Faces, Forensics and DNA of 18th Century New York Slaves

Faces, Forensics and DNA of 18th Century New York Slaves


In 2005 construction workers in Colonie, NY unearthed a dozen human bodies while digging for a sewer line.  Forensic analysis and DNA testing have concluded that they were 18th-century slaves.  In June 2016 they will finally get a proper burial.



The slaves belonged to the prominent Schuyler family from New York.  Philip Schuyler was a general in the American Revolution and a US Senator who resided at Schuyler Flatts in Watervliet, New York.

The area of Schuyler Flatts, located along the Hudson River, was frequented by Native Americans for thousands of years as an ideal location for hunting, fishing, horticulture, and trade.  Around 1672 the Dutch colonist Schuyler family settled at the Flatts and made it their home for the next 300 years.

Records indicate that the family kept slaves at the Flatts over a period of about 150 years.  The earliest name of an enslaved African there is Jan, who according to 1682 court records, was stabbed during an altercation between his owner and an Indian from the “north” (probably Algonquin).  The last record of a slave at the Flatts was Sabina or ‘Sibby’ who was bought around 1800; although Sibby was eventually freed, she continued to live with the Schuylers until her death in 1862 aged 90.

The twelve slave burials discovered at the Flatts (plus two unearthed in an earlier construction project) were arranged in two rows.  Each individual would have been wrapped in a burial shroud fastened with small brass pins and buried in pine coffins.  No personal items were found with the graves but the pins and coffin nails date the burials most likely to the 18th century.

A bioarchaeological study of the human remains found clear evidence of musculoskeletal stress and early onset arthritis from a lifetime of hard work.  They also suffered from poor dental health and evidence of habitual activities such as pipe smoking.

Of the 14 individuals recovered from the burial ground, half were children or newborn infants.  The remaining adults included 6 women and 1 man:

1.   Female aged 35-45 years old, 5’3” tall. Some of her back teeth had been lost and others had cavities.  She once fractured a bone in her left wrist but it was long since healed.  She had strong arms along with mild arthritis.  She was identified as of African ancestry based on the shape of her bones but DNA analysis identified her maternal ancestry as Native American – possibly Micmac, a tribe in the Canadian maritimes.

2.   Female aged over 50 years old, 5’3” tall. She had lost all of her teeth long before she died.  She was robust for her size with muscular arms, legs, and hands.  Hard work caused her to have arthritis in all of her major joints and may have led to fractures earlier in life to vertebrae in her neck and lower back.  She sustained four broken ribs shortly before she died, possibly due to a fall.  She was probably born in New York but her DNA suggests a maternal ancestry from west or west-central Africa.

3.   Female aged 50-60 years old, 5’4” tall. She was robust and her back was muscular, although some of the vertebrae fused from arthritis after years of hard work.  She had lost several teeth and the remaining ones had cavities and were worn from smoking a pipe.  Her left arm was shorter than her right and the base of her skull was misshapen suggesting she may have held her head to one side.  She was probably born in New York but her DNA indicates a maternal ancestry from Madagascar.

4.   Female aged 25-35 years old, 5’2” tall. She was less muscular than the others but still had the early onset of arthritis in her back and joints.  She had cavities in her front teeth and the back ones were nearly destroyed by decay.  She was probably born in New York but her DNA indicates a maternal ancestry from Madagascar.

5.   Female aged 30-40 years old, 4’9½” tall. Her arms, legs, and hands were muscular and she had arthritis in her back, shoulders and jaw.  Her teeth show marks that indicate a period of ill-health as a young child and she may have had an infection before she died.  Her back teeth were destroyed by cavities and her front teeth appeared to have small notches in them, possibly made by pulling thread across them repeatedly.  She was probably born in New York but her DNA indicates a maternal ancestry from East Africa.

6.   Female aged 30-35 years old, 4’9” tall. She was muscular, but had the onset of arthritis in her lower back where she may have had an injury.  Her dental health was poor with several teeth destroyed.  Some of the teeth on the left side of her mouth were likely worn down by pipe smoking.  She was probably born in New York but her DNA suggests a maternal ancestry from Africa.

7.   Male aged 40-50 years old, 5’7” tall. He was very muscular with severe arthritis in his neck, elbows, and hips.  He once broke his left toe; it was misaligned and fused at the joint when healed.  He had cavities in most of his teeth with many at the back ones lost to decay.   His front teeth wore worn down likely by smoking a pipe.  He was probably born in New York but his DNA indicates a maternal ancestry from East Africa.

 

Source: New York State Museum; facial reconstruction by Gay Malin.



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