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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Four:
Legacy of Slavery


The well to do people among our early settlers had slaves. When they died they had to be buried. Many of these servants were buried on the outside of our old cemeteries. Such is the case on these grounds, where slaves were buried on the outside of the cemetery fence, and west of the second place of worship or The Log Church.
    Nevin Moyer and Earle W. Lingle, “Wenrich’s Records”95

Historian Nevin Moyer’s observation that many slaves were buried outside of the walls of established church yards reinforces the concept that blacks were perceived in colonial and even post Revolutionary Pennsylvania to be of a lesser species than whites, which added to the rationalization for holding them as slaves. Rural families who maintained family burial grounds, and who owned slaves often buried those slaves on their own land, just as they buried family members in small plots on their land. The slave burial sites, however, were often located in a different location remote from the family plot. An example of this can be seen in Susquehanna Township, Dauphin County, for burials related to the McAllister family at Fort Hunter. The McAllister family plot is surrounded by a gated wall on land that once was part of the large and impressive estate of Archibald McAllister. Slaves and free blacks who worked on the estate are buried in a separate location, on hilly land that was once owned by the McAllister family.

The site, now referred to as the African American Burial Ground, is the final resting place for some of the people who were servants at Fort Hunter, including members of the Craig family. The Craigs were slaves and servants at Fort Hunter for many years. The earliest record that mentions the family name is the registration by Archibald McAllister of several slave children: Lucy Craig, James Craig, and Eliza Creag. He also registered the slave child Andrew (surname not given), whose age matches one of the persons interred at the site. These were probably all children of Sally Craig, a slave for life, registered in 1780 simply as "Sal."

From later records, we know that Sally's surname was Craig, and, as noted earlier in this chapter, that she ran away in 1828 when McAllister advertised to sell her in local newspapers. Sally Craig never returned to Fort Hunter and her fate is unknown. Some of her descendants remained nearby, however, as seen by these graves that date from as late as 1899. Five persons buried at this site are identified, four of whom are known to be members of the Craig family. One grave is marked but lacks identifying information on the stone, and one grave has a base for a marker, but the marker is missing. It is not known how many persons are buried in this graveyard, and if unmarked graves are present. There is evidence that a low stone fence or border once surrounded this burial place.96

Because most of these markers were placed by free blacks in the decades following slavery, we have this record of their life, etched in stone and marking the location of their final resting place. However nearly all slaves buried during the actual years of slavery in this state were not so well honored. Few had anything more than a temporary marker placed upon their grave, often made of wood. Those markers, if any were placed at all, soon rotted away and the actual site has long since been lost, dug over, or built upon.

For those rural slaveholding families that did not have available land on which to bury their slaves, or who did not want to inter them on their own land for whatever reason, an option that was exercised locally was to bury the slave in or near their church burial yard. Unlike modern cemeteries, with their family plots and pleasant grassy landscape—a style that did not come to Harrisburg until 1845—colonial-era burial grounds usually began as plots of land adjacent to a church. Deceased congregants were buried in simple rows, generally in the order in which they were buried. Sometimes enough room was left between graves so that a spouse or child could be later interred next to their kin, but in the oldest churchyards, more often that not, deceased family members were simply placed in the ground at the next spot in the row.

Often, when available funds could be raised, the church membership would elect to build a permanent wall around the burial ground to delineate and separate these grounds from areas used for other activities. Sometimes these walls were built decades after the first congregants were interred on the grounds. Paxton Presbyterian Church probably provided burial on its grounds for settlers who worshipped within its log walls as early as the 1720s, yet did not build a wall around the burial yard until 1792.97

Regardless of whether a stone wall enclosed the churchyard, or its boundaries were not formally marked, any individual buried within its limits had to be members of good standing in the church. Burial in the colonial churchyard was almost always denied to strangers, those defined as unrepentant sinners, and slaves. Yet those persons had to be buried somewhere, and because the church’s burial ground was often the only nearby place available, church authorities made concessions and allowed the dead persons in any of those categories to be buried on its land, but well apart from the final resting place of the faithful, outside of the official churchyard.

The custom of burying slaves outside of the fence that surrounds the church burial grounds is common in central Pennsylvania. It has been documented at the Hanover Burial Grounds in East Hanover Township, Dauphin County. In addition to slaves, the land outside of the fence was also used to bury "the Devil's people." According to Wenrich's Records, The 1791 “Rules and Regulations of the Church” defined this as a person who "falls from his faith, (and) officers of the church are to go to him 1 - 2 - 3 times, and then if he falls again, and dies, he is to be buried on the outside of the grave yard with the Devil's people" and not on the inside of the fence, with "God's people."98

To be classified as one of "the Devil's people" was not to be taken lightly in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The name "devil" was perhaps the worst description that could be given to a person, implying complete disrepute in the eyes of the church. Those deemed "Devil's people" were not even given the simple respect of having their graves marked, effectively consigning them to oblivion once the memory of their lives faded. This mirrors one of the chief concerns of the damned in the upper circles of Dante's Inferno, of being forgotten on earth:

But when you are once more in the sweet world
I beg you to remind our friends of me.

Slaves, at least in colonial times, were afforded the same treatment at death; their graves went unmarked and their place of burial was outside of the fence with "the Devil's people." Baptisms of slaves and their children did not start to show up in church records in the area that is now Dauphin County until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The slaves of colonial times were either considered to be not worthy of eternal life and burial with "God's people, or, perhaps more in line with their property status which was similar to livestock, not capable of understanding and achieving salvation.

Because such burials were not recorded, and graves were not permanently marked, the actual number of slaves buried outside of the walls of old church burial grounds is not known. According to a locally published township history book, there are 1157 graves within the fieldstone walls of the Hanover Burial Grounds, of which 879 are, or were at one time, marked. Many of the known slaveholders for East and West Hanover Townships are buried in this place, beginning in 1739. The township history book reports that there are fifty slaves buried here, although it does not identify the source of that information. Local lore holds that more than one hundred additional slaves are buried outside of the cemetery wall, which was constructed in 1797. For this reason, according to tradition, no one was permitted to plow or dig around the wall.99

Today, the wall is surrounded by grass at the front and woods around the remaining sides, which seems to indicate that there is some truth to that belief. Of the one hundred and fifty slaves believed buried in this location, none have yet been identified. Those slaves acknowledged to have been buried inside of the walls were probably slaves buried in later years, even as late as the early decades of the nineteenth century. Most, as noted above, were kept outside of the walls.

Slave burials have been noted by historian Nevin Moyer at Wenrich’s Cemetery, in Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County. Wenrich's Cemetery is located on Route 39, just east of Linglestown. It is located next to St. Thomas United Church of Christ, and shares its history with that church. The church was established in 1730 on land donated by Francis Wenrich, and originally served the Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Lutheran and Reformed faithful of the area. The original church building also housed the local school until it was replaced in 1794. The second church, or "log church," was located just to the west of the first building, and was in use through 1856, when the present church was built.

Like the church, the cemetery evolved in sections: the first burial ground, or "old cemetery," was located on the hill, west of the original church building and next to what became the second church building. A new section of the cemetery was begun about fifty feet west of the original burial ground and the second church. The newest burials are in the western half of this portion of the cemetery. The area between the old burial ground and the new cemetery, a strip of land some fifty feet wide, was filled with graves starting sometime in the 1840s, judging from dates on the tombstones. It became known as the first addition to the old cemetery, and is the part of the cemetery believed to have originally been a burial ground for slaves. Moyer wrote:

These fifty feet west of the old church site, up to the Meese plot, was the first addition to the old cemetery. In this strip the slaves of Colonial days were buried, that were brought to the church for burial. Nearly every grave that was dug, the grave diggers came on human bones, buried long ago. A full grown body was dug upon in Oct. 1938. They were bones of slaves.100

None of the slaves buried at Wenrich’s are identified in any known records. It is also not known how many slaves are buried here. There could be as few as a dozen, or as many as several hundred. The age of the burial grounds, and the importance of this church to the colonial community, tends to support the belief that a large number of slaves are interred in unmarked graves here. The most probable period of time in which slaves were brought here for burial is in the years from the church's founding in 1730 until the building of the second church in 1794. Because attitudes towards slavery began changing during the Revolution, and especially after 1780, when the Gradual Emancipation law was passed, it is less likely that many slaves were buried here in unmarked graves after the 1770s. That half century, however, from 1730 until 1780, encompasses a time when hundreds of slaves toiled in the surrounding fields and lived in the communities served by this church.

At least one area colonial churchyard does have marked “slave” graves, but some of the graves were moved to the burial site decades after the Civil War. The four persons interred, George Lorrett, Lucy Lorrett, Dinah, and a former slave named George Washington, are all identified as former slaves in published church histories and in a walking tour guide to the historic burial grounds.

Washington was reported to have come north during the Civil War with the Ninth Pennsylvania Cavalry, and little else is known about him. The Lorretts are identified as church members, and Morton Glise’s history of the church notes that former slaves were welcomed into the church and several worshipped there regularly.

An example of a former slave being allowed to worship at the church can be seen in the story of Dinah, one of the African Americans buried in the churchyard. Dinah was born into slavery in 1788, and was registered as required by law by her owner, James Cowden, at Harrisburg in April 1789. Cowden had married Mary Crouch, the daughter of another prominent Dauphin County slaveholder, James Crouch, whose Walnut Hill estate was profiled earlier in this chapter. James Cowden had not registered any female slaves of childbearing age, so it is possible Dinah was a child of one of the Crouch family slaves.

As the child of a slave, born after 1780, Dinah would have to be legally manumitted by her twenty-eighth birthday, which would have been in 1816. Cowden died before that, however, in 1810. In his will, which was written a few weeks before he died, he left his wife Mary her "choice of the black girls," one of whom was the young Dinah, now twenty-two years old. Dinah apparently stayed with Mary Cowden and served her family, according to Glise, as a “faithful ‘Mammy’ to several generations of Cowdens.” After her term of slavery expired, Dinah was placed on the Cowden family payroll as an employee, and probably accompanied the family to services at Paxton Church.

She lived to ninety years of age, and when she died in 1878 many of the Paxton congregants showed up to pay their last respects. Glise wrote of her funeral at the church: “She was a jolly, friendly person who was beloved by everyone who knew her. When funeral services were held for Dinah in the Church it is reported that more carriages were here for her funeral than were present at the funeral of any white person for many and many a year.” Someone, possibly the Cowden family, paid to have a substantial tombstone carved with the following epitaph and placed on her grave in the churchyard:

Died April 1, 1878
In the 90th year of
her age
'Well done good and faith-
ful servant.

Despite the fact that she died thirteen years after the end of the Civil War, and spent sixty-two years of her life as a free woman, the dehumanizing legacy of slavery followed her to the grave and was chiseled on the stone that marks her grave: Dinah was buried without a last name.101

George and Lucy Lorrett, who are buried next to Dinah, are possibly kin to her. Both were originally owned by James Crouch, whose Walnut Hill farm was one of the few plantation style estates in the Harrisburg area. By the time that the 1780 Gradual Abolition law mandated that all slaves had to be registered, Crouch already had eleven slaves ranging in age from nine months to sixty years. Two of these slaves were Lucy, who was in her thirties, and her seven-year-old son, George.

According to her tombstone, Lucy lived 100 years. Stories of centenarian slaves and former slaves became commonplace in the decades following the Civil War, and many have been shown to have been errors or exaggerations caused by a combination of improper recordkeeping and the aging effects caused by the harsh life of a slave. But Lucy really was at least close to 100 when she died in 1847. Crouch had reported her age, in 1780, as thirty, but because he reported all the ages of his adult slaves in numbers rounded to the nearest decade, this was probably an estimate.102 If Lucy was actually 100 years old when she died, then her actual age at registration was probably thirty-three years, which is not an unreasonable assumption. Few other details are available on Lucy, but Glise included the following notes on her son George:

George Lorrett is said to have been the first black person to own property in Dauphin County. It is said also that at his death he was the last slave in the County, having steadfastly refused to accept his freedom. Although he lived as a free man, he considered himself as belonging to the Crouch family for the rest of his life for reasons of personal security.103

George Lorrett, nicknamed "King George," was a well-known personality around Harrisburg in the years just before his death in 1862. However, it is possible that he was not the first African American to own property in Dauphin County. Harrisburg had a well-established free African-American population by the 1820s, and several blacks owned and operated businesses in the city. The story of Lorrett's refusal to accept his freedom, preferring the "security" of white ownership is nothing more than an apocryphal tale originally meant to bolster the pro-slavery sentiment that was strong in this area at that time.

George Lorrett, after he gained his freedom, was a property owner, and he lived for at least four decades on a farm that he owned in Lower Swatara Township. The farm became known as "Black George's Farm," to local inhabitants, and was remembered by historian William Henry Egle, who printed an article about the farm in his "Notes and Queries" column. It was on this farm that George and his mother Lucy lived as free persons, and it was on land belonging to this farm that both were originally buried. The land and farm eventually was sold to Jacob Ebersole, who in 1888 had the bodies of Lucy and George Lorrett re-interred in the Paxton Church burial ground.104

Beyond these four persons, none of whom were interred within the walls of the Paxton Church burial grounds while actually enslaved, no reports of slave burials at this location exist. If this church followed common practice of burying slaves outside of its walls, as occurred at Hanover Church and Wenrich’s Church, and there is no reason to believe it prohibited such burials, as many of its members owned slaves, then there are unmarked slave graves along the outside perimeter of the early churchyard. Like Wenrich’s, there may be areas of the present burial grounds that originally held the mortal remains of slaves in unmarked and long forgotten plots, but which was subsequently used for nineteenth century burials when the cemetery expanded.

In his sesquicentennial history of the church, historian Mathias McAlarney acknowledged, “In early times, no distinct limits were set, and the people buried their dead anywhere, according to their fancy, in the clearing to the south and south-east of the church. Graves were seldom marked, and a few have obliterated all traces of them.” Even in 1890, the current wall, McAlarney warned, did not “by any means include all of the graves of Paxtang.” Years later, Morton Glise added, “Some of the area enclosed by the wall has been buried over twice—once with unmarked graves and a second time with marked graves. When digging graves today, it is not uncommon to unearth the remains of bodies buried two centuries ago.”105

Given that, prior to the erection of the stone wall that encompasses Paxton Church Cemetery “no distinct limits” marked where church members were laid to rest, and where deceased slaves were buried, and given that early, non-permanent markers rotted away, or graves were not marked at all, it is probable that some of those persons buried over, or disinterred by accident as late as the 1970s, were the long forgotten bones of Paxton area slaves.

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95. Nevin Moyer and Earle W. Lingle, Records of Wenrich's Reformed Church (now St. Thomas United Church of Christ), Lower Paxton Township, Cemetery Records; Baptisms, 1791-1938 (Harrisburg:, n.d.).

96. Gravestone inscription in the small "Black Cemetery" near Fort Hunter, from a diagram provided by Carl Dickson, Director of Fort Hunter. Carl Dickson also occasionally leads tours to this site as an additional way of educating people about the daily life and role played by African Americans at Fort Hunter. Another instance of slaves being buried in farm fields is from Egle’s Notes and Queries, “The Logans and Robinsons,” in which an interview with John Logan of South Londonderry Township, Lebanon County about his family history notes, “The Robinsons and others had negro slaves, and Mr. L. pointed out in one of his fields where the slaves had been buried.” (p. 6.)

97. Glise, History of Paxton, 38-40.

98. Moyer and Lingle, Records of Wenrich's Reformed Church.

99. East Hanover Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania: Bicentennial Celebration 1776-1976 (Locally published: n.p., 1976), 63-64; Leroy Lingle, Telephone conversation with author, 1999.
This graveyard is also known locally as the “Old English Graveyard.” The church building was torn down in 1875, and the burial ground, surrounded by a 700-foot wall, now stands alone. Also buried outside of the walls of Hanover Burial Grounds are the bodies of enemy soldiers. According to a story related to George Nagle by East Hanover Township historian Leroy Lingle, several captured Confederate soldiers who died while being employed as laborers at the nearby Manada Furnace are buried outside of the walls of that old cemetery, in unmarked graves. No one knows the exact location of these graves anymore, although several marked graves for other Confederate prisoners who died at the Furnace can be found at the rear of the old Furnace Church burial ground, a few miles away. (Click here for that article)

100. Moyer and Lingle, Records of Wenrich's Reformed Church.

101. Kelker, "Children of Previously Registered Slaves”; Egle, Notes and Queries, 3rd ser., vol. 1, 52:414; "Slaves and Indentured Servants in Dauphin County Wills;" Glise, History of Paxton, 33, 47.

102. "Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780."
In addition to Lucy, at age 30, Crouch reported two adult slaves aged 50, and one aged 60. The children were reported with what are probably closer estimates of actual ages. This was common practice, and seems to reflect the lack of records kept on slave births prior to 1780 in Pennsylvania.

103. Glise, History of Paxton, 47.

104. Egle, Notes and Queries 3rd Series, vol, 1, 150-151; Bureau of the Census, Third Census of the United States, 1820, Swatara Township, Dauphin County, Sixth Census of the United States, 1850, Lower Swatara Township, Dauphin County, 194; Mathias Wilson McAlarney, Sesquicentennial of Paxtang Church, September 18, 1890 (Harrisburg: Harrisburg Publishing, 1890), 336-337.
In his article titled "Some Old Family Grave-Yards" Egle wrote: "The place sought next was the home of a maternal uncle, about one and a half miles from Middletown northwestward, and at one time known as ‘Black George's Farm,’ a name very familiar to the old inhabitants of Lower Swatara township and Middletown. A few rods back of the house is a small plot of ground surrounded by a neat iron fence, such as used in railing in cemetery lots, and therein lay the bodies of the following: In memory of / George Lorrett / Died Aug. 27th, 1862, / Aged 88 years, 11 months and 12 days. In memory of / Lucy Lorrett / who departed this Life / Feb. 19th, 1847, Aged 100 years.”

George Lorrett is first found living free in the 1820 census of Swatara Township. He is enumerated under the name "George Lourret,” with four persons living in his household. Two of those are children; one male and one female, both under age fourteen. The other two are adults, one male and one female, at or over the age of forty-five. One of those adults would have been George, who would have been forty-five years old at the time. The other adult, a female, may be his mother, Lucy Lorrett. George Lorrett's ownership of the property is verified in the Census of 1850. The census sheet, page number 194, of Lower Swatara Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, lists "George Lorrett" in dwelling number 71, and as the head of family number 71 for the township. He is listed as a seventy-six-year-old male, black, owning real estate valued at $2500, and having been born in Pennsylvania. The only other person listed in his dwelling is William Camp, a fourteen-year-old male, Mulatto, who has "Attended School within the year," and who was born in Pennsylvania. The census page was dated 21 October 1850.

105. McAlarney, Sesquicentennial, 294; Glise, History of Paxton, 40.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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