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Enslavement in Pennsylvania

Slave Burials at Wenrich's Cemetery,
Dauphin County, Pennsylvania


Wenrich's Cemetery is located on Route 39, just east of Linglestown. This burial ground is next to St. Thomas United Church of Christ and shares its history with that church. The church was established in 1730 on land donated by Francis Wenrich, and originally served the Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Lutheran and Reformed faithful of the area. The original church building also housed the local school until it was replaced in 1794. The second church, or "log church," was located just to the west of the first building, and was in use through 1856, when the present church was built.

Like the church, the cemetery evolved in sections: the first burial ground, or "old cemetery," was located on the hill, west of the original church building and next to what became the second church building. A new section of the cemetery was begun about fifty feet west of the original burial ground and the second church. The newest burials are in the western half of this portion of the cemetery. The area between the old burial ground and the new cemetery, a strip of land some fifty feet wide, was filled with graves starting sometime in the 1840's, judging from dates on the tombstones. It became known as the first addition to the old cemetery, and is the part of the cemetery that is discussed below.

Burials of Enslaved Persons


Photo of the front gate of Hanover Cemetery d

Photo by George F. Nagle, June 1999.

"The well to do people among our early settlers had slaves. When they died they had to be buried. Many of these servants were buried on the outside of our old cemeteries. Such is the case on these grounds, where slaves were buried on the outside of the cemetery fence, and west of the second place of worship or The Log Church.

"These fifty feet west of the old church site, up to the Meese plot, was the first addition to the old cemetery. In this strip the slaves of Colonial days were buried, that were brought to the church for burial. Nearly every grave that was dug, the grave diggers came on human bones, buried long ago. A full grown body was dug upon in Oct. 1938. They were bones of slaves.

"When grave No. 565 was dug, the grave diggers, this was the job of the pallbearers, who charged nothing, came on human bones. A discussion arose, who would get the jaw bone. It was used in "pow-wowing" for a certain ailment."  1

--from "Records of Wenrich's Reformed Church (now St. Thomas United Church of Christ), Lower Paxton Township. Cemetery Records; Baptisms, 1791-1938." Nevin Moyer and Earle W. Lingle, n.d.

The photo above shows the plot of ground between the site of the second church and the Meese plot, and is the land in which the slaves were originally buried. It is currently filled with graves dating from the 1840's to the early 1900's--graves that were dug at least 50 to 100 years after the last slave burials here. The location of this plot was determined using the description given above, from Wenrich's Records: "These fifty feet west of the old church site, up to the Meese plot." Fortunately, the exact location of the old church site, identified as the "Log Church," is marked by a large stone in the cemetery. The inscription on the stone reads: "SECOND PLACE OF/ WORSHIP/ LOG CHURCH/ 1794-1856." The Meese plot, which marks the western boundary of the original slave burial grounds, is about twenty paces, roughly fifty feet, west of this marker. The Meese memorial stone is visible in the photograph above. It is the tall column near the top of the hill, in the right third of the photograph.

None of the slaves buried here are identified in any known records. It is also not known how many slaves are buried here. There could be as few as a dozen, or as many as several hundred. The age of the burial grounds, and the importance of this church to the colonial community, tends to support the belief that a large number of slaves are interred in unmarked graves here. The most likely period of time in which slaves were brought here for burial is in the years from the church's founding in 1730 until the building of the second church in 1794. Because attitudes towards slavery changed drastically during the revolution, and especially after 1780 when the Gradual Emancipation law was passed, it is unlikely that many slaves were buried here in unmarked graves after the 1770's. That half century, however, from 1730 until 1780, encompasses a time when hundreds of slaves toiled in the surrounding fields and lived in the communities served by this church.

Status of Enslaved Persons in the Church

The custom of burying slaves outside of the fence that surrounds the burial grounds is common in this area. It has also been documented at the Hanover Burial Grounds in East Hanover Township, Dauphin County. In addition to slaves, the land outside of the fence was also used to bury "the Devil's people." According to Wenrich's Records, The 1791 Rules and Regulations of the Church defined this as a person who "falls from his faith, (and) officers of the church are to go to him 1 - 2 - 3 times, and then if he falls again, and dies, he is to be buried on the outside of the grave yard with the Devil's people" and not on the inside of the fence, with "God's people."  2

To be classified as one of "the Devil's people" was not to be taken lightly in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The name "devil" was perhaps the worst description that could be given to a person, implying complete disrepute in the eyes of the church. Those being deemed "Devil's people" were not even given the simple respect of having their graves marked, effectively consigning them to oblivion once the memory of them fades. This mirrors one of the chief concerns of the Damned in the upper circles of Dante's "Inferno," of being forgotten on earth:

But when you are once more in the sweet world
I beg you to remind our friends of me.

Slaves, at least in colonial times, were afforded the same treatment at death; their graves went unmarked and their place of burial was outside of the fence with "the Devil's people." Baptisms of slaves and their children did not start to show up in church records in the area that is now Dauphin County until the beginning of the 19th century. The slaves of colonial times were either considered to be not worthy of eternal life and burial with "God's people, or, perhaps more in line with their property status which was similar to livestock, not capable of understanding and achieving salvation.


"Records of Wenrich's Reformed Church (now St. Thomas United Church of Christ), Lower Paxton Township. Cemetery Records; Baptisms, 1791-1938." Nevin Moyer and Earle W. Lingle, n.d. Indexes. In Dauphin County Church Records, Vol. 8. Repository: Pennsylvania State Library, Genealogy Room, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.


1.  For a good introductory paper about the Pennsylvania German practice of "powwowing," see "Pennsylvania German Powwowing," by Melissa Frey, at .

2.  Another example of person's buried outside of the walls occurs at Hanover Burial Grounds.  According to a story related to George Nagle by a local historian, captured Confederate soldiers who died while being used as labor in a local iron furnace are buried outside of the walls of that old cemetery, in unmarked graves.  No one knows the location of these graves anymore.  For an article that gives more details about this topic and a photograph of known graves, see "Confederate Burials in East Hanover Township, Dauphin County," by George Nagle  (LeRoy Lingle to George Nagle, 1999).

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d A detailed description of the photo above: The photo depicts several lines of gravestones in rows perpendicular to the camera angle, advancing up a slight incline to the top of a hill. Almost all of the stones are a shade of gray, with the exception of two small stones in the foreground, at the left of the photograph, which are made of brownstone and are dark brown. Most of the stones visible are in a style popular during the middle and late 1800's: tall and broad, with straight sides and a half rounded top. Two do not fit this description. One is the Meese marker, which is a tall round column on a square pedestal, visible near the back of the photograph, beside and somewhat obscured by a large tree. The other is the Glassbrenner memorial, in the second row of stones to the right, which is sculpted in the shape of a bier. Also in the second row, in the center of the scene, is a stone that has fallen forward, and lies on its face in the grass.

This photograph was taken in June, 1999, on an overcast day. The grass is well cared for, but shows signs of yellowing from a dry summer. The rows of gravestones continue to the top of the hill and disappear over the crest of the hill to end at the western edge of the cemetery, marked by the row of trees seen in the background to the left. The camera angle is facing West/ Southwest.