Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Genealogy Lesson 23 - Finding old cemeteries

One of the most exciting parts of genealogy is finding the grave of an ancestor.  We know that in 90% of the cases, a grave exists somewhere for everyone who has ever lived.  Obviously some people are cremated and scattered while others are perhaps buried at sea.  No matter how our bodies are disposed of, everyone's Earthly remains have to go somewhere.  We may not be able to find a photo of our great-great-grandfather but we should be able to find his grave...he is out there somewhere, not going anywhere.

Let's pretend that you come across an old family farm and rumor has it that an abandoned cemetery exists somewhere on the property.  Time has taken its toll on the site and the current residents are not sure where the cemetery is located.  You might feel that all hope is lost but do not fear!  There are several things you can do or look for that will help to locate the cemetery.  You might not find actual tombstones but you will probably be able to at least find some graves.

The first thing you need to do is to determine where the original house was located.  Maybe it is the same as the existing house or perhaps an old foundation can be found on the property.  Once this is determined, try to find any old wells on the tract.  Ask the current owner for their location or simply look around for visual signs - old pipes, a pump house, a concrete cover, etc.  If you find a well, you can rest assured that the cemetery is not within 100 feet.  This distance was typically maintained to prevent contamination of the drinking water.

Look around the property, and follow the tree line with your eyes.  If the trees are fairly big, that was probably the original tree line.  If the trees are fairly small, you may have to look deeper into the woods to find larger trees.  This is important because many years ago, people put as much of their land into crops as possible.  In Virginia, they would plant tobacco right up to the front steps.  Tobacco was so valuable that no spot was wasted.  With that in mind, most cemeteries were placed just inside of the woods, along the tree line.

Once you identify the original tree line, walk around and look for lines of cedar trees.  Most family cemeteries had wooden fences around them, to keep out the cattle.  Cows love to rub up against tombstones, to scratch their sides.  This could do a lot of damage so fences were typically constructed.  Over time, the fences fell into disrepair but in most cases their outlines can still be found today!

Birds love to eat the berries off cedar trees.  They fly around and land on fence rails, to get a little rest.  While sitting on the fence, birds tend to relieve their bowels and therefore pass cedar berry fragments onto the ground.  These berries are obviously well-fertilized and tend to grow well, right along the fence line.  Since the trees are alive and the fence is dead, the trees remain long after the fence is gone.

Once you find a line of cedar trees, start looking on the ground for flowers or bushes that do not belong in the woods.  Many times, family members would plant things in a cemetery for decoration and surprisingly, they can survive to this day.  I see daffodils and tulips in the woods all of the time.  Also keep an eye out for periwinkle.  This is a low-growing, blue-violet, flowering, vine-like shrub.  It very frequently grows in old cemeteries and can take over the entire area.  It can blanket an entire graveyard and keep its tombstones from view.

All of these factors are leading you in the right direction but it is time to prove that the cemetery really exists.  Short of seeing actual tombstones, you may need to go poking around - literally. 

When dirt is disturbed, as in the case of burying a body, the ground never really settles.  It will always be softer than undisturbed dirt.  If you take a pointed, metal rod, you can pick it up and drop it on the ground in different spots.  When you hit undisturbed ground, the pole will not sink much.  If the ground has been disturbed, the pole should sink noticeably.  Now, I am not suggesting that you drive down six feet and try to find a coffin, but I am telling you that the outline of a grave can be located in this manner.  If you get lucky, you may even hit a buried tombstone.

The steps I have described are not magic bullets that will guarantee that you will locate a lost cemetery.  However, in my years of experience, these are good steps to take when trying to find an old graveyard.  But, before you go romping around in the woods, I will offer you a few warnings.  Always get permission from the current landowner and check local laws about poking around in cemeteries as some states may forbid you from disturbing the dirt even a little bit.  Be aware of your surroundings - don't go falling into that old abandoned well.  Also, do not go walking around in the woods during hunting season...just use common sense. 

Once you discover an old cemetery, talk to the current land owner before you try to clean it up.  Your family may have some legal rights to the cemetery but stay on the landowner's good side.  You will probably have to use their land to access the cemetery so it is better to be friends rather than enemies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What informative ideas for looking for a grave... Now I know one reason I often see flowers/plants, etc. that are out of place in wooded areas. Thank you for some new ideas for my next search.