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A never-before-seen gravestone shows where freed slaves were buried

While working on a project recently at the Old Cutchogue Burying Ground, 16-year-old Boy Scout Joe DePinto discovered a buried headstone marking the graves of two African-American children.

Joe has been working on a major restoration at the historic cemetery as part of his Eagle Scout community service project, repairing and straightening 45 large granite posts from 1825 that once supported a wooden fence around the site at Main Road and Harbor Lane. The project is sponsored by the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, which for several years has been making an effort to restore the site.

The graves at the burial ground date to the mid-1600s, not long after Southold Town’s founding, and include those of members of the founding families of Southold and Cutchogue. Joe’s discovery was remarkable for two reasons: one, because the gravestone had not been seen before and, two, because it showed that former slaves and members of their families were also buried in the cemetery.

Joe, a member of Boy Scout Troop 39 in Mattituck, is currently a “Life” Scout, which is one rank below Eagle. For his project, Joe has been unearthing buried portions of the posts and reattaching them using specialized structural epoxies. Each post is six feet long and weighs several hundred pounds.

While digging a hole last weekend to reset one of the posts, Joe discovered the buried headstone and four footstones, which are typically smaller than headstones and have only initials engraved on them.

“I started hitting it with the shovel and I didn’t know what it was,” Joe said. “I discovered the buried headstone and then we didn’t have a clue what it had to do with.”

He reported his find to Zachary Studenroth, director of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, who was able to determine that the headstone belonged to two African-American children whose parents are also buried on the grounds.

“This just demonstrates how unpredictable this work can be,” Mr. Studenroth said.

The historical council had surveyed the burying ground several years ago, taking photographs, transcribing epitaphs and uploading the data to a searchable website called BillionGraves.com, according to Mr. Studenroth, but had never excavated there before to search for burial stones.

“We have over 550 recorded headstones and footstones,” he said. “Of these, several are known to be of African American families, including the headstones of the parents of the two children whose stone we just discovered.”

The headstone Joe unearthed marked the shared gravesite of Miriam Reeve, daughter of Elymus and Hagar Reeve, who died Nov. 30, 1822, at age 8; and Parthenia Silone, daughter of Alex and Parthenia Silone, who died Feb. 28, 1854, at just one year old.

The gravestone recently discovered. (Credit: Jeremy Garretson)

“The fact that they died 32 years apart and share the same stone is not unusual, as people are sometimes memorialized years after their death,” Mr. Studenroth said, “but they don’t have the same last name. Our survey of headstones at the site includes one for the parents — Alexander Silone, who died in 1881, and his wife, Parthenia Reeve, who died Sept. 7, 1883 — and suggests that Elymus Reeve and Parthenia Silone may have been brother and sister. This may explain why, with the death of Parthenia, the daughter, in 1854, the other child was memorialized as well.”

Having recorded the names of the parents, which are preserved on two nearby headstones, connecting the newly found stone of the children was easily done, according to Mr. Studenroth.

“There is a small cluster of headstones facing Harbor Lane for Cutchogue’s African American residents,” he said. “In addition to the other stone mentioned, that of Elymus and Hagar Reeve also survives, as well as one inscribed simply SILONE, which is probably a family monument. In addition, there are headstones for Keturah Landon, who died 1867, and Zipporah Landon, who died 1844. They were all most likely freed slaves whose parents or grandparents had taken the surname of their masters.”

“My reaction was just, ‘Wow!’ ” Joe said of learning what the stones represented. “It’s pretty cool, because we thought it was just a stone; we didn’t think it had any significance to it.”

As for where the gravestone will be installed now, Mr. Studenroth said, “The answer will be to decide on a spot within close proximity to one of the parents, more likely the parents of the child who died later.” 

Photo caption:  Zachary Studenroth, director of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, and Boy Scout Joe DePinto at the Old Burying Ground in Cutchogue. (Jeremy Garretson photo)