In Canterbury, a freed slave who became a war hero leaves a lonely legacy 

  • The headstone of Sampson Battis is tucked away in the far corner of the cemetery near the town center of Canterbury.

  • Mark and Doris Hampton join others for their weekly Black Lives Matter demonstration across from the Canterbury town center on Saturday, July 25, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mark and Doris Hampton join others for their weekly Black Lives Matter demonstration across from the Canterbury town center on Saturday, July 25, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Bill Adams holds up a privilege sign at the Black Lives Matter demonstration near the Canterbury town center on Saturday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Mark and Hampton join others for their weekly Black Lives Matter demonstration across from the Canterbury town center on Saturday, July 25, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mark and Doris Hampton join others for their weekly Black Lives Matter demonstration across from the Canterbury town center on Saturday, July 25, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mark and Doris Hampton join others for their weekly Black Lives Matter rally Saturday across from the Canterbury town center. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 7/30/2020 3:44:49 PM

Ironically, the late Sampson Battis, honored along with Black Lives Matter last weekend in downtown Canterbury, had the worst seat in the house.

A Black soldier who fought bravely during the American Revolution, he lay alone, deep in Center Cemetery, about 200 yards away, down a steep, long grassy path.

Residents in town, though, now know where it is. With Black Lives Matter providing an emotional charge, sign-carrying supporters gather each Saturday in the heart of town, and Battis’s headstone – isolated from the other markers, all of which stood in groups far closer to the town center – has been cast under a spotlight. People here want to know their history.

And his.

“Many people had never heard of him, except from old town history,” noted Rob Scarponi, the head of Canterbury’s Historical Society.

“That’s really old, so this has brought it to light, with Black Lives Matter giving it even more significance. There’s a real connection for us, about a person from Canterbury who served his country well.”

Battis’s grave marker undoubtedly brings pride to the African American community. It certainly does that for the really white town itself. Its placement, though, suggests segregation, the cemetery perhaps serving as the city bus in the 1950s, the remote resting place the equivalent of a seat in the back of the bus.

“He’s buried at the cemetery in a grave that is way, way back, as though he had been segregated because of his color,” Scarponi said. “I cannot prove it, but it’s odd to be buried there.”

But while there’s no official documentation explaining why Battis’s tombstone is so lonely, Mark Stevens knows just about everything else about the man.

He’s the Center Cemetery Historian, appointed by the town’s select board. Stevens was way ahead of the curve, honoring Battis long before the country saw George Floyd die on TV two months ago.

He absorbed anything and everything he could about this unique individual. He spoke during the town’s Memorial Day activities. Spoke about Battis and no one else.

That was 2011.

Stevens read the words he’d seen on Battis’s stone, just 200 yards away, yet seen by few if any in the crowd that day:

Sampson Battis, Head’s Company, Reynolds’s New Hampshire, Rev. War.”

Then he mentioned that Battis’s slave owner, Col. Archelaus Moore, offered Battis his freedom and 100 acres of land bordering the Northfield town line if he’d join the fight for independence against England.

He said Battis was a special soldier, reading, “Legends exist that suggest that his service may have been above and beyond the call of duty on occasion. One legend tells that the French liaison officer, General Marquis De Lafayette, serving as an adviser to General George Washington, was injured in battle and Sampson helped to carry Lafayette from the battlefield.

“Many years later, in 1825, on a celebratory victory tour of America, General Lafayette returned to Concord and recognized the now aging Sampson in the crowd.”

Stevens also said that Battis married a former slave, whom he purchased to secure her freedom. He raised a family on what was then called New Guinea, the 100 acres in Canterbury that he’d earned from his service.

Then, Battis sort of faded away. Happens sometimes.

“Nothing had been said since that Memorial Day cemetery speech,” Stevens said by phone, “until this group organized and starting doing that vigil each Saturday morning.”

The group included people like Doris Hampton, her husband, Mark Hampton, Bill Adams and Greg Heath. They saw the Floyd video. They saw a country react. They sought information about Battis.

They needed to be heard and seen.

“There was no anticipation of what this would lead to,” said Doris, standing with her sign last Saturday, along with about 15 others whom she recruited. “I needed to be here, and I’ll continue to do this to support the Black community.”

The pandemic has scared some middle-aged and elder citizens away from official Black Lives Matter events. “The alternative was to stand here,” Doris said.

They’ve stood each Saturday since Memorial Day. Since Floyd.

They gather at the intersection, sometimes 35 strong, that features the cemetery on one side, with its countless markers near the street site, high on a hill, and the Canterbury Country Store on the other side, serving as the perfect American backdrop for this organic program.

It’s not a big deal, really. Not in size, anyway. But the feelings that have camped out in the minds of locals have been too powerful not to act.

Adams, who seemed like a caring gentleman, readily admitted that he needed a kick in the butt to speak for others. To stand for equal rights. He said something about an ostrich’s head and sand.

“This challenged me,” Adams told me at the rally. “I am a privileged individual, and this taught me how bad racism really was.”

“There’s a long history and we know nothing about it,” added Doris. “We must understand this. It’s not just a white man’s world.”

Part of this new enlightenment included a tour, led by Stevens, earlier this week, showing land Battis once owned and, of course, his final resting place, isolated deep, deep, deep inside the cemetery, down an embankment, near the end of a stone wall on the south end.

The headstone is a fading gray, tinged with green algae. There are some weeds, an American flag, like other old stones there.

But this one is nowhere near the clusters of markers that are all over the place. And I’ll bet a $1 that Sampson’s final resting place was, indeed, chosen for its distance from everyone else. Perhaps, though, that fact is less significant than it used to be.

Or more.

Perhaps, noting that Sampson was separated by white society will work in a different way. As a reminder. As an easy way to wonder – then learn – about a soldier ignored for too long.

Maybe he’s fine right where he is.

“Some say he has the best view of the cemetery,” Doris said.


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