Delaware Public Media

'A needle in a haystack': archaeologists find 11 graves at Frankford site

Feb 19, 2019

Officials believe a historic African American cemetery has been discovered in Sussex County.

 


Several unmarked graves have been found by a team of archaeologists working at a site in Frankford slated for development. Their location was known only through what Ed Otter, an archaeologist hired by the landowner, calls “hearsay.”

“The original story was there were two graves. And we’ve got more than two graves,” said Otter.

 

Otter says as of Tuesday morning the team had found 11 graves.

According to state officials, local community members believe those buried in the historic cemetery were African-American. Whether the remains belong to enslaved people has not yet been confirmed.

One headstone belonging to an African American Civil War veteran was found buried at the location. It has not been correlated with a specific grave yet.

According to local news reports, residents raised concerns about a possible slave burial site on the property when development plans were approved by Sussex County Council last November.

 

In a statement, Tim Slavin, director of the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, thanked neighbors for calling attention to the cemetery. He said local knowledge was “key to discovering these burials.”

 

“[Finding graves] roughly the size of a desktop on a 37-acre parcel is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Otter.

Archaeologists employed by the private landowner are working under the observation of an archaeologist from the Delaware State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Officials say SHPO will ensure the ongoing archaeological investigation is “thorough, professional and carried out in an ethical and responsible manner.”

Otter says after his team finishes delineating the graves, they will map, re-cover and flag the site so it can be surveyed and preserved.

Slavin says officials will also start archival research about the cemetery to uncover the stories of those buried there.

“We go into property records, we go into deed records. We hope that we maybe we can find church records or cemetery records that will help us identify specifically what was there and who these people are,” said Slavin in an interview.

The state will also work with the landowner on a plan for preservation.

“This cemetery is a significant discovery for the community and for all Delawareans who value and appreciate our state’s rich history,” said Slavin in a statement. “As work continues at the site, we hope to learn more about those who are interred there, so that they may be properly memorialized and their personal stories retold.”