said. Even then, according to Nystrom, digging to put in a well or a tank could have caused disturbances.
As for the goal, “We’re hoping to tell the story that disappeared,” Nystrom said.
Under a tent in the cemetery just under Old Dutch’s steeple, SUNY New Paltz Associate Professor Joe Diamond was helping to lead a team of students seeking to excavate the most plausible site of the graves of Tjerck Classen DeWitt and Barbara Andriessen.
The project started as a quest by Gage DeWitt, of Louisiana, to trace his genealogy on Ancestry.com in 2012. Over the years, that grew into a quest to find the graves of the patriarch and matriarch of his lineage. He’s the eighth grand-nephew of Tjerck and Barbara Dewitt’s son, Andries DeWitt, who died in 1710. He was the eldest of 12 children.
He estimated he’s made 40 trips up to Kingston since the discovery and the family maintains a genealogy website.
As for why this site was picked for the dig, DeWitt said it’s known as the “DeWitt Plot” and more evidence came in the form of a photograph that featured a wooden post with the letters ADW.
“Dutch burials in the 17th and into the 18th century did not use a headstone,” he said. “They used a wooden post.”
He said another piece of evidence was an old family Bible in Dutch that dates back to Andreis that records much of the family from the first through the fourth generation and a little into the fifth. By the American Revolution, he added, Tjerck had more than 90 descendants who fought in the war as the family spread out due to a Dutch custom where the eldest and first son would be the family members to inherit land.
“They didn’t want to divide up the land,” Gage DeWitt said. “It would decrease its value.”
He said at least one ancestor sided with the British in the war and ended up moving to Canada.
Gage also said while SUNY New Paltz is sponsoring the dig, he hopes to eventually be able to pull DNA from the remains, and, if possible, do forensic reconstruction. That would be at his own expense, however.
Diamond said the idea for the university’s involvement with the dig started two years ago after he was approached by DeWitt. But the request needed to go through the administration and members of the family. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the dig to this year.
On a recent afternoon, Diamond said a team of students has already excavated the first 10-centimeter layer known as a context and was looking to move on to the next context and continue as it seeks evidence of a human burial. He added it’s too early to know what they will find.
“We don’t know who’s buried where,” Diamond said. “We don’t know the age of the burials. It might be several burials in different states of preservation.”
The Rev. Rob Sweeney, the pastor at Old Dutch Church, said he also expects artifacts from Indigenous people who called the plot home to be unearthed in the dig.
DeWitt said once everything is done, he hopes to commission a posthumous portrait of his descendants and have a proper headstone erected.
Both Harambee and Old Dutch Church are hoping the digs help build community.
“I’d love to be able to connect the pieces to any of the lineages that’s here now,” Wilson said. “It’ll be amazing to say, ‘Hey, we can say that lineages of the community today still reside here.”
And Wilson added that he hopes it shines a spotlight on the contributions of Black Americans to what people have today. “These are our ancestors who put blood and sweat and tears forcefully into what people today see as Ulster County,” Wilson said. “We hope people appreciate and, never forget the hard labor of those who came before us, the life they had to live. Even though it came in a harsh way, we as the descendants can still be appreciative of what our ancestors have done in past.”
Wilson admitted sometimes it’s difficult for him to wrap his head around how the Dutch were buried in the neatly-maintained cemetery outside Old Dutch Church while a five- to 10-minute walk away a Black cemetery ended up being built over by a lumberyard and later a home. “We got to work harder in our positions because of how they treated them back then,” he said. “We’ve got to work harder to find the truth. The Dutch, their storyline is right there. Ours is not. “I battle with that,” he added.
Wilson said he feels those involved with the African Burial Ground were “chosen” to start the process of telling the truth. “We’re here to tell the truth, not ‘his story’,” he said.
And Wilson feels the ancestors buried here will be happy for the efforts. “They guide us for sure, I can tell you that,” he said.
Sweeney said the dig at the historic church fits right in with its mission. “Everything we do is about building and community and relationships,” he said.
And the pastor is proud of the church’s longstanding role in preserving history.
“We have records dating back to 1656,” Sweeney said.
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