EAST HADDAM, Conn. – Archaeologists have begun digging up the 200-year-old graves of a slave family in hopes of separating fact from fiction in the legend of "the black Paul Bunyan."
The dig has the blessing of more than a dozen descendants of Venture Smith who believe science can finally lend credence to the tales they have heard all their lives about the fabulous feats of strength that helped the lumberjack slave win his freedom.
Standing 6-foot-1 by his own account and weighing more than 300 pounds according to local lore, Smith is said to have carried a nine-pound ax and split seven cords of wood each day.
His biography describes him carrying a barrel of molasses on his shoulders for two miles and hauling hundreds of pounds of salt.
Smith's story became one of the nation's first slave narratives in 1798 and is regarded by scholars as one of the most important such works. But slave biographies — particularly those told to writers, as Smith's story was — were sometimes embellished.
Scientists say a look at Smith's remains could indicate his height and weight, his diet and any injuries he suffered during a life of labor. And DNA taken from him, his wife, his son and his granddaughter could help pinpoint where in Africa he was born and corroborate the account of his early life there.
"It could substantiate that these are not fables, stories," said Frank Warmsley Sr., who at 85 is believed to be Smith's oldest living descendent. "They're truths. He was a great man."
Historians and literary scholars say the dig represents a remarkable opportunity — one that could help yield one of the most complete reconstructions of American slave life.
"Of all the early black writers, his is the only grave that we can identify. He is the only one we could try this on," said Vincent Carretta, an English professor at the University of Maryland who studies slave narratives and was the first to compare Smith to Paul Bunyan. "This is extraordinary. There's nothing to compare it to."
Moreover, scholars will have the rare advantage of being able to draw on documentary evidence, too.
Unlike most other slaves, who left behind no records and were buried in unmarked graves, Smith died a free man and landowner with local records to supplement his biography.
"It's absolutely an extraordinarily rare opportunity to have such documentation about one man and his family," said Nicholas F. Bellantoni, Connecticut's state archaeologist. "We can look at the biology and match it up with that history."
Family members and historians believe Smith was born in or around modern-day Ghana. Smith's owner allowed him to work side jobs until, in 1765, he bought his freedom for seventy-one pounds and two shillings, according to his biography, which was based on the story he told to a local teacher. He then saved up to buy freedom for his wife, Meg, and their sons.
He was buried beneath a marked headstone in a small, well-kept cemetery in this riverside Connecticut town.
Archaeologists working beneath a white tent slowly began digging this week. By midweek they had gone about three feet deep, and Bellantoni said it could be next week before they locate the remains.
The remains will not be exhumed. Rather, scientists will take small samples of bone, teeth and genetic material to study. It will take months for genetic results to come back.
The process hit a snag Tuesday when Nancy Burton, a disbarred Connecticut lawyer who has no connection to the Smith family, challenged the dig in court. She said it was disrespectful to Smith's legacy.
A judge denied her request for an injunction and said digging could continue at least until she heard arguments on Friday.
Warmsley said family members were consulted and all agreed that Smith would have wanted them to know their history.
David Richardson of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, a British group helping support the dig, concurred.
"He wanted the world to know his story. It was a story of optimism and hope, of someone who was brought from Africa as a slave but nevertheless freed himself and built a new life," Richardson said. "In a way, we're carrying on what Venture himself wanted to accomplish."