Sunday, April 21, 2024

Analysis Ties Remains at Historic Site to the First Baptist Church Community

WILLIAMSBURG — The descendent community of The First Baptist Church heard reports from experts regarding DNA, archaeological and osteological analyses of three gravesites at the site of the original First Baptist Church structure during a special presentation Thursday at the Stryker Center at Williamsburg Regional Library.

While the remains excavated over the summer suffered from poor preservation and yielded limited information, the results did confirm that the individuals were ancestors of the First Baptist Church community.

“This is what we were praying that we would hear,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist Church and president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation. “To know for certain that these are our people and that this was our congregation is such a powerful step forward in the ongoing work of reconstructing our history and telling a more complete story.” 

Attendees heard reports and analysis from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) Director of Archeology Jack Gary; Dr. Raquel Fleskes, a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut, who conducted the DNA analysis; and osteological analysis from Dr. Joseph Jones, biological anthropologist and research associate of the Institute for Historical Biology (IHB) at William & Mary and Dr. Michael Blakey, Director of the IHB.

DNA recovered from the burial site known as Grave 26 confirmed that the individual was male and of African descent, while Graves 1 and 13 yielded no usable DNA. Flakes noted the remains are also too old to reveal kinship, adding that determination would need to be made through genealogical research. 

Osteological analysis revealed the less-preserved burials — Graves 1 and 13 — were older, while teeth revealed the remains from Grave 26 were from someone likely in their teens and suffering from “stressors,” likely malnutrition. 

(Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Analysis of archaeological evidence, including a pin, buttons and nails, put the timeframe of the three individuals in the first half of the 19th century, tying them to the first meeting house.

“All three lines of evidence — DNA results, osteological analysis, and archaeological findings — provide support and create a compelling argument that these are indeed the ancestors of the First Baptist community,” Gary said. “That has always seemed like the most logical explanation for these burials, but without definitive proof we couldn’t rule out the possibility that the burials were associated with another group or from a different time period. Now we can say for sure that these are people connected to the earliest years of First Baptist Church. Now the congregation can decide how to move forward.”

Gary noted there are now 63 grave shafts that have been identified on the site.

Liz Montgomery, chair of the First Baptist Church History Ministry, noted the significance of the findings to the First Baptist community as a whole. “It’s not about the people who were born and raised in Williamsburg. Some of us weren’t. I am not a descendent. I am just a resident of Williamsburg who just happens to be a member of First Baptist Church, and I’m so thankful that I am because this history is important in telling the story of all of us.” 

While some might be eager to see an analysis of more gravesites, the experts in attendance cautioned that further disturbing those sites would likely reveal little more scientific information, due to the condition of the remains, instead suggesting the next step is to determine how best to memorialize the site. 

When questioned how this research will impact 250th Anniversary celebrations planned for 2026, CWF assured there will be a more complete story told than in the past.

In March 2022, The First Baptist Church descendant community voted in favor of archeologists excavating three grave shafts. The goal is to obtain a deep understanding of the race, age, and sex of the individuals buried at the site. All human remains will be re-interred in their original locations with plans to memorialize those interred on the land once work at the site ends, according to CWF.

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