OF THE MANY HISTORIC SITES in the Village of Kinderhook, there is one that Warren Applegate would like the get renamed. Many people in the village and at least one tour guide book claim there is a “slave cemetery” in Rothermel Park.
“We want the name gone because it’s not accurate,” Mr. Applegate said in an interview with The Columbia Paper earlier this month.
The small plot of land, with 15 gravestones dating as far back as 1840s, is a cemetery for “the people of color of Kinderhook.” The land was set aside for this use by John Rogers, an Irish immigrant to the village, who lived in a house across the street from the Dutch Reformed Church on Albany Avenue (Route 9) and owned the land that would be become Rothermel Park. Mr. Rogers asked the land be used for the cemetery in his will in 1813.
Mr. Applegate, who is on the Kinderhook Economic Development Committee, said that in May 2012 two sisters, Hollis and Elizabeth Seamon, who live next the cemetery, “noticed that it needed some trimming up.” The village has been mowing and taking care of the land for years, and the board sent a crew down to clean up the site right away.
Mention of the cemetery sparked Mr. Applegate’s curiosity, so he and village historian Ruth Piwonka visited the site, finding 15 graves in various conditions, some illegible and half buried. He made rubbings of the headstones and tried transcribing the poetry found on many of the stones.
“At that point, the mystery begins,” said Mr. Applegate of the names of individuals and families buried at the site. To make matters slightly more confusing, a former village mayor, Jim Dunham, said that in late 1960s or early 1970s, a troop of Explorer Scouts took on the project of fixing up the cemetery and moved the headstones. At the time Ms. Piwonka said the site “was a mess.” She said it was overgrown, and so the scouts moved the headstones to a slightly different spot in the park.
As a historian of the village, Ms. Piwonka said, “There is a lot about that time we don’t know.” But she has been looking at census data from the early to mid-1800s. “In 1840 you find free black families” in the area, she said, as well as some white families claiming to still own slaves — slavery was officially abolished in this state in 1827 She said in one house in Kinderhook, in the mid-1800s a family lived in part-time in the village and the rest of the time in Florida. In the census they listed a 90-year-old “slave” woman living with them. When she died she was buried in the family plot and not in the Rothermel cemetery.
The rubbings from the cemetery stones that Mr. Applegate made show several graves for young children, one listing a child named Samuel who died in 1861 “at 3 years, 2 months and 20 days.” There is a long poem on Samuel’s headstone reading “Farewell Father Mother Friends, I’m called with Jesus there to dwell, For he has summoned me away, To sing his praise in [illegible] each day.”
Ms. Piwonka said losing children was common in the 1800s, and there were some graves at the site that listed several children on one tombstone.
There was one that caught Mr. Applegate’s eye, a marble headstone for Isabel Leggett, who died on January 14, 1854 at age 77. Her headstone reads “a tribute of respect, Erected by the Ladies of Kinderhook.” Mr. Applegate said it was the only marble headstone left in the cemetery. He pointed out that Leggett is a common last name in Chatham and Ghent, and he wonders what service Ms. Leggett might have performed for the Ladies of Kinderhook to get such a nice stone.
The mystery is finding out who these people were and where their families are, he says. “We can find nothing, but who knows who’s out there,” he said of collecting information.
Mr. Applegate is also concerned about missing headstones. “Obviously some of headstones have disappeared,” he said, and he urged anyone who has the headstones to “bring them back, no questions asked.”
He, Mr. Dunham and Ms. Piwonka would like to see a small gate marking the headstones and a plaque explaining the history of the cemetery. “I kind of see this as a great Eagle Scout project,” said Mr. Applegate said.
Mr. Dunham said he didn’t see it being a very expensive project.
Right now the Village Board is discussing who owns the land. Kinderhook Village Mayor Carol Weaver has called the county and looked at tax records. Mr. Dunham said the land may be owned by the Dutch Reform Church. In his will, Mr. Rogers’ sets aside the land for the cemetery and conveys the land to “the elders or trustees of the church of the Town of Kinderhook.” The Reform church was the only one in Kinderhook at the time.
A history of the Dutch Reformed Church of Kinderhook published in 1962 states that in the 1875, “the consistory requested the village authorities to make some provision for the burial of the colored people of the community.”
Most of the headstones found at the Rothermel Park cemetery date from the 1840s to 1860s, so it is possible that the Rothermel Park cemetery was no longer in use after the late 1800s.
In Edward A. Collier’s “A History of Old Kinderhook,” published in 1914, the author calls John Rogers “somewhat erratic” and wrote that he set apart a portion of his land for the “free burial of our colored people. It was thus used until every available inch was taken up; in some cases it is stated, with coffin placed upon coffin.”
Somewhere in Rothermel Park is the burial site of African American residents of the area. The headstones now sit next to the baseball fields in the access road entrance to the park, a place for all to visit.