Cousins Teresa Vega and Patricia Bryant chat every day. Every day since they met, that is. Teresa and Patricia just met in August after each of them enlisted Ancestry.com to learn about their roots.
The cousins – 5th cousins to be precise – took the first step to learning they were both descendants of original Greenwich Settlers after they sent their mouth-swab kit to Ancestry.com.
“Through DNA we found out we have Lyon cousins,” Teresa said during a visit to Greenwich last week. “When you spit in a tube, you get back a list of cousins,” she said. “It’s indisputable that we connect to the Lyon family. The DNA is undeniable.”
Ancestry.com provides connections with cousins back to the 5th-8th cousin ranges. “Most of our Lyon DNA cousins fall in the 5th-8th range as expected,” Teresa said of her and Patricia’s findings on Ancestry.com.
As their journey down the path of friendship and kinship began, their curiosity about their ancestors took some surprising turns. While Teresa lives in New York City and Patricia lives in the Greenwich area, their path led to Byram where they believe their relatives are buried.
An African-American cemetery, referred to on some charts as “colored cemetery,” is part of a trio of adjacent old cemeteries that also include the Byram Cemetery and the Lyon Cemetery. All command water views in an area of expensive real estate.
While many people would be surprised that there was slavery in Greenwich and other parts of Connecticut, it is a fact of history.
In a documentary study commissioned by the Town of Greenwich, it is noted that the Byram African-American cemetery has no standing headstones, but that that is not unusual at burying grounds used by enslaved peoples, and many cemeteries in the northeast lack such headstones.
According to the documentary study, African traditions transported to the New World often involved placing items of importance on graves, but not headstones, which is a European custom not often assumed by the enslaved population.
On the north fork of Long Island, in the hamlet of Orient, a historic slaves burying ground is an example of what might be done in Byram. In “Oysterponds,” some 20 slaves were buried with the remains of Dr. Seth H. Tuthill, proprietor of “Hog Pond Farm” and his wife Maria.
The burying ground is surrounded with a low stone wall, and a marker erected by the Oysterponds Historical Society says that it was the slave owners’ wish to be buried with their former servants.
“We don’t have the benefits of normal geneological paper trails,” she said. “We’re forced to look at inventories, wills, and bills of sale to find our ancestors. For example, one will I found referred to leaving an iron and a negro boy to a relative. As tedious as the research has been, Teresa said, “It is a testament that blacks were here, and here from the beginning.”
“My mother and grandmother were from Greenwich and they were descendants of the Merritts,” Patricia said.
Teresa and Patricia’s 4th great grand mother was Peg, who was owned by Daniel Lyon.
In 1790 Lyon sold Peg to Nathan Merritt Junior. Peg had seven sons. Charles Merritt was born in 1791, and Patricia is his descendant.
Peg’s second son, born in 1793, was Jack Heusted. “The Heusted name was one he probably took on later,” Teresa said, adding that The Greenwich Historical Society has his bill of sale.
Teresa said she learned that in Nathan Merritt’s house, Peg gave birth to Charles and Jack, who were fathered by a Merritt. Nathan Merritt Jr was first cousins with Capt. John Green, who owned Anthony Green (Teresas’s 4th great grandfather), and in 1795, Peg somehow ended up back with the Lyons, with Benjamin Woolsey Lyon, who emancipated her in 1800.
In 1795 she gave birth to Anthony Green Junior. In 1798 she gave birth to Platt Green, then Allen Green in 1804, Henry Green in 1809 and Solomon Green in 1810.
By 1810, Peg and Anthony were living as free blacks, though Anthony was not emancipated until 1816. “She was free and he was living with her,” Teresa explained.
“We think Peg and Anthony, not Henry, as he is their son, were mulatto,” Teresa continued. “The mother of Anthony’s slave owner was Mary Merritt Green, the sister of Nathan Merritt, Sr. who took ownership of Henry in 1812. His 1812 letter of indenture is at the Rye Historical Society.
At the time Peg and Anthony were living as farmers. The law at the time was for gradual emancipation. For men that meant a period of 25 years, which was later reduced to 21 years.
“In 1812 they couldn’t take care of their son Henry. He had to serve the rest of his gradual emancipation with Nathan Merritt, Sr,” Teresa said. “It shows they had to be parlaying their contacts.”
Teresa contrasted southern slavery with that in Greenwich. “This wasn’t like slavery on plantations. It was very personal,” she said. “These people had a connection.” Teresa said that even after Peg was emancipated, she came back and had a relationship with the half siblings she was raised with.”
Connecting with Patricia and other distant cousins has been a bonanza for Teresa, who is a passionate blogger on the topic of African-American history in Greenwich. Her blog can be located at www.radiantrootsboricuabranches.com.
“Everyone has been incredibly welcoming,” she said of her newly expanded family. But the research also brought her up to speed on a situation in Byram involving the cemetery where slaves she descended from were put to rest.
In 2014, neighbors on Byram Dock Street encroached on the “colored cemetery,” which appears today to be their side yard. The only problem is that is isn’t.
According to the documentary study the encroachment onto the African-American Cemetery didn’t come to the Town’s attention until. August 2014. The “colored cemetery” separated from the major block of the Byram Cemetery by a massive rock outcrop, lies at a distinctly lower elevation, where, according to the study, “recent land disturbance has occurred in the form of grade cutting, retaining wall installation, rock face removal and soil stockpiling for the improvement of an existing access way to the rear of the private dwelling at 11 Byram Dock Street.”
The property at 11 Byram Dock Street does include a right of way at the back of the cemetery, but the property line ends at the edge of the cemetery. Back in 2014, the zoning enforcement officer was able to issue a cease and desist order, but that was the easy part.
Reached by email, the owner of 11 Byram Dock Street declined to comment but said, “We are cooperating with the Town.”
There is no deed history for the cemetery. In fact, according to Denise Savageau who is part of Greenwich’s recently formed cemetery committee, there are more than 50 abandoned cemeteries in town that lack a deed history.
Savageau commented on the intrusions of the neighbors onto the cemetery. “Did they terrace over the cemetery? Or did they excavate to put in the boulders? We don’t know. The reason no restoration has taken place yet is the town doesn’t own it yet and we want to learn more first, so that we don’t disturb more.”
Ultimately, Savageau said the goal is for any plan to be keeping with the wishes of the descendants and multiple stakeholders with an interest in the cemetery.
“In most cultures, burial grounds are sacred,” Savageau said. “The conservation commission and cemetery committee view this as important. We need to look at all the abandoned cemeteries. They’re all sacred.”
Savageau said that in order to protect the historic African-American cemetery the town must establish ownership. “We’re trying to protect it as a cultural resource so it is critical that the Town owns it.”
So while Greenwich is in the process of acquiring the three contiguous cemeteries in Byram that start at the top of the hill on Byram Shore Road and descend down the rock outcropping, the town lacks authority over the cemeteries.
Meanwhile, Teresa has been working feverishly to compile a list of people who might have been buried in the historic African-American cemetery.
“Since the cemetery thing blew up, it dawned on me that I’m not only related to the people down below the boulder, but also to the people above it. So I called Jo Conboy at the Greenwich Preservation Trust and she said, ‘We’ve been waiting for you.'”
“She said they’d been waiting for someone related to those ‘below’ to show up,” Teresa said, adding that Conboy connected her to Christine Varner, a Lyon descendant who welcomed her to the family. Varner, an only child said she was thrilled to learn of a new relative.
Reached by phone, Conboy said, “The cemetery committee has been very good in trying to restore the cemetery problem and we’re very happy they’re working to save the cemetery.”
Referring to the cemeteries as hallowed grounds for future generations, Conboy said, “This is a direct link to all our settlers. We’re so proud of all this. We at the Greenwich Preservation Trust would like the cemetery acquired so that any further restoration of the cemetery can be overseen by the Town. We want to make sure it is saved and restored to its original site and interpretation in perpetuity.”
“We are late to the cemetery party, but we are here!” Teresa said during an interview with Greenwich Free Press on Sept. 15.
She said she and her relatives seek a fencing off the historic African-American cemetery and a plaque that details the original intention of the Lyon family to set aside a portion of the old cemetery to be dedicated to their slaves and ex-slaves.
Teresa said they’d also like to see a marker to indicate the people buried in the African-American cemetery are some of the earliest black residents of the Town of Greenwich.
“Also, if possible, we would like to see an excavation done that would add to the scientific study of these folks and a proper re-burial ceremony that would involve the community,” she said.
“This is hallowed ground,” Teresa continued. “I want to see it protected, preserved and interpreted. It’s an important link to the past.”
“Ideally there would be some sort of tombstone or monument installed so that this would never happen again,” she added, referring to the desecration of the cemetery.
Likewise, the authors of the documentary study commissioned by the town, Historical Perspectives, Inc, recommend permanently protecting and commemorating the cemetery. “As numerous studies attest to the diminished recollection of slavery s part of the New England historical landscape,the commemoration of the enslaved population and potentially their descendants that lived and died in Greenwich, and particularly on Byram Nec, is imperative.” The study recommends appropriate fencing to prevent further intrusions, and the creation of a monument to reverse the invisibility on the landscape invoked by the lack of headstones and obvious markers.
In the meantime Teresa, who has a corporate job by day, continues her research.
“I am looking at wills from the 1700s to identify Peg and Anthony’s parents,” she said. “Peg is our 4th great grandmother,” she said referring to her and Patricia’s lineage.
Since the cemetery stuff came up out of the blue, when I compared pictures of the cemetery in 2009 and 2012 to now, I consider this a desecration. I don’t care if you lifted one teaspoon of land or a bucket. You have a desecration. As descendants of people buried there, we can’t be neutral. No one’s final resting place should ever be disturbed. End of story,” Teresa said.
The cemetery committee – which includes members of the Greenwich Historical Society, Historic District Commission and Greenwich Preservation Trust – falls under the purview of the Conservation Commission meets this Thursday, Sept 22 at 10:00am at Town Hall.