In 1798, he was 'black Paul Bunyan'

Researchers are digging up the grave of a famous former slave in hopes of exploring his legend.

Published July 29, 2006

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 say they hope science can finally lend credence to the tales they have heard all their lives about the amazing 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 2 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. And DNA could help pinpoint where in Africa he was born and corroborate the account of his early life.

"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.

Historians and literary scholars say the dig represents a rare chance to reconstruct 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 was the first to compare Smith to Paul Bunyan. "This is extraordinary. There's nothing to compare it to."

Scholars also have the rare advantage of being able to draw on documentary evidence. Unlike most other slaves, who left behind no records, Smith died a free man and landowner with 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."