WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A 19th-century cemetery, believed to hold the remains of slaves, has been uncovered at a former cotton plantation in Florida, archaeologists announced Thursday.
The discovery of six gravesites was made last year at the Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville, but the announcement was delayed to allow for further research and to alert possible descendants of those buried there. It brought a sense of accomplishment to those who spent years finding the site and a surge of emotions to those whose ancestors were enslaved there.
“The word emotional almost seems not powerful enough,” said Johnetta Cole, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art and a descendant of the Kingsley family. “I wept. This is not ordinary; this is not an everyday experience.”
A team led by James Davidson, a University of Florida anthropologist, worked with just two vague century-old leads to find the site, which was described as being adjacent to a giant oak tree. Once Davidson found the graves, a smattering of clues helped determine they were, in fact, apparently those of slaves.
Square-cut nails in the coffins helped pinpoint the fact that they were from the 19th century. Five-hole buttons and brass coat buttons narrowed the time frame even further. And measurements on the skeletal remains indicated they were likely those of Africans rather than Europeans or Native Americans.
None of the materials ever left the gravesites, though, out of respect for the dead.
“We were not going to exhume anybody, we were not going to collect any material,” Davidson said.
The remains include a man who appeared to have died at around age 40, a woman who lived to 60 or older and three children. The age and sex of the sixth body was not determined.
Because there is little documentation of who was enslaved at Kingsley Plantation, identifying the remains and whether they have any living descendants has not been possible, the investigators said.
The gravesites are on Fort George Island, on land administered by the National Park Service in an area called the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. No decision has been made yet on whether to pursue additional excavations to determine if other graves are located there. Nor has there been a decision made on whether to mark the gravesites.
Zephaniah Kingsley moved to Fort George Island in 1814 with his wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, who he purchased as a slave in Senegal. Historical records show she helped manage the plantation and, after she was freed by Kingsley, owned her own slaves. The couple is Cole’s great-great-great-great grandparents.