History course: Unmarked graves, likely belonging to enslaved, found in Pen Park

Ground-penetrating radar has revealed dozens of unmarked graves in Pen Park. Each colored dash represents a burial site. Image courtesy City of Charlottesville Ground-penetrating radar has revealed dozens of unmarked graves in Pen Park. Each colored dash represents a burial site. Image courtesy City of Charlottesville

Tucked behind Meadowcreek Golf Course in Pen Park, just a few yards from where pink-shirted golfers putt the afternoon away, there’s a small, old, weatherbeaten cemetery. The Gilmer, Craven, and Hotopp family plots are indicated by low stone walls and rusted fencing. Inside the cemetery, a few dozen faded and worn graves stand askew among the rough grass.

The cemetery—or, more precisely, the land just outside the cemetery—was recently the site of a striking archeological discovery. Ground-penetrating radar has identified roughly 43 unmarked graves just outside the walls of the established cemetery. These unmarked graves likely belong to people who were enslaved by the Gilmer and Craven families.

Jeff Werner, the city’s preservation manager, presented the new findings to City Council at Monday’s meeting.

A collection of divots in the earth behind the cemetery piqued Werner’s curiosity last year, and this summer the city enlisted Rivanna Archeological Services and NAEVA Geophysics to conduct a high-tech radar scan of the area. Though the radar can’t tell exactly what’s buried beneath the surface, the pattern of objects it detected at Pen Park paints a clear picture. “The sizes, depths, rows, the east-west orientation are all consistent with human burials,” Werner said. 

The location of the graves—on the opposite side from the entrance—is another indication that these are the graves of enslaved people. The Gilmers owned the land from 1777 to 1812, and the Cravens owned it from 1819 to 1845. Both families held slaves. The Hotopp family bought the land in 1866, and some of the unmarked graves may belong to people who worked for the Hotopps shortly after the Civil War. The city acquired the land and created the park in 1970.

Though excavation could provide more information about the location and quantity of the burials, Werner said he feels that “the GPR findings are conclusive enough to establish the presence of human graves here without further physical disturbance.”

Unmarked burials are common in Virginia and Charlottesville. This year, NAEVA and the city collaborated on a similar GPR survey at Daughters of Zion Cemetery, where roughly 140 graves are marked, and ground-penetrating radar confirmed an additional 500 unmarked graves below the surface.

At the council meeting, Mayor Nikuyah Walker said the city had an obligation to address the Pen Park discovery, and that the first step would be to reach out to as many descendants of those buried there as possible. “I think that’s a very important part, to figure out how they would want their ancestors to be honored,” she said.

Werner said the Gilmer and Craven families must have known the unmarked graves were there, since the surrounding area was never disturbed, but that written records of the site as a graveyard are hard to find.

“These graves are all unmarked, and finding which individual was buried where is going to be quite difficult, if not impossible,” said Ben Ford, a principal investigator at Rivanna Archeological Services. “But this type of research has been done… Three large institutions in our area, Monticello, Montpelier, and UVA, have done in-depth, long-term genealogical research. There are resources and individuals that can be of tremendous help.”

For now, Werner and Ford recommend the city take time for “reflection and discussion” before further action.

 

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