This month I am switching up our usual format to provide you with a two-part Shout Out about the great work happening at the Dennis Farm, an 18th century African American farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. It makes sense to learn more about this amazing place during African American History Month from Denise Dennis, President & CEO of the Dennis Farm Charitable Trust, which is the farm’s 21st century caretaker.
Three Centuries of the Dennis Farm: Looking Forward, Part 1
By Denise Dennis, President & CEO of the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust
The beautiful, 153-acre historical site in Northeast Pennsylvania known as the Dennis Farm illuminates an extraordinary chapter in African American history, while reflecting the story of the United States from the years immediately after the American Revolution to the present. The farm is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (it also has a PHMC historical marker) and its artifacts and photographs are featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC.
To me, though, the farm is personally meaningful because my ancestors settled it more than two centuries ago.
In 1793, when George Washington was beginning his second term as President of the United States, my great-great-great-great grandparents Prince and Judith Perkins, free African Americans from Connecticut, came with their children to what is now Northeast Pennsylvania and purchased land. To put this in perspective, it’s worth noting that at that time, ninety percent of African Americans were enslaved and lived in the South and of the ten percent who were free, very few were landowners. To own land was the key to real freedom.
Before the Revolutionary War, the upper tier of Pennsylvania was a part of Connecticut and the region’s first non-Native American residents were Connecticut colonists who built homesteads in Wyoming Valley. In fact, soldiers from the region who fought in the Revolution served in the Connecticut Line of the Continental Army. After the war, the Treaty of Trenton (1799) determined that the region would be a part of Pennsylvania.
The Perkins family was one of the first Connecticut families to settle in the mountains north of the Wyoming Valley settlements. With money he earned in the Revolution for fighting for the town of Norwich, CT, Prince Perkins (1750-1839) made his first land purchase in Tunkhannock and two purchases later, bought the farm were he lived until his death in 1839. In the mid-nineteenth century, following the death of his son and heir William Perkins, Prince Perkins’ granddaughter Angeline Perkins Dennis (1832-1873) and her husband Henry W. Dennis (1815-1882) expanded the farm and passed it to subsequent generations.
Henry Dennis, whose parents were originally from Massachusetts, was a Vermont-born free African American whose family came to Pennsylvania in 1818. His father, James Dennis (1774-1862), was a teamster in the War of 1812, recruited by a young Vermont lieutenant, Thaddeus Stevens, who later became a US Congressman from Pennsylvania and a champion of civil rights for African Americans. James Dennis’ birth, August 14, 1774, is the first one recorded in the Dennis Family Bible.
Today, my Perkins and Dennis ancestors are resting in the Perkins-Dennis Cemetery on the farm’s woodland hilltop. The Perkins’ son-in-law, Bristol Budd Sampson, also a veteran of the Revolutionary War (d. 1848) and the husband of their daughter, Phoebe Perkins Sampson, is also buried in the cemetery, along with other family members. Sampson became blind after the war and received a pension for disabled veterans from 1821 until his death, after which Phoebe received widow’s benefits.
The farm served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, which ran through Northeast Pennsylvania into upstate New York. Some of the souls who died en route to freedom and a Civil War veteran are buried in the Perkins-Dennis Cemetery, as well. Thus, in this one family cemetery rest African American veterans of the America Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War.
To be continued…
Make sure to come back next week and learn more about the Dennis Farm and how the Trust works toward its preservation. In the meantime, please take a few minutes to hear Denise Dennis talk about the farm at the 2017 PA Farm Show earlier this year.