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Sunday, October 10, 2004


The discovery provides the opportunity to pay some long-overdue homage to the nameless dead.

By Kevin Miller

Reprinted courtesy of The Roanoke Times

WHITETHORNE - Eighteen people stood silently at the edge of a shallow trench, their heads bowed in deference to bands of dark soil that bear witness to Virginia's turbulent past.

This unremarkable spot - located on a seldom-seen part of a Virginia Tech farm - once was considered sacred, the final resting place for men, women and children who toiled and died on Southwest Virginia's largest antebellum plantation. Time, grazing cattle and neglect had erased nearly every trace of this slave cemetery on the old Kent family plantation, known as Kentland.

But thanks to the rich Appalachian tradition of oral history and a handful of determined local historians, archaeologists recently were able to read enough subtle clues in the soil to pinpoint the cemetery's location on a peaceful bluff overlooking the New River flood plain.

The discovery marks the beginning of a long-term project to restore the plantation's historic sites. It also gave this group of local residents - some of them the descendants of Kentland slaves - the opportunity to offer the nameless dead some long-overdue homage.

"As they suffered as slaves, Lord Jesus," the Rev. Robert Jones said in prayer, "there is now no more pain."

Located near the "horseshoe" bend in the New River, the Kentland farm owned by Virginia Tech encompasses more than 1,700 acres as rich in history as they are in nutrients for crops.

Anna Smythers-Stitt, a Radford University student and
Virginia Department of Historic Resources intern, sits
in a trench as she cleans a grave site at Kentland farm.
(photo by Gene Dalton)

Humans have inhabited and farmed the land for hundreds and possibly thousands of years, drawn by the soil and a natural ford in the New River that allows for easy crossing. In the 1700s, the property was a gateway to the unchartered west for white frontiersmen. The New River Valley's first recorded white homestead was located at what is now Kentland in the mid-1700s.

James Randal Kent came into possession of the property in the early 1800s when he married Elizabeth Cloyd. Their crop and livestock plantation would become the largest in the western part of the state.

Anywhere from 100 to 300 slaves likely lived on the property at any one time. These forced laborers built the elegant manor house that still stands on the property as well as barns, slave quarters, an overseer's house and an existing smokehouse that has African design elements. Slaves forged each brick on site from local materials.

Slaves also cultivated the Kent family's crops, cared for their livestock and served in the manor house. They lived in separate quarters, and when they died, they were buried in a separate cemetery.

"The Kent family, they were deeply religious and seemed to have a more positive relationship with the servants," said the Rev. Jimmie Price, a local historian whose family settled in the area in the 1700s. "But let's face it, slavery was not a kind institution."

Josephine Cowan Scrivenor, who lived in the manor house as a child, said her great-grandfather James Randal Kent treated his slaves well. Several historical texts also state that Kent was beginning to move away from slavery before the Civil War."

"This old gentleman didn't believe in slavery," Scrivenor, who is 98, said while motioning to a portrait of Kent that hangs in her Roanoke home. "He freed them as soon as they were able to take care of themselves." He also built a schoolhouse and other community structures for them, she said.

When slaves were emancipated following the Civil War, the Kent family gave several servants land across what is now McCoy Road. The community the ex-slaves built, Wake Forest, thrived in the ensuing decades, with dozens of households, its own church, stores and schools. Former slaves and their descendants entered the local mines, working side-by-side with whites. They became respected - though still regarded as unequal - members of the Montgomery County community.

Verifying history

Physical evidence of Kentland's slavery past diminished during the early to mid-1900s. The slave quarters that lined the driveway to the manor house were dismantled and the bricks used to build other houses and structures in the area, Price said.

Memories of where the slave cemetery was located also faded with time. Price, Tech associate professor Sam Cook and several other local historians have tried to piece together the oral histories of the Kentland slaves passed down to descendants, many of whom still live in the area. Using these histories, the group identified two spots on ridges above the manor house as potential locations of the slave cemetery.

After months of waiting, Cook and the group received a grant from the New River Valley Community Foundation and permission from Tech's agriculture officials to conduct nonintrusive excavations of the sites. Tom Klatka, a state archaeologist assigned to Western Virginia, arrived in late September to coordinate the excavations.

Klatka employed a simple yet highly effective technique for locating graves without disturbing the potential remains, which are protected by law.

A backhoe dug four shallow trenches, two on a lower ridge and two on a ridge close to a grove of trees near the top of the hill. Klatka then directed a team of volunteers - most of them archaeology or anthropology students at Tech and Radford University - that began the slow, careful process of shovel-scraping and then troweling the bottom of the trench to produce a smooth, level, dirt surface.

Kathryn Ward listens to state archaeologist Tom Klatka
while mapping the Kentland farm cemetery.
(photo by Gene Dalton)

The group was looking for slight changes in the color, density and organic make-up of the soil.

"When they dug a grave shaft, they dug through three layers of soil, placed the coffin in the ground and then back-filled, so the soil is mixed," Klatka said.

Grave shafts appear as thick bands of dark, often rocky soil, creating a clear contrast with the smooth, yellowish subsoil.

The location of graves in the two lower trenches dug at Kentland were clearly visible to even the untrained eye. One trench contained the darker soils indicating four graves. The second trench contained at least eight graves, including a cluster with a child-sized grave shaft.

Klatka's team, still examining the two upper trenches late last week, marked and mapped the location of each grave in the trenches, which soon will be refilled. Although Klatka said that he would like to excavate the entire field, the grant money only covered the preliminary study.

Tom Klatka and Kathryn Ward work at the site
where slaves were buried at Kentland Farm
(photo by Gene Dalton)

"The main thing was just to verify that the cemetery was here," he said. "It would be nice to get some information as to the boundaries, but the cemetery may be quite large."

"This is just a great archaeological moment when you can verify oral history," Cook said.

A future monument

After confirming the presence of the graves, Cook and Price arranged for a small group of Wake Forest residents to view the site.

The residents wandered between the trenches for several minutes last week, pointing out to one another the grave shafts, before Jones, a Baptist minister in Blacksburg, gave an impassioned prayer thanking God for the lives of the people buried on that hill. Several people wiped away tears during the ceremony.

Henry Eaves, a lifelong resident of Wake Forest, worked the crop fields in the flood plain below as a youngster, but never knew of the cemetery's existence.

"Everybody is really amazed that somebody showed enough interest to just come out here and find it for us," Eaves said. He said he had heard from his relatives that it existed. "But to walk out and see this . . . "

Esther "Queen" Jones, the oldest resident of Wake Forest, also praised the work.

"I think it would be important not only to the Wake Forest community, but to the whole community," Jones said. "I think history is very important."

Present and past Wake Forest residents hope to erect a stone monument memorializing the servants on the farm road passing below the cemetery. Several residents said that one day they would like to mark every grave and fence off the boundaries of the cemetery.

Cook is organizing a "Community Day" on Oct. 23 to bring together residents of the local community.

A place of dreams

But the plans of Cook and others do not end with the cemetery.

Cook, who teaches Native American and Appalachian studies at Tech, received another grant to record oral histories of Wake Forest, McCoy and Long Shop residents as part of research on residents' sense of identity and the role that the former plantation played in their lives.

Cook is hoping to raise additional money to restore the manor house, which is in good overall condition considering its age, but needs some work. Ideally, the university could use the plantation house to host retreats or small conferences, he said.

Cook also would like to put the property to use educating the public about the region's rich history, emphasizing the different cultures - from Native Americans to white plantation owners and their slaves - that lived on and farmed the land.

"We really want to use this site as much as possible as a place of historic representation," Cook said.

"A place like Kentland inspires a lot of dreams, and the potential out there is pretty limitless," Price said. "Kentland has been a crossroads for cultures . . . and it still is. There is something about Kentland that draws people together.

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