Charlottesville plans to seek information about 43 unmarked graves in a city park that may be the final resting place of enslaved people.
The City Council received an update on a study of burials outside of a family cemetery at the Meadowcreek Golf Course during its meeting on Monday.
The city wants to protect the area and find more information on who might be buried in the unmarked area. Research indicates the plots were likely graves of enslaved people.
The cemetery is about 800 feet southeast of the clubhouse of the golf course, which is part of the city-owned 280-acre Pen Park.
Online sources identified at least 37 people — members of the Gilmer, Craven and Hotopp families — buried within the cemetery. Each family has a distinct section of the cemetery. Records indicate the Gilmer and Craven families owned enslaved people.
Last year, a member of the Gilmer family contacted the city with concerns about conditions at the cemetery.
City staff members weren’t familiar with the site and researched it, finding two reports that suggested the possibility of burials of enslaved people outside of the family plots. After finding the information, the council approved $9,319 to fund an examination of the cemetery and the area around it.
Using radar, Rivanna Archeological Services identified 43 possible unmarked graves near the family cemetery. According to previous city studies, it was a common practice to bury slaves outside of the boundaries of a family cemetery.
Determining the exact number and location of the graves would require physically disturbing the grounds. City staff recommended protecting the area and said further investigation wasn’t necessary or proper at the moment.
Jeff Werner, the city’s preservation planner, said removing a layer of topsoil would make it clear where all the graves are located. Because the burials likely were done without coffins and could have been shallow, some of the anomalies detected may not be graves and some graves may not be showing up.
City staff plans to formally record the location of the area to make sure the graves are not disturbed by any future projects, the area is memorialized and the city does all it can to identify those buried in the location.
“We have a responsibility here and I think we all want to do it right,” Werner said. “This is their land in the sense that cemeteries, we may own them as the city and be responsible for cutting the grass, but those graves belong to the families.”
The park is part of land that was originally a 400-acre tract first owned by Charles Lynch in 1733, according to the archaeological report.
The land was sold twice before Dr. George Gilmer, who was Thomas Jefferson’s physician, purchased it in 1786 and soon after settled there. He apparently named the land Pen Park after the name of the Bristol, England, estate of a family friend.
Gilmer’s grave is the oldest at the property, with his burial occurring in 1795.
Albemarle County tax records indicate that Gilmer owned as few as 27 and as many as 57 enslaved people in the late 1700s.
Richard Sampson bought the property in 1812 and the deed was the first reference to a cemetery on the land. Sampson sold it to the Craven family in 1819. Census and tax records indicate the family owned somewhere between 37 and 53 enslaved people.
The park changed hands several times after Craven died in 1845 before the Hotopp brothers purchased it. Wilhelm and Heinrich Hotopp were immigrants from Germany who acquired the land in 1869.
The family ran a vineyard on the property and records indicate African Americans were workers and servants on the land.
When the family sold the land in 1904, the deed did not include the graveyard. The land was divided and sold off over the years before it was sold to the city in 1971.
The majority of the unmarked plots are near the Gilmer and Craven sections of the cemetery.
There are four apparent graves outside of the Hotopp section of the cemetery, possibly representing enslaved people or people who worked but did not live on the property.
The Parks and Recreation Department has started making sure golf carts are not driven in the area. Councilor Michael Payne said the area’s proximity to a temporary parking area for golf carts is “not appropriate.”
Werner said the department is considering how to further limit access to the area by golfers who may be unaware of the graves.
The city plans to seek information about who may be buried in the unmarked graves by coordinating with several historical groups in the area.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker said it’s important to connect with descendants of the enslaved people. She suggested a group be convened to conduct initial research, outreach and guidance on next steps.
“We have to know through some sort of records potentially who was enslaved there and there’s probably a possibility of connecting with family members today,” she said. “And I think that’s an important part — how they would want their ancestors to be honored, without us just going and making recommendations without even full information.”