Stephen Yerka, an information technology specialist and geophysical archaeologist with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, readies his equipment for another pass in the slave cemetery at Wessyngton.
By Nicole Young
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Archaeologists with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville spent hours last week trying to determine how many bodies are buried in a slave cemetery at a former Robertson County plantation that will soon be the subject of an exhibit honoring the 150th anniversary of the Civil War at the Tennessee State Museum.
"There are at least 200 people buried out here, maybe more," said Stephen Yerka, an information technology specialist and geophysical archaeologist with UT. "We are seeing rows and groupings as we would see in a normal cemetery."
Located in the middle of a pasture on the Wessyngton property near Coopertown, the 640 square-foot slave cemetery is encircled by a plain metal gate. No individual grave markers are present on the site, but researchers had estimated in the past that about 200 slaves and their descendants were buried there. The Wessyngton property was once a plantation with a large slave population prior to the Civil War.
In 1994, a memorial marker containing 39 names was placed inside the cemetery.
Yerka and his colleague, Daniel Brock, an archaeologist with UT, were brought in to gather preliminary information about the cemetery for the upcoming exhibit. Their full report will likely take a year to generate, according to Rob DeHart, curator of the Tennessee State Museum.
The pair used ground-penetrating radar to gather information about the graves.
"It's a lot like mowing the lawn," Yerka said. "Electromagnetic waves are pulsed into the ground allowing us to see any abnormalities. Once we get back to the lab, we can generate 3-D cubes that will tell us if the abnormalities are graves. The cubes will also tell us their positions and depths."
History of the site
According to John Baker, Jr., a lifelong Springfield resident who will serve as a guest curator of the Wessyngton exhibit at the museum, burials in the slave cemetery began in the 1700s and ended in 1928.
Baker's involvement with Wessyngton dates back more than 30 years. He first came across a photograph of slaves on the property in a seventh grade social studies textbook at school. Later that year, his grandmother told him the slaves in the picture were his ancestors. His great, great grandmother and grandfather were born on the plantation as slaves in 1824 and 1839, he said.
"The slave cemetery here is one of the largest, if not the largest slave cemetery in Tennessee," Baker said.
At Wessyngton, there are two cemeteries located on the grounds. A Washington family cemetery containing 15 marked graves sits next to the main home, which dates back to 1819 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
The Wessyngton exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum will include the survey from the slave cemetery and a film shot near the main home earlier this year. It will also include photographs, paintings, portraits, period furniture and fabricated elements that people can tour, such as a recreated tobacco barn, slave auction stand, parlor and a partial interior of a slave cabin.
Guests will also see a scaled model of the home place property. It is slated to open at the Tennessee State Museum in February.
"One of the things the exhibit will try to do is show the diversity and complexity of slaves' experiences at Wessyngton," DeHart said. "We felt Wessyngton was a good fit because it was so distinctive."
Planning for the Wessyngton exhibit got underway in 2011, after DeHart, a former curator interpreting slavery at The Traveller's Rest in Nashville, reached out to Baker. The two had previously met at the Nashville Public Library while Baker was researching a book on Wessyngton. He later published the book, titled Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation, Stories of My Family's Journey to Freedom, through Simon and Schuster in 2009.
DeHart read it shortly after its release, he said.
"We were impressed by his work and by how much information was available," DeHart said. "He had oral histories from the perspectives of slaves handed down through their descendants. There are also lots of original documents, photos and artifacts from the collection at the Tennessee State Museum that represent items that may have been here."
The plantation itself dates back to 1796. The Washingtons originally bought 640 acres to be developed as farmland, Baker said.
Over time, the plantation grew to include 13,100 acres and was at one point the largest farm in Tennessee.
It was the biggest tobacco-producing plantation in the United States and the second-largest tobacco-producing plantation in the world before the Civil War in 1860, Baker said.
The slave population, which was recorded at one point as reaching 274, lived in some 40 cabins on the property, Baker said.
Today, the Wessyngton property is owned by Glen and Donna Roberts. The grounds, which total 2,735 acres, include one restored slave cabin, a 7,000 square-foot main house, three guest houses, a cattle barn, two tobacco barns, carriage house, grainary and a smoke house.