Former slave owner's grave eerie reminder of tragic period
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
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.