No one knows when African Americans first settled at Baxtertown, but in 1848 the Zion Pilgrim Methodist Episcopal Church was built. The church burned and its roof collapsed in 1930; all that remains visible is a grove of trees on the property of Ron Greene.
Greene, a retired social worker, began researching the history of his land in 2010. “I’ve been hearing about a church here for years.” he said. What he discovered inspired him to lead the effort to get the site recognized as historically important.
On Saturday, December 7th, archeologists and a team of volunteers conducted a dig to look for evidence from before, during and after the 82 years that Zion Pilgrim served the community. Hartgen Archeological Associates, whose tag line is “Breaking Old Ground Every Day,” donated their expertise, staff and resources for the dig. Archaeologists Matt Kirk and William Bouchard headed up the Hartgen team.
By 9:30 am, a group of more than 20 people were busy digging and sifting dirt. Copious discoveries of nails, clay pipe stems, pieces of glass and shards of salt glazed stoneware, transferware and creamware were quickly revealed. A family of volunteers with two preteen girls found a thimble. A member of the Hartgen team found a brass looking decorative handle from a piece of furniture.
Seventy-two year old James Atkins, a long time resident of Baxtertown Road, stopped by to tell archaeologist Matt Kirk that he remembered that there once were several graves and a well on the site. Bill Krattinger of the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation looked on, as did Gene Alexander Peters of Sankofa Exhibit Consultants. What appeared to be the remains of a stone and brick wall emerged about ten inches down. Paul and Mary Liz Stewart of the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region in Albany, who put Mr. Greene in touch with Hartgen Archeological Associates, recruited volunteers and worked alongside local enthusiasts.
Baxtertown, two miles east of the Hudson River in Fishkill, Dutchess County, is now only the name of a rural route with a sprinkling of modern residential houses and a few old farmhouses, but it once had a vibrant community life, according to Greene. Scores of families lived in Baxtertown during the late part of the 19th century and into the 20th, he said.
The holy grail of Greene’s quest is to find evidence of the underground railroad on his property at or near the site of the church. His research, which won him the Hudson River Valley Heritage Award last May, revealed that an important early account of the history of the African Methodist Episcopal church refers to Baxtertown’s Zion Pilgrim as being a “station.”
It’s a curious choice of word that has been interpreted to suggest the church may have been a station on the underground railroad. The Zion A.M.E. church was an active participant in abolitionist activities throughout the free states, counting Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, who was born a slave in the Hudson Valley and who later became a powerful speaker for freedom, as members.
With or without an underground railroad connection, the Baxtertown church is of historic importance as a place where an enduring small rural population of free African Americans worshiped for generations. The founding Zion A. M. E. church was established by African Americans in New York City in 1796 in response to what they saw as poor treatment by their white Methodist brethren. Writing in 1884, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Bishop John Jamison Moore described how several black clergy members of the predominantly white John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan were barred from preaching to white worshipers and how this and other acts of oppression led to the the genesis of the new church:
“As the church grew popular and influential, the prejudice of caste began to engender negro proscription, and as the number of colored members increased, the race-friction and proscription increased, which finally overcame the tolerance of the colored members of the M. E. Society…Our brethren and fathers having concluded to seek a change in their religious situation, in 1796, a number of our most influential and intelligent colored members called a meeting at a member’s house…”
The denomination grew quickly in the North, and after the Civil War, also in the Southern states. Officially called the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church—not to be confused with the African Methodist Church which was founded in Philadelphia, although both are referred to as “Freedom Churches”—membership grew from almost 500,000 in 1925 to 1,400,000 members worldwide in 2008.
Although it’s unlikely that an archeological dig would reveal hard evidence of underground railroad activity, it’s hoped the survey will provide a great deal of information on how the site was used by earlier residents and may be helpful in determining when African Americans founded Baxtertown.
Kirk said that he was “very pleasantly surprised at the diversity and [chronological] range of the material culture recovered from the site,” and that additional archeology would be very productive. Maps with new GPS coordinates and suggestions for future excavations will be sent in an end-of-fieldwork letter. Later, an artifact analysis will be conducted, and according to Greene, the New York State Museum will survey the site using ground-penetrating radar in the spring.
Photos: Above, volunteers and archeologists at work; middle, Paul and Mary Liz Stewart screen soil in search for artifacts; and below, revealed stone and bricks. Photos courtesy Enid Mastrianni