An old, historic cemetery is tucked around a colonial Meetinghouse in the town of Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Known as the Old Burying Ground, it is Jaffrey’s oldest cemetery, established about twenty years after the village itself. Burials took place here as early as the 1770s, decades before the stately steeple was added to the Jaffrey Center’s familiar landmark.
Among the many stories preserved within these grounds are those hinted at on two matching stones that stand side by side, topped with artfully engraved urns and flowing willow trees. They are notable because they mark the graves of two Black Americans who lived in a time when many were buried with simple markers (or no markers at all), and relegated to the periphery. But they are also notable for the history of those they memorialize: two people who thrived in their community, eagerly supported the local church and schoolhouse, and whose impact lasts to this day. Perhaps you even recognize the names.
To the memory of
Who was born free in
Africa, a slave in America,
he purchased liberty,
Lived reputably, &
Nov. 17, 1801
To the memory of
by sale the slave of
Amos Fortune, by marri-
age his wife, by her
fidelity, his friend and
solace. She died his widow
September 13, 1802
Sadly, not much is known of Amos Fortune’s early life. He’d have been born sometime around 1710, judging by the death date recorded on his stone. Some time in his youth he was forcibly brought to New England, where those enslaved were mainly used for labor in small farms and trade shops rather than the large field plantations of the South. This may have been how he came to read and write, an unusual skill in a country that forbade literacy for most enslaved people.
His later years are told in bits and pieces through sporadic and sometimes confusing records. The first is from 1752—a will signed by Ichabod Richardson, enslaver and tanner in the town of Woburn, MA, which states Fortune should be freed six years after Richardson’s death. A later document, dated December 1763 but not signed, declares Fortune should be “Set at Liberty from my Service Power and Command for ever [sic]” four years from that date, or else immediately upon Richardson’s death. Richardson died unexpectedly in 1768; however, just five days earlier he had drawn up a new will that did not mention Fortune.
The new will overrode the old, and the unsigned 1763 document was not legally binding. Fortune found himself in the devastating position of still being considered another man’s property with no promise of freedom.
His enslavement continued under Richardson’s heir, with whom Fortune negotiated an agreement to pay off his “bond;” meanwhile, he could work and live as a free man, in practice if not by law.
The last payments were made in November 1770. At 60 years old, Fortune was truly free at last.
Over the next several years he was able to buy land and build a home in Woburn. In 1775 he raised enough money to purchase the freedom of a woman named Lydia. They married shortly after but tragically Lydia passed away within months.
Four years later he paid for another woman’s freedom: Violate (or Violet), who became his wife the very next day. Even less is known about her life except that she was enslaved by a first cousin of Ichabod Richardson, which could be how she and Fortune first met.
The pair moved to Jaffrey in 1781 and settled on part of the land set aside for the town’s future minister, Reverend Laban Ainsworth. Even after Ainsworth’s arrival, the Fortunes remained on the land until 1789 when they bought 25 acres along a village road. That road now bears Amos Fortune’s name, and their homestead still stands there today.
They were friendly with the reverend, who was said to have written the epitaphs seen on their tombstones. His own tombstone also lies in the Old Burying Ground, less than 20 yards away from the Fortunes.
During their 20 years in Jaffrey, Amos and Violate became some of the village’s more prosperous and well-known inhabitants. Amos Fortune established a respected tannery that would come to be known not just in the area, but throughout New England, and allegedly also bound some of the books kept by the local library. He and Violate attended Sunday services run by the reverend in the local meetinghouse, where they watched from the second-floor balcony with the church’s other Black members. They cared for their adopted daughter, Celyndia, who would have attended the local Schoolhouse #8 (and of whom little else is known).
Upon his death in 1801, Amos was buried behind the Meetinghouse. He left a will with clear instructions: First, to “my beloved wife Vilot [sic],” the profits of his real estate; second, the repayment of all his debts, as needed; third, funds to keep Violate comfortable and build her another small house convenient to her needs; fourth, all his furniture and possessions for Violate’s use; fifth, that Violate care for “Celyndia Fortune my adopted daughter,” to whom Amos granted her own room and furniture until her marriage; sixth, “handsome gravestones” for himself and Violate following her death; and seventh, that any remainder of the estate be used for a “handsome present” to the local church and to Schoolhouse #8.
All of this was carried out by his executor, and income from the gift given to the school is still used to support education in Jaffrey to this day. Violate passed away less than a year after her husband and was buried at his side beneath “handsome gravestones” just as Amos requested.
All throughout the U.S. efforts are ongoing to rediscover and restore Black people’s graves and cemeteries so that stories like these and others can be remembered. Look for opportunities in your community to support these efforts, to bring forgotten and neglected cemetery history to light, and offer a more complete picture of American history.
Wonderful biography of wonderful people. I truly appreciate finding out true history of all.
This is such a wonderful website. Thank you for doing it.
Awesome bios and riveting history in that town.
As a history buff, I love stories like this one.
It is just wonderful in modern days how much detail can be found to fill in the stories of wonderful citizens of yore. Keep up the good work always.
I love this story. On my tombstone it says: “Everyone has a story.” It has all my ancestors surnames. Thank you for sharing this one.
This was a very interesting look into the history of early Americans. I so enjoy reading and learning about the lives of our earliest citizens.
The story of Amos Fortune and family is inspiring. His will reflects his values and love of his family and community. If only more of us can overcome life’s challenges and live in a like manner.
This is the type of information that should be placed in the Bio. record of the Grave Memorials for these two early Americans. (FaG-Id 357 for Amos) and (FaG-Id 8368 for Violate). I work very hard to uncover the stories of those people I manage and store that info with their Find a Grave (FaG) records. My Find a Grave ID is 50926411.
A wonderful story. Brought the life of Amos Fortune into day.
Interesting but I have a question about dates.
They moved to Jaffry in 1781 …
They resided there 30 years …
When Amos passed in 1781 …
I read they ;moved to Jaffrey in 1781, lived there 20 years, and he died in 1801. They all seem to fit.
He passed in 1801, not 1781.
Thank you for your update. Great article. A century later my Great grandparents came from Sweden and worked in southern Iowa coal mines in a community where all people were equal while they were there. Another interesting story. (Muchakinoch?sp)
Muchakinock was, in 1887, the largest coal mining town in Iowa. A wealth of Muchakinock history is available on the internet.
My wife’s ancestors also were coal miners in the same area. Her grandfather, great uncle, and a cousin tragically died in a 1931 accident in their mine.
He died in 1801 according to his gravestone and moved to Jaffrey in 1781, which would make it 20 years, not 30 for his residence there.
This is nice because all the time close relatives learn from another, about a mother or relative’s death.
Very glad that Amos and his wife Violet became free, were land and business owners. May they rest in God’s Holy Peace.
Awesome story, thank you for posting it.
It is simply awesome that this information is made available to us as readers so that we can continue to learn, build, respect, and benefit from learning about historic Americans, no matter their race! Thank you very much! Meli in Texas
Inspiring story..Thank You for sharing…
These folks were lucky to be in New England, there were Black people in the south who were thrifty and ambitious during reconstruction and later who were lynched because of their ideals and success through hard work..
Christ is king!
Amos Fortune, Free Man is an award-winning Children’s novel.
I used the book Amos Fortune Free Man when I was teaching in early 1970’s. They would listen to the whole story read to them. I still have my book.
Consider your book a priceless treasure worthy to be on anyone’s shelf and in every library.
There’s also a book by Elizabeth Yates called, “Amos Fortune Free Man.”
I find that the history of “everyday “ people much more interesting than that of politicians and wars. Thank you for an inspiring article.
Absolutely wonderful history of this family. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you so much for sharing this story. Because of Christ, there is hope for tomorrow.
This is a Wonderful story! I live about 1 hour away from Jaffrey, NH, and not heard this story of 2 people who had to struggle for their Freedom, who moved away from their place of former Enslavement. and found New Life as Important Members of their New Community. Great!!
I am an “Online Researcher” specializing mainly in Family History (i.e. Genealogy). A Google search turned up a Review of the fantasized / fictionalized account of Amos Fortune in the book:
Amos Fortune, Free Man
An Award-winner for it’s Time (1951), would likely not get Awarded today. See:
Sadly, I have also just now learned that his former Owner, Ichabod Richardson, was my 7th cousin 7x removed.
I see in FindaGrave that Violate was given a Surname of BALDWIN. This suggests the possibility that this was the SURNAME of her Owner, from whom Amos bought her Freedom. If her Former Owner was a 1st cousin to Ichabod Richardson, these are the possible Candidates:
1) John Baldwin (b. 1702), of Watertown, MA
2) Dorcas (Baldwin) Wyman (1701 – 1745), sister of John
3) Mary (Richardson) Baldwin (1694 – 1798) m. Henry Baldwin
4) Ruth (Richardson) Baldwin (1713 – 1791), sister of Mary; m. James Baldwin (Henry’s brother)
Henry & James (brothers) were 1st cousins to John Baldwin (John’s father Daniel being their Uncle).
Their grandfather Henry Baldwin (1623 – 1697) was the Patriarch of the WOBURN BALDWIN’s.
Henry Baldwin of Woburn was a 1st cousin to many of the Baldwin’s who were Co-Founders of the New Haven Colony. Henry’s grandfather Sylvester (Sr), was the English Ancestor of a great many Living American Baldwin’s.
Sylvester Baldwin Sr was my 10th great-grandfather, which makes me a cousin to all of Ichabod Richardson’s BALDWIN 1st cousins, so I am likely related to Voilate Fortune’s Last Owner.
A Bad Mark in my family’s History — something many of us who have deep roots in America, have to Accept.
Well grantsull1, this might be a bad mark for your family’s history, but it has no reflection on you, my mother always said that you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your relatives so they’re no reflection on you.
she was implying not that she, nor anyone not involved in the slavery of other human beings, should feel in some way guilty, but that all european americans with this history acknowledge slavery for the evil & hypocrisy that it was vis-a-vis the christian faith their ancestors so professed each & every sunday at church, and perhaps today pay the wealth & privileges they’ve accrued from it forward to help make america a more humane society today.
There were also many white slaves in America’s early history. Many were Irish. My own ancestor, along with 24 other men and women, arrived in Maryland from England, where the man who bought their Indenture was waiting for them (I have a copy of the document, dated 1671).
They, as well as blacks, in the 1600s were indentured—to serve for a number of years before being released from bondage (blacks and whites—eventually by the late 1600s blacks continued in bondage). Unfortunately, however, a number of the Irish, also, were never freed. When the whites and blacks completed their indenture, they were free to buy land, purchase headrights, and serve on juries.
I have a document from the Virginia Archives which describe a white indentured slave who ran away. He was captured, brought back to his master, given 24 lashes with a whip, had his left ear nailed to a post and then sliced off and then had the right ear nailed to the post and sliced off. This was a warning to all of the other indentured slaves—black and white.
One may find a plethora of books on the subject of white slavery on Amazon, if one cares to learn the truth. I retired from teaching college-level history.
These gravestones of Amos Fortune and his wife are beautiful. It seems that Amos was industrious, and that life turned out very good for these two people.
So interesting to read this from so long ago. Thanks for sharing such interesting history.
I have many family members buried in Jaffrey’s Old Burying Ground. The article is generally well-written, but it commits a gross error when it states that the the “country … forbade literacy for most enslaved people.” “Literacy” as such was never forbidden, anywhere. However, S. Carolina enacted a law in 1740 that prohibited teaching slaves to read or write. The bad example of S. Carolina was not emulated elsewhere for 89 years, but then the Georgia legislature passed such a law. Two years later, in Southampton County, Va., a group organized by Nat Turner, a literate black minister, killed about 65 whites. In reaction, within the following two years, Louisiana, NC, Alabama and Virginia prohibited anyone from teaching blacks to read or write. Finally, in 1847 Missouri passed such a law. No Northern state ever had one. The significant point is that “the country” (meaning the federal government) never “forbade” the teaching of literacy, much less literacy itself. It has been estimated that around twenty percent of runaway slaves in Kentucky, for example, were literate, and ten percent could write, mostly as a function of informal education. (Source: Wikipedia article on Anti-Literacy Laws.)
I read this story & was so moved by these brave people. How wonderful it is to be a part of their lives now. It does not matter what color of skin we have. We are all from the almighty creator & all are unique in our own ways. It is people like this that have paved the pathways for others. They never gave up & lived good righteous lives.
I enjoyed the story of Amos Fortune and his wife, who overcame tremendous barriers to become the brave hero’s they were.
Thanks for a wonderful story. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if everyone could have such a story.
Wonderful story. Love the history.
I remember back in elementary school, so in the 1960’s), reading a book about Amos Fortune called, I think, Amos Fortune, Freeman. The story must have been wonderful and inspiring to me because I have thought of his incredible path in life often over the years. Now that I have read your blurb here and am once again curious, I may have to revisit the book. Thanks to all.
I am so happy this story has surfaced to be remembered; everyone has a great story. i am currently working on a book, The Underground Railroad in Mendon, Adams County, Illinois (my hometown). Mostly, the stories and efforts went to the graves with the people who participated. Mendon was the first stop after escaping slaves from Missouri to Quincy, Illinois, then on farther north to freedom in Canada. It breaks my heart to read how horrible some were treated and what they had to go through. I applaud all the “conductors” that risked not only their lives in this action, but their family could have been at risk too and some did pay with their lives. The old adage “Freedom is not Free” certainly holds true here. I have located several with stories also and they deserve to be acknowledged. They truly were the heroes of that day. God bless them for their bravery.
What a wonderful iteration of a dark time, and a beautiful family. I sometimes wax empathy for only my white forebears; and then am reminded that our country was founded by every person. Thank you so much for opening my eyes again.
What a beautiful story about two handsome grave markers and the remarkable man behind them. Thank you.
The 1951 young adult novel by Elizabeth Yates titled ‘Amos Fortune’ has been required reading in my family, along with the Little House books, for decades.
this was a blessing to read
Such a wonderful, uplifting, inspiring story of Amos Fortune’s good, victorious life! Thank you for sharing it. Now I want to read and learn about more lives such as Amos’s.
So interesting. I’m on Find A Grave 4 or 5 times a week. Unfortunately, most of the stories I read are fairly mundane. It’s great to hear about Amos and Violate. It sounds like a love story to me. Thanks for sharing
What a wonderful tribute to the memory of Amos and Violet. Thank you for researching and sharing this.
There is a children’s biography called. Amos Fortune. This burying ground is also well known for the grave of author Willa Cather
I did know something of Amos, so it was a pleasure to read the rest of the story. My ancestors are buried in this same churchyard. My 5th great grandfather Samuel Adams, built the original meeting house here. I was able to visit 6 years ago and hope to visit again soon.
I lived in a colonial house in King George VA. The house was built back in the 1770s. There was a family cemetery taken over by the forest right next to the house. There were two marked graves and the rest might have been covered by thick brush, leaves or just torn up by trees. Preserved old cemeteries are more rare then you might think. So many have been taken over by the forests or near abandoned or forgotten towns in the countryside. There have always been efforts to save old landmarks, buildings and houses. The same should be done for the people who helped shape our country as it is today.
I loved reading this! It is important to me to read about people’s lives and know that some were able to overcome such terrible things. I feel sad that there are still problems of racial difficulties. It’s really unbelievable. Thanks for your efforts with these stories. Rosalyn Davies
Thank you for sharing that story. It really makes you think about the lives of people back in the day. My grandfather set aside an acre of land in his will for all of his family to be buried in, including himself. The land is on family property and we are in the process of trying to make sure it is preserved in the future. I really enjoyed this story and I appreciate you sharing it.
Thank you for a great bio. We have a former slave in the Alhambra Cemetery, Martinez, CA, that we have told his story in two books and many articles. He was brought to Napa, CA by his enslaver, William Rice from Missouri. Aaron and his family were able to start a local AME church as well as own 160 acres of land. Aaron passed in 1905. We have fixed his headstone in the Potter’s Field Section of the cemetery. By the way… William Rice and his wife are buried in the same cemetery.
A wonderful story. The story of the Amos and Violate Fortune was fascinating and uplifting in how he worked his way to freedom and then bought his wife’s freedom, out of the sadness of slavery.
Then I noticed the name of Ichabod Richardson of Woburn, Mass. I had Richardson ancestors in Woburn, and when I followed the links in Find-a-Grave, I found he was a second cousin once removed of one of my Richardson ancestors. Like Grantsull1, I feel a sadness for Amos and Violate’s slavery.
My first cousin, Ed, (& Mary) lives in Jaffrey , NH. I will forward this story to him. Interesting,
I appreciate you writing about Amos Fortune. Brought back all my memories when I read his biography and all the others in this series in fourth/fifth grade. Thank you!!
Thank you for your enlightening article. Hopefully, others with factual history will write about it.
Many thanks for this story and all the thoughtful comments. If you liked this story, you might enjoy reading “Mr. and Mrs. Prince”, by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. It’s about Lucy Terry Prince and Abijah Prince, a black couple who lived in Vermont and Massachusetts in the 1700s. The subtitle is “How an Extraordinary 18th-century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend”. Lucy has been called “the first African-American poet”, although fans of Phillis Wheatley might dispute that claim.
My personal relationship to the Princes is due to being descended from the Amsden family of Cambridge and later Petersham, MA. In an Amsden family history compiled in 1935, a narrative poem detailing a 1746 “Indian raid” appears, credited to “Luce Bijah, a bright Negress”. That author is none other than Lucy Terry Prince. Several Amsden family members were killed that day.
The “raid” was, of course, not the simplistic “attack by vicious savages” it was portrayed to be for centuries. French commanders, and politics, played roles. The pity is that violence and racism have underpinned so much of our history. But I digress. Look for “Mr. and Mrs. Prince” in your local library. Hmmm … are their graves in Find a Grave somewhere??
I grew up in this area and visited the Jaffrey cemetery several times. I have also photographed the graves of Amos and his wife and read the book Amos Fortune, Free Man. There is another famous person buried in this cemetery and that is the author, Willa Cather. She wrote Oh Pioneers!, My Antonia, Death Comes to the Archbishop, among many other books and short stories. Thank you for posting this article.
Uplifting. Thank you.
Thank you for a wonderful story
I am pleasantly surprised the headstones are still legible after so many years. Often I am unable to read stones of long ago in my local cemetery.
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