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.