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When The Ghost Whispers “Dig”

“Don’t heed the voice and put shovel to earth, unless mentally prepared to uncover the truth.”


“African-Americans made up approximately twenty five percent of the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812. In July, 1813, Commodore Isaac Chauncey reported “nearly 50 blacks” on board his flagship, the General Pike, 15% of the crew. The schooner Scourge had an all-black gun crew, roughly 20% of the ship’s crew. By autumn 1814 possibly 450 African-Americans served in the Navy at Sackets Harbor.”

***Excerpted from The New York History Blog***

“African -American War of 1812 Veteran Being Honored”

September 25, 2018


(Photo of a Sackets Harbor Battlefield wall display)

“During the War of 1812, the United States Army and Marine Corps did not enlist African-Americans. The United States Navy, however, did. While it is known that the enlisted seamen serving at Sackets Harbor included African Americans, their exact number remains unknown.”



As does what happened to those African American seamen after the war.

-The Author-



December, 1814: The war was over. Jeremiah and Jebediah were brothers. As seamen aboard the schooner “Scourge”, they had served with distinction on the U.S. side through the war. The long, harsh Northern New York winter still loomed. Discharged from service, they piled their young wives, tools and belongings aboard an old wooden cart, pulled by their lone mule. They’d decided to make a life for their families together on a piece of land not far from Sackets Harbor, where they’d so proudly served. They were tenant crop farmers. They were also Americans, War Veterans, and black.


             October, 1992: It all began shortly after my wife and I moved into our new home. A young couple then, with a newborn.

      I had just left the service. We had scraped and scrounged every penny we could find, until we finally had enough money for a down payment on a comfortable raised ranch style home, built on an unassuming nine acre parcel, on an old farm lot just outside of town.

     “Town” was, and is, Watertown, New York.  A small city situated along the Black River, just beyond Lake Ontario’s eastern shore.

  Behind and beside our new home, and our yard, lay the remnants of what clearly had once been a farm.

     Interested in the history of who had occupied our land before us, I studied our survey map, read through the deeds. From those documents I could see that our lot was half of an old seventeen acre farm that the bank had foreclosed on and subdivided in the late 1970’s. It had been actively farmed in some fashion since sometime during the early 19th century.

     It appeared that the land had once been part of a larger lot owned by an area lumber merchant, possibly supplying oak planks and white pine timber masts for Sackets Harbor’s fleet during the War of 1812.

      Beyond that, its provenance got a bit murky, vague references in hard to read hand scripted copies of deeds, a largely undocumented time, before white men had formally begun settling the area.  One small abandoned farm, long since forgotten, a small subdivided piece of Great Lot IV of the original Macomb’s Purchase of the late 1700’s.         

     The original lot was still discernable, with an old stone fence, cedar posts, and rusty tangles of heavy gauge barbed wire intertwined within a nasty hedgerow of aptly named hawthorn and thorn apple guarding its borders. It had lain fallow for the last twenty some years. During that time it had descended into an overgrown wasteland of scrub brush and swamp.

      Our home had been built nicely set back from the road on one parcel.  The other parcel, alongside ours, was vacant. It lay strewn with old hand cut limestone building foundations and rusted farm debris, overgrown, desolate.

     I began exploring our lot. Fighting my way along the old rock wall, battling tangles of thorn apple and barbed wire, I found first one survey stake, then another, then a third, until I had them all located. I began clearing around them.  Then, one by one, undertook the tedious work of clearing a network of walking trails to each.

      It was then that it started.  I was not alone out there working. I felt a presence.

      It felt a bit spooky out there to begin with.  There were no birds, no wildlife, nothing alive, just tangles of rusty barbed wire, a half buried stone fence, scrub brush, thorn apples, and swampy, overgrown, abandoned farm land, devoid of life.

     I would suddenly feel a heavy chill surround me.  It was dead still. Silent.

      And yet, something. Something was there. The hair on the back of my neck would stand straight up as a sudden chill coursed my spine.  In those moments, I was not alone. Something was watching me. Or someone. I knew it.

      I did not say anything at first. I didn’t want to frighten my wife. The entity, the presence, it was not there all the time. I’d be working out back, clearing brush, hand digging a pond or drainage on a hot summer day, when suddenly the air would chill, and I would feel it, silent, observing. This went on for a while.  I did not feel threatened, particularly, but I could feel it watching me.

     Finally, one evening, for reasons all its own, it revealed itself.  I saw it. Or did I? Did I imagine it? Was it really there? It was the figure of a man.

     Or what had once been a man. Dark skinned, bare chested, straw hat, overall clad, it would stand, at a distance, arms folded across its chest, silently watching me, frowning. I named it. “The Farmer.” “The Farmer”, standing guard over his land.  

      This too went on for some time. Sometimes I could see him there, watching me. Sometimes I could not. Either way, I knew when he was present. The air would suddenly chill, and even the silence grew silent. He did not speak, at least not at first. He just watched.  Sometimes I would talk to him. I felt as though he was listening, but he never responded.

    I worked through several summers as my wife and I started a family. As my work progressed, the old farm’s original beauty slowly revealed itself. Borders of beautiful Canada lilies and fragrant wild roses. An old plumb orchard survived in one corner, ancient apple trees, some still bearing fruit, in another. I found berry patches, raspberries, strawberries, not tiny wild ones, but berries that had once been tended, with sweet fruits nearly as big as my thumb.  Along the way, I also began uncovering artifacts.

     I dug up pieces of old broken bottles, some with etched labels. Hand wrought square head nails, rusted, rotted remnants of horse drawn carts, wood wheeled wagons, old hand cut limestone foundations, hand forged tools.  I found leather straps, horse tack, fragments of clay pottery, what were unmistakably old stone survey lines, along with a wide array of old bones.

     Some things I could date as far back as the early 1800’s. This farm had a history. Some artifacts were more recent.  There were layers. Someone had clearly worked this land, drawn life from it, loved it. That someone was watching me, judging me, deciding. “The Farmer”.  I sometimes felt as if I was on trial.

     I tentatively explored the lot next door. At a point in time, these two lots arbitrarily created by the bank had clearly all been one farm. There were more old limestone building and barn foundations there, a hand pump well. But for a number of years, the lot next door lay vacant. We did not own it. I continued focusing attention on my own land.

     There, along an exposed bedrock shelf, I had discovered a uniquely distinctive group of large quartz and mica rich granite boulders.  They appeared to have been deliberately organized in a loose semicircle.  There was rusted debris under a pile of cobble, a few rotted cedar planks. Most of them charred.  A clear testament to fire.


       Spring: 1814- Jeremiah’s wife was pregnant. Their first child. The local churches did not welcome black folk. Other black veterans who had settled in the area after the war had the same problem.

      They were all Christians, of a form carried with them from their parents’ birthplaces. Jeremiah’s wife was insistent. Their child would be baptized.  It was decided. They would simply build their own church.

      So Jebediah cut a forked willow. They witched a well.  They built a baptismal font, and an altar. Above it they erected a simple cedar planked church. Other folks helped.  Jeremiah’s wife was quite pleased. She unwrapped her prized possession and hung it proudly on one wall. Passed to her from her mother. A large pewter cross.


     There was a crevice in the bedrock in the center of the rock ring.  I heard a voice. Was it The Farmer’s? Or was it my own?

     Regardless, it was insistent. I listened. The voice whispered “Dig.

     I dug. Images haunted my mind as I did. People sitting in a circle. Chanting. Worshipping.  Praying. Some mix of Christianity and some other religion.

     I found black fragments of brick, charred wood fragments. A good number of what looked to be old chicken bones.

    Then I found something that gave me pause.  An artifact. Stone crusted, heavy, pewter or silver, partially melted by the intense heat of fire. Unmistakable.  About ten inches in length, I had unearthed a cross.    

   The Farmer. The Farmer. The whole time, The Farmer, he watched. I thought I saw him smile and nod as I gently cleaned dirt from the cross.  Did I? was my mind playing tricks? I did not know for sure.  I dug on.

     After two muddy days, I found myself waist deep in a shoulder width stone crevice. The sides were sheer bedrock. At about 4 foot down, I hit an old cedar plank, laying across a ledge at a point below which the crevice narrowed.  I gently loosened the thick plank’s remnants from the ground. It was about two feet long. Dead center, hand cut in the plank, was a circular hole, about 3 inches in diameter. At that point, I knew. At one point in the distant past, this had been some sort of fountain or well.

       I kept digging. Sure enough, shoulder deep, I hit water. I drove a pipe further into the earth. When I pulled it, the clay plug was wet, when I dropped the pipe back into the hole, I heard a splash. I had hit an underground stream or aquifer in that spot. Water gurgled up. A makeshift fountain. I was not the first person to drive a pipe in that spot.

      What had been its purpose? Some sort of baptismal fountain or font for some sort of church? I left the pipe in the ground, and backfilled the crevice with gravel.

     Some years passed. I cut more trails, pulled what seemed like miles of rusted barbed wire, hand dug drainages and ponds. Along the way I continued finding rusted artifacts and relics. As I worked the land, The Farmer remained my  frequent companion, continuing his watch.

     Finally, as circumstances allowed, my wife and I were able to buy the vacant lot next door, and reunite the original farm as one lot.

      It came together quiet suddenly, in a most peculiar way. We had long talked of purchasing that lot, but with three young children, and a mortgage, we simply could not afford it.  Then, unexpectedly, we came into some money.  I did some research, checked local tax records, identified the lot’s current owners. My wife and I made a plan to approach them. Something told us why we had come into that money. We were going make a sincere effort to buy what we had dubbed “the old farm lot” that lay dormant next to our own.

     One spring Saturday, the very day we had decided to call the owners and inquire about buying that land, a car I had not seen before came driving slowly down our road and stopped briefly, right in front of the old farm lot. I watched that car from our porch. I was curious.  Then it hit me. “I bet those are the people that own it! The ones I was just getting ready to call!”

     I ran out to give chase.  Epiphany! I was right. A “For Sale By Owner” sign had just been posted. There was a phone number listed. I called it. The current owners answered. We quickly negotiated a price. A short month later, the deal was done.

      My wife and I now owned both lots. Seventeen acres, the original farm, bordered on three sides by the old stone fence, once more reunited. It was as if some unseen force had been guiding our hand.


      Jeremiah and Jebediah toiled alongside each other, building their farm. They milled lumber for their homestead, quarried their own limestone for building foundations. They hand dug a well with clear, crisp flowing water. They cleared, and tilled, planted and cultivated their crops. They erected barns for their livestock. They even had a kiln where they forged hand wrought tools.

     Their wives bore them children, eight all together, six that survived. An entire community of black families congregated around them. They thrived.

     Bountiful harvests of potatoes and cabbages soon became the envy of post war white towns and hamlets burgeoning along the Black River and the nearby lake shore.

Dairy farms, owned by white men of influence, arose around them as well. As these white farms expanded and flourished, trouble soon followed. Not every north country white citizen took kindly to having black folks as neighbors.


   I undertook the task of exploring our new lot with great zeal. Those old building foundations had long fascinated me. I began clearing scrub and hand digging dirt, both inside and out, so that I could more fully appreciate and understand them.

     The stone work was amazing. Clearly hand cut, straight limestone edges, precise. There was no mortar, yet after at least a century or more, despite some settling, still for the most part stacked tight.

     I measured, documented, did research, checked old surveys, census records, and maps. Nowhere could I find any documented evidence of form, farm, or structure of any sort occupying that site.

     Then one cold winter day, while doing research in the archives of the local library, I spotted an old framed survey map hanging on the wall:

“Town of Brownville- From surveys by Fulton B. Saunders, Published by William T. Starks, 125 Barton St. Philadelphia, 1837.”

     There, on that map, clear as day, were annotated a house, barn and several outbuildings on the site where my old building foundations lay buried. So now I had confirmation, a date. By 1837, without a doubt, whatever had been here was well established and documented on area survey maps.

     The lot was replete with household artifacts, old tools, nails, bottles, and layers of rusted farm debris. I meticulously mapped, annotated and researched all of it. I cleaned and salvaged what I could. It became my obsession. The effort consumed me.

     I continued to have company. The Farmer was there, nearly every day, watching over me.  Sometimes I could see him standing nearby.  Sometimes I heard his voice- (or was it my own?) in my head.  I felt him guiding my efforts. Something would catch my attention, draw me to some area. I would put shovel to earth each time The Farmer’s voice whispered; “Dig.”

   I excavated the foundations of what remained of two houses, one clearly older than the other, each with its own barns and outbuildings. The remains of ten buildings. Counting the church, ten buildings in all.

     I found what was clearly a saw mill, fragments of wooden wagons and carts, the remains of a coal fired kiln, an old manure pit, two more wells.

     A dirt covered hard packed gravel road led from the main road, past the main house, to the biggest livestock barn. There, at the foundation base, I found a broken old mason jar cleverly hidden in a crevice by the stone barn entrance step. In the bottom of the jar were a handful of coins.  I envisioned The Farmer conducting his business, right there, from that spot.

     I uncovered old cedar posts behind each barn, marking where they kept livestock. From the bones I uncovered, primarily chickens and goats, a mule or horse of some kind, and a couple of cows.

     Down in one front corner, in an area long since filled in with cattails, I dug up the wooden remains of a boat, a pair of oarlocks, and the head of a frog gigging spear. There had clearly once been a big pond there, and a rowboat.   

     I discovered something else. Clear evidence of intense fire. The insides of the limestone building foundations were all stained coal black. Charred bits of plank and fused glass fragments lay buried within each structure. At some point everything here had been burned to the ground.  Their charred remains buried in time. Long since forgotten.


     Jeremiah and his brother were blessed with four strong sons, and two beautiful daughters who dutifully helped their mothers with gardens and chores.  Other black families in the area had children as well. Everyone in the community wanted a better life for their children than they had had for themselves. But area schools refused to educate black children.

     Jebediah’s wife, Isabella, had some education.  She could read and write. It was decided. She would teach their children, right there, in her home.  Their children would be educated. They would have their own school.

     The black community rallied.  Having their own school became a matter of pride. “Miss Isabella” as she came to be known by the children, doted on her students as she taught them their letters and numbers, treating each child like one of her own.

     At first they sat on her kitchen floor as they learned, but as time progressed, a room was added to the house. In it were placed six children’s school desks, and a larger hand crafted desk, up front, for Miss Isabella, their teacher.

     The children were always bringing Miss Isabella small gifts, jars of jam and jelly, baskets of vegetables, assorted trinkets and treats.

     One bright fall morning, a special present arrived and was proudly placed, wrapped in cloth, by her students upon her desk.

     Miss Isabella unwrapped it and gave a slight gasp. It was a brass teacher’s school bell. Now each morning she could ring it to announce the day’s classes.

     But not all were happy to see the black community’s children educated. There were run ins with white folk. Harsh words were spoken. There were confrontations and scuffles.

     Despite ignorance, the black community flourished. There, on that long low hill just outside of town. A generation of children were raised up there. Jeremiah and Jebediah became grandparents.

     Miss Isabella continued to teach. One morning, after Miss Isabella rang her bell and her students settled into class, Jeremiah, Jebediah, and their grown sons hitched their horses and loaded the wagons. They needed supplies. They had baskets filled with potatoes and cabbages to sell. They headed to town.

     No one ever discovered exactly what happened. Whether it was a tragic accident, or something else.  There were whispered suspicions, accusations and outcry amongst the black community.  But they fell on deaf ears, nothing ever came of them.

     On their way back from town, Jeremiah spotted it first, from the direction of their homestead billowed thick plumes of smoke.

    They raced to the house just as quick as they could. By that time, the entire farm was engulfed. Men were scurrying around, Jeremiah spotted his wife, she stood covered in soot, sobbing.

    Jeremiah and Jebediah raced to the house, but too late. The roof had already collapsed, the intense heat of fire had fully consumed most of the structure, including the schoolroom, the children, and Miss Isabella.


     I found myself drawn to the oldest of the two farmhouses. I carefully excavated the foundation, measured and mapped it all out. There were three smaller rooms, plus one large room built along the left side. As was the case within all of the structures, I dug up bits of charred plank, rusted square head nails, pieces of ornate pottery and thick, fused colored glass.  All the while, The Farmer was there. His voice whispering; “Dig.”

     Then in the larger room, I dug up something else, a small brass bell. Then I began to unearth more metal artifacts, a goodly number of them, rusted cast iron. At first, I thought they were legs to some sort of oven or stove. But there were too many of them, pieces and parts of six sets in all.  

     I researched every item online. Computers and Google can be useful resources. I soon realized what I had uncovered.

     I had thought that the bell was some sort of small cowbell for a pony or goat. But I did not find a match for it, until one day, on a hunch, I typed in “teacher’s school bell.” There it was. An identical match. It was a 19th century teacher’s desk bell. Minus the clapper.

     That gave me both pause, and a clue. “If that was a teacher’s desk bell, were those cast iron legs…?”

     Yes, that’s exactly what they were. I had uncovered the legs of six children’s school desks. This old farmhouse had undoubtedly once been a school.

     I mulled that for a while, continued excavating, carefully, by hand. I found an old outhouse hole near the farmhouse, hinges of some sort of wrought iron gate, and a fence.

     Behind the foundation of the house, on one side, was a raspberry patch. Behind that, a stone pathway leading to the foundation stones of what I was fairly certain was the oldest of the farm lot’s original barns. 

     The Farmer was there, as he usually was, straw hat, overall clad, bare chested, watching.  He seemed to be guiding me to a raised area on the right side of the path, between the house and the barn, opposite the raspberry patch.

     The black, rich soil was overgrown with goldenrod in that area. I began pulling clumps up by their roots, and probing around with my shovel. I uncovered the remains of an old rusted milk bucket. I found what was left of a wheel barrow. Then my shovel blade hit a rock.

     A stone, more accurately. That might not have seemed that strange to a casual bystander. But I had spent a great deal of time on that farm, in those fields, on that land. Through that endeavor, I had learned one thing. Every rock and stone on that property was either part of a building foundation, stone wall, pathway, or fence. The Farmer’s fields were immaculate. When my shovel found stone, I knew that stone had a purpose.

     I knelt and began clearing debris and dirt. The stone’s surface was smooth and flat. It was about two inches thick, and perfectly rectangular. I carefully dug underneath it with the blade of my shovel. I flipped the stone over. Its surface had an inscription. It read:

“Blessed Are The Dead

Which Die In The Lord

Deliver me, Deliver us,

from evil”

      I dropped my shovel. I stopped digging.   


     Jebediah and two of his sons raced into the house. They were quickly overcome by the smoke. They perished there, burned alive.

     Flames had spread quickly, farm and field were consumed. Every building was soon burned to the ground. Even the church had been devoured by fire.

    The black community was outraged. But there was no justice. Jeremiah packed his wife, remaining children, grandchildren and what little they could salvage, into the wagon and sent them north, across the border to the relative safety of Canada.  Jeremiah promised to follow.

     After burying his brother and the rest of his family, overcome with grief, he did not.  



  My wife and I own a seventeen-acre farm lot. There are old building foundations there, many of them still visible.

Behind one of them lies a small fenced off area. I keep it planted with clover, weeded and mowed. Each spring I turn the soil beside it. There I plant several rows of potatoes and cabbage.  

Every now and again, I’ll feel a sudden chill in the air while I work.    


Until Our Trails Cross Again,