African American Gravestone Carver Sebastian “Boss” Hammond

by Nancy Kurtz, National Register Coordinator, Maryland Historical Trust

Drach family headstones near New Windsor

Drach family headstones near New Windsor

Bond family headstones near Uniontown

Bond family headstones near Uniontown

Sebastian Hammond, known as Boss Hammond, was an African American gravestone carver who created master works in eastern Frederick and western Carroll counties from the 1830s into the 1850s.  He is one of the earliest documented African American craftsmen in central Maryland.

In 2001 landowners on the border of Carroll and Frederick counties discovered the 1830s gravestones of two children, along with worked slabs of local stone.  They had found the site where Boss Hammond had produced over 100 gravestones for close to three decades in the 19th century.  Born into slavery sometime between 1795 and 1804 in Liberty District, Frederick County, Hammond began his most productive period around age 30 following his purchase by Col. Thomas Hammond.

The standard style of gravestone Hammond carved from the 1830s into the early 1840s

The standard style of gravestone Hammond carved from the 1830s into the early 1840s

Boss Hammond charged from $10-$14 for a headstone and footstone, the going price for most other stone carvers working in the area.  It is not known how much money he was allowed to keep, but on July 29, 1839, he bought his freedom and within the year had purchased a parcel of land and settled along the Frederick-Carroll County border.  By the late 1840s the price for a headstone and footstone had reached $21, and by 1857 he had bought his wife and eleven children out of slavery.

Hammond’s work is distinguished by dramatic lettering and graceful calligraphic motifs cut into the local dark metabasalt, called greenstone, which was relatively easy to carve but not prone to weathering and splitting.  Hammond’s markers have for the most part survived with sharp, clear lettering, in contrast to the more common and weather-worn marble headstones of the time.  He apparently quarried most of his stone within a half mile of his home.

Hammond worked the gravestones in two basic shapes.  His work until the mid 1840s is characterized by a prominent central lobe and exaggerated concave shoulders, a shape unique to the area.  Later he switched to a simple rectangle with small concave shoulders, a format used by many other local carvers.  According to family tradition and census records, he did not read or write, but worked from information printed by his clients.

Hammond headstone displayed at the Historical Society of Carroll County

Hammond headstone displayed at the Historical Society of Carroll County

The bold and deeply-carved word “SACRED” is the dominant element in most of his designs, spanning the top of the stone.  A calligraphic interlace is usually found in the lobe, with other curvilinear ornamentation filling the spaces and contrasting with the angular lettering.  Another common characteristic is his use of the word “Age” at the end of the text, with an enlarged but delicate “G” flanked by calligraphic designs, providing a counterbalance with the bold “SACRED” at the top.  He framed the text with an incised double border of a wide gutter near the edge and a narrow inner groove.

The square-topped headstone style adopted by Hammond in his later work.

The square-topped headstone style adopted by Hammond in his later work.

This later square-topped stone is from a series with use of the enlarged word “IN” as the dominant design element

This later square-topped stone is from a series with use of the enlarged word “IN” as the dominant design element

No one knows how Hammond learned stone carving.  Historian Mary Ann Ashcraft notes it was common practice to hire out slaves to local craftsmen, and suggests this may be how he learned the trade.

Although the popularity of his work is confirmed by the many families who ordered multiple gravestones, and the 1850 census lists his occupation as “stonecutter,” none of his markers have a death date after 1857, except for a few recycled stones that he or his family may have sold at a later date.  He appears to have concentrated on farming, lime burning and blacksmithing, which would have made him one of the most prosperous African Americans in the area, until 1880, when he was forced to sell most of his land to settle a debt.  He died on March 31, 1893, and was buried in the cemetery at the historic African American church near Taylorsville.

His obituary ran in three local newspapers.  The Frederick News described him as “a venerable and most respected colored citizen,” “one of the most widely known,” and “more than ordinarily intelligent and ingenious, and was for many years a stone dresser and epitaph engraver which he executed with remarkable skill.”  His funeral services were said to have been attended by an unusually large number of both races.

His marker, and that of his wife, are small recycled stones he originally had carved for someone else.  Ashcraft notes, Hammond “hardly needed a memorial, however, for over one hundred gravestones scattered principally in cemeteries along the Carroll and Frederick County border bear eloquent testimony to the man and his talent.”

Sebastian Hammond gravestone, an early stone originally carved for another and recycled after his death

Sebastian Hammond gravestone, an early stone originally carved for another and recycled after his death


The source for this brief history of Sebastian “Boss” Hammond is the the Mary Ann Ashcraft article, Carving a Path to Freedom: The Life and Work of African American Stonecarver Sebastian “Boss” Hammond in Markers XXI, published by the Association for Gravestone Studies: https://archive.org/details/markers21asso.

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