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CT historians recover cemetery for enslaved Black and Indigenous residents in Wilton

Dr. David Leslie
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TerraSearch Geophysical

The Wilton Historical Society has announced a significant finding: the recovery of a long-lost cemetery that served as the final resting place for enslaved and free Black and Indigenous Wilton residents.

The location of the Colonial-era burial ground, Spruce Bank, was found through extensive research and was recently confirmed through ground penetrating radar revealing the presence of at least eight burials. Dr. Julie Hughes, an archivist at the Wilton History Room, is the researcher at the forefront of this discovery.

“Since the beginning of the Wilton Historical Society back in the 1930s, pretty much every director and every historian affiliated with the society had some awareness that Spruce Bank was there, but nobody knew exactly where,” Hughes said.

Historians knew the unmarked cemetery was near where Pimpewaug Road hits Route 7.

“It was somewhere near a bridge,” Hughes said. “But there are no signs, no headstones, nothing to confirm it.”

So Hughes and her colleagues took key steps to rediscover the historic Spruce Bank Cemetery.

“We had all of these notes from local historians who had searched for it before, or in one case, who knew where it was from personal, first hand experience,” she said.

Following the clues

A passage from 1749, recorded in the Town of Norwalk Land Records, is the first known written evidence of Spruce Bank Cemetery.
Provided
/
Wilton Historical Society
A passage from 1749, recorded in the Town of Norwalk Land Records, is the first known written evidence of Spruce Bank Cemetery.

The research notes of David Herman Van Hoosear from the late 1800s described where the cemetery stood.

“But the problem with his directions is, to find Spruce Bank they all rely on these landmarks that don't exist anymore. He says it's across the river from a stand of spruce trees,” Hughes said.

That's Spruce Bank, where the name comes from. Hughes said the directions also depended on knowing names of neighbors.

“Another one says it's a little south of Charlie's Hole. This is a fishing hole on the river. It's across the street and a little southwest of Mrs. Gregory's house,” she said. “Well, there were a couple of Mrs. Gregorys. One of the houses is still there, one is not. Nobody knew where it was.”

Hughes looked at geological surveys and soil surveys, to finally narrow the possible location down to one acre.

Nearly paving over history

“I found out that there was an application put in to the Wilton Planning and Zoning Commission for 126 units to be built on this property,” Hughes said. “So, the terror struck in our hearts.”

Hughes and her colleagues knew Spruce Bank Cemetery was in this one acre.

“But we didn't have scientific confirmation,” she said. “It was just terrifying that something was going to happen before we could prove it. But luckily, the planning and zoning board shut down permitting on the site, so nothing could go forward.”

The owner had no idea that he had a property with a cemetery on it, she said.

“And for him, it's difficult because his retirement funds are tied up in this land.”

But eight months later, Hughes was able to use ground penetrating radar to scientifically confirm what she and her colleagues had suspected all along.

Recovering and commemorating the lost lives 

“ [I felt] relief that we had actually found them. Because I was so certain that they were here,” Hughes said.

Historians in the 1990s were certain that the railroad went through that site in 1850 and destroyed the burial ground, according to Hughes. The anecdotes for Van Hoosear say the railroad cut the cemetery in half, there were headstones on either side.

She still wonders if there are more remains to be uncovered.

“Are there burials under Route 7? Are we driving over them every single day?” she asked.

There are more records to dig through, that could shed more light on those laid to rest in what’s now known as Spruce Bank Cemetery.

“We've seen it referred to in some of the older sources as the Belden Sloan Cole Cemetery. Those are the three families who owned property there in 1749,” she said. “It is supposed to be predominantly people who were enslaved by the Belden family who are buried there.”

As the research continues, there are plans to honor the lives of those laid to rest in the area, building on the work of neighboring community leaders.

“I reached out to Dr. Richard Wesley Clarke of Bethel AME Church in Norwalk. That is the oldest historically Black church in Norwalk. And Wilton, up until 1802, was part of Norwalk,” Hughes explained.

She said Clark has assembled a group to lead the commemoration, who are also local members in the NAACP, Norwalk’s Fair Housing Advisory Committee, a former member of the state's African American Affairs Commission, and several people who are elected in local government at Norwalk.

What the discovery means for the town of Wilton

The recovery of the cemetery is just one physical example of the mark that slavery left on the origin story of Connecticut.

“We have something here that is very tangible from a history that many people find somewhat abstract. They don't feel it personally,” Hughes said. “Some people would like to forget it or pretend it no longer matters.”

Hughes said Wilton needs to follow the lead of Norwalk community leaders and any descendants of the men and women buried at Spruce Bank Cemetery.

“We are committed to doing that. We're going to follow their lead,” Hughes said. “This is a chance in the here and now that we can do the right thing.”

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.