A Reckoning for Orient Slave Graveyard

Pictured Above: The sign that had long marked the entrance to the “Slaves Burying Ground” in Orient was taken down in June, during a massive nationwide reckoning on the way this nation has remembered slavery.

Tucked off of Narrow River Road in Orient has long stood a puzzling and stilted acknowledgement of the North Fork’s history of slave ownership.

The site was long anchored by a sign posted by the Oysterponds Historical Society that reads “Slaves Burying Ground,” which was removed by the historical society in mid-June amidst a national reckoning on the way the histories of enslaved people are remembered in the United States.

In the small cemetery, with a weathered white picket gate surrounded by a stone wall made of ship’s ballast in the midst of a tangle of bramble and poison ivy, the Tuthills’ graves are marked with proper gravestones, while the graves of the enslaved people are marked simply by 20 lichen-covered rocks. There are no names associated with the people purportedly buried under these rocks.

The sign, which has been placed in storage, read: “Slavery persisted in Oysterponds until about 1830. Here were buried some twenty slaves. Here also lie the remains of Dr Seth H. Tuthill, proprietor of “Hog Pond Farm” and those of his wife, Maria. It was their wish that they be buried with their former servants.”

The sign has long left visitors unsettled by the vagueness of its language, both in its reference to the people buried there as both “slaves” and “servants,” and by its insistence that they were buried there at the wishes of their proprietors, without any note of what the wishes of the enslaved people might have been.

“It’s been talked about for years, that the language on the sign is inappropriate and incorrect,” said OHS Executive Director Sarah Sands. “It’s unclear how many graves there are. The graves are not marked, and the use of both the phrase ‘slave’ and ‘servant’ is incongruous. We’re looking for the truth. We want to replace it with something more accurate.”

The decision to remove the sign has created quite a bit of controversy among longtime residents of the predominantly white North Fork, who have taken to the Facebook group “Let’s Talk Southold Town” to say the sign was taken down in secrecy at twilight without the input of local residents, in what many say is an attempt to erase Southold’s history. 

The organizers of the effort, dubbed “Save Orient’s History,” did not respond to requests sent to their email address, saveorientshistory@gmail.com, asking them who was leading the effort and to explain their goals.

The administrator of the Let’s Talk Southold Facebook page, a woman named “Jill Marie,” has been asking supporters of the sign to send letters demanding its return to the above email address. 

In ordinary times the Let’s Talk Southold Facebook page focuses on mundane issues like lost cats and parking enforcement.

“Unfortunately they removed the sign at almost dark. They are refusing to put it back,” said Ms. Marie in a recent post, in which numerous Southolders responded that they felt the removal of the sign violated their remembrance of history.

 “I see the outrage. They must be seeing it as well. Please send letters and comments to saveorientshistory@gmail.com,” she added.

She later posted an open letter to the historical society from longtime Orient residents Jim Latham, Dick Leslie and Ted Webb, which was later published by The Suffolk Times, a local newspaper on the North Fork..

“We are angered, frustrated, dismayed and mostly disappointed in OHS, not only for removing the sign but in the arrogant and clumsy way they have handled this situation since the removal,” they wrote. “They have widened the divide, largely of their own creation, between the broader Orient community and OHS. OHS has yet to release a comprehensive narrative of the reasons for the sign removal, not to mention the deliberations (if any) that led up to it. The cemetery has been owned and sparsely maintained by OHS for some seventy years in which time one would think they had had ample time to determine who was buried there and the veracity of the sign. So why now? And why was it necessary to act first and investigate later?”

“Before there can be any thought of reconciliation there must first be public admission of mistakes made,” they added. “There needs to be a truthful explanation of what happened and why. There needs to be a public apology.”

In the cemetery, visitors have left offerings of whelk and scallop shells and tied bundles of phragmites at the unmarked stones that mark the graves of the enslaved people. The Tuthill graves are in the background with proper tombstones.

Ms. Sands, of the Oysterponds Historical Society, said the historical society has no intention of shutting community members out of the discussions about the sign.

The historical society has already formed a working group to research the history of slavery in the community, she said, and sent out a request to residents for information in late June, saying “we need your help to develop a comprehensive, accurate understanding of how these events shaped our culture, values, lives, community.”

OHS is asking community members to share documents, photographs, oral histories, specific information about the burying ground and other historical documents “to develop literature, exhibits, programs, and new signage to explain these important issues.”

If you have information to share, contact Ms. Sands at sarah.sands@ohsny.org or at 631.323.2480.

Ms. Sands said a direct descendent of Dr. Seth Tuthill has already joined the working group, and an OHS board member has been in touch with a descendent of one of the enslaved people believed to be buried there.

The historical society is also planning to hire a forensic archeologist to examine the site using ground-penetrating radar to determine how many people are actually buried there.

“There are a lot of relationships here to the old families,” said Ms. Sands. “A lot of it is family lore. A lot of it is oral history. We want the language (on the sign) to really reflect whether they were slaves or servants. If they were slaves, we have to be clear that they were considered property. They were owned.”

“We’re looking for people from the community who can provide more information, if their ancestors may have been slaves, indentured servants or migrant workers,” she added. “We are hoping others will come forward who are not a part of our records. We understand this is a part of the history of the East End.”                                        

          — ­BY

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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