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FASCINATING: Faces of 18th Century Slaves Reconstructed via Forensics

Cindy Schultz/Times Union, with permission

Philip Kosloski - published on 04/15/16

People enslaved by prominent Schuyler family of New York, to be reburied in Catholic Cemetery

Over 10 years ago, construction workers in Menands, NY were shocked to find a dozen human bodies while digging for a sewer line. After much research and DNA testing it was concluded that the bones discovered were from 18th-century slaves. In June, the slaves will finally get a proper burial in St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands.

The slaves were identified as belonging to the well-known Schuyler family. Kathleen Lamanna of The Evangelist explained how, “Philip Schuyler, who was a general in the American Revolution, resided at Schuyler Flatts in Watervliet and was the father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington’s top aide and a founding father of the United States.” What was surprising to many is that New York had an active slave trade. Kelly Grimaldi, historian for Albany diocesan cemeteries noted that, “It’s not a very much talked-about topic….[slaves] weren’t even acknowledged as people, let alone citizens. I think it’s time to bring [their contributions] to the forefront of New York’s history.”

Forensic examination of the remains have revealed detailed descriptions of the “Schuyler people”, from which a facial reconstruction project was begun:

 50-60 y/o Woman. Facial reconstruction via the Schuyler Flatts Project. Image:  Courtesy of the New York State Museum
50-60 y/o Woman. Facial reconstruction via the Schuyler Flatts Project. Image: Courtesy of the New York State Museum

Burial 9 is a woman 50-60 years old. She was about 5’4” tall and robust for her size. Even her back was muscular where some of the vertebrae fused from arthritis after years of hard work. She had lost several teeth and the ones that were left had cavities and some were worn from smoking a pipe. Her left arm was shorter than her right and the base of her skull was misshapen suggesting she may have held her head to one side. It did not however, prohibit her from working hard all of her life. She was probably born in New York but her DNA analysis indicates her maternal ancestry was from Madagascar where there was an illegal slave trade at the turn of the 18th century.

25-35 y/o Woman, Reconstructed from Remains via the Schuyler Flatts Project.  Courtesy of the New York State Museum
25-35 y/o Woman, Reconstructed from Remains via the Schuyler Flatts Project. Image: Courtesy of the New York State Museum

Burial 12, the youngest woman, was 25-35 years old. She was about 5’2” tall and not quite muscular as the others but still had the early stages of arthritis in her back and joints. She had cavities in her front teeth and the back ones were nearly destroyed by decay. At least one of her back teeth was also abscessed. She was probably born in New York but her DNA analysis indicates that her maternal ancestry was from Madagascar.

When preparing for the burial, New York State Museum in Albany asked local artists to design boxes to hold the remains of the slaves. Among the designs accepted was a wooden box created by the fourth-grade class at All Saints Catholic Academy in Albany. Fourth-grade teacher Mary Schwartz thought it was a perfect fit, since “In fourth grade, students at ASCA learn about New York State history.” One of the students “was surprised to learn that New York was active in the slave trade. ‘I didn’t think it was right that slaves didn’t have rights.'” 

Local residents wanted to give these slaves the dignity they deserve and refer to them not as slaves, but as the “Schuyler Flatts People.” Until their burial, they will lie in state at the historic Schuyler Mansion.

The slaves will also be given a special grave and interred June 18 on “Founders Hill” at St. Agnes Cemetery, along with all the rich and prominent families that are buried there. The organizers of the burial thought it was fitting that they would be buried next to all the wealthy families and would in some way reward them for their labors.

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