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Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail
Site #10
Negro Burial Ground
Chestnut Street, between State & Court Streets


Human Bones In colonial Portsmouth, segregation applied in death as in life. By 1705 the Portsmouth government had created a separate "Negro burial ground" outside the riverfront town. It occupied the area west of today's Chestnut Street between State and Court Streets. Records show deaths among Portsmouth blacks were from unhealthy living conditions, malnutrition, and hazardous work. Smallpox deaths are absent because black Americans practiced inoculation, a procedure they had brought from western Africa. Inoculation spread gradually among white Yankees after Boston minister Cotton Mather learned about it from his enslaved Coromantee man in 1721 and told his doctor, Zabdiel Boylston.

West African funerals included processions winding the village, graveside offerings, music and dance to honor and delight the deceased. This style recurred in Boston and Salem, and likely did in early Portsmouth too. By 1760 Portsmouth's core had expanded to the area of the Negro burial ground. The cemetery's use may have been discontinued by the 1790s; by 1813 it was built over. Victorian construction work turned up bones and coffin fragments, suggesting sloppy relocation, or no relocation at all.

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