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Doors to the Past

Sampson Sanders

Former slave owner's grave eerie reminder of tragic period

Zack Pettit
Staff writer

MILTON -- Striding up the rolling green hills in Milton can be a very ordinary and commonplace thing to the average West Virginian, but when it is to see the final resting spot of a man who was a pioneer during pre-Civil War times - it can be that much more fascinating.

High on a hilltop Sampson Sanders, and what is presumed to be his mother, are buried, and as legend suggests, some slaves were also buried here. The hill overlooks the Mud River, his land and the former home of his mother, Martha Green Sanders. Upon arrival, fascination may not be toward the history that surrounds the graves, but at the condition in which they are in.

Sanders' grave lies inside a rusted, iron fence with a tombstone that has been toppled. The area surrounding the gravesite is flush with green grass and foliage, but nothing grows upon the Sanders grave any longer. Brittle twigs bearing no leaves and an absence of grass engulfs the pathetic grave of a man who deserves much more for what he did when he was alive.

According to Carrie Eldridge's book, "Cabell County's Empire for Freedom: The manumission of Sampson Sanders' slaves," Sanders was placed in the top 2.7 percent of slave owners in the South. He was also the wealthiest land owner in Cabell County during the antebellum period.

But the most monumental thing Sanders ever did occurred when he died - he freed his 51 slaves. This was before the Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation, so it was an unprecedented action during such a turbulent time in the nation's history. Furthermore, he also gave them $15,000 in addition to the value each of them were considered to be worth.

The vast majority of the freed slaves left by way of rafts, which also carried the possessions afforded to them by Samson, and headed for Indiana, but before they were able to reach it laws were passed governing free "Negroes." Eventually, they settled in Cass County, Mich., a place that was cheap and very lenient toward black people.

"He left in his will also for the younger ones to look out for the older ones, and he also gave them legal assistance so they could get land without being taken advantage of," Dr. Alan Gould, executive director of the John Deaver Drinko Academy and history professor at Marshall University, said.

Sanders also allowed his slaves, which he never bought nor sold, but inherited, to read, write and cipher, which was against Virginia law. According to Gould, he did not employ any overseers either, but allowed the slaves to work the land and have other jobs.

Eldridge's book also states being a member of the Sanders family was important, and they made their own clothing, had plenty to eat and took pride in having the best crops.

The reason for the terrible condition of the grave site is somewhat of a mystery. No more than 200 feet away a power line tower buzzes, which takes away from the rich, genuine history, and somehow cheapens the entire aura of what should be sacred ground.

Dr. Gould suggests there may have been carelessness among workers on the hill, who may have disregarded the graves in lieu of getting their work done quicker. "We are much more conscious of it today than when that land was developed," he said referring to the negligence possessed by the destroyers of such a valuable piece of history.

 Note:  The link below takes you to the Cemetery Page for
the Sanders Cemetery.

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