Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Must-Read: Finding the Henry Brock family cemetery of Henrico County, Virginia

If you only read one post I write this year, let this be the is going to be a good one if I do say so myself!

The other day I was out Christmas shopping when I passed by an old conquest of mine...the Henry Brock family cemetery.  I like to say that I "found" it but I am sure it was never really lost.  The information to find the cemetery was there all along, someone just had to take the time to piece it together.  Let me give you some background on the Brock family.

Henry and Mary Ann Griffin Brock were my great-great-great-grandparents.  Henry was born around 1791 and grew to be a prosperous farmer in western Henrico County, Virginia.  His two-hundred acre farm was located on Old Coal Field Turnpike, later known as Broad Street Road.  At the time Mr. Brock purchased his land, that portion of Henrico County was rich in coal - hence the road's name. There were several active mines in and around the area.

The Brock homestead was demolished at some point, perhaps at the time of the road's widening in the mid-1950s.  Situated on present-day West Broad Street, I believe that the former Brock land is occupied by the current Virginia Home for Boys (8716 West Broad Street).  From an aerial photograph, it appears the Boy's Home tract is the approximate size and shape of the Brock property.  I believe that the old homestead was situated where the Home's main entrance sign exists today.

Now, I will admit that I have never sat down and fully traced the deeds from Henry's ownership of the land to the modern day.  The main tract was divided multiple times and I am sure it passed through many hands. The fact if I was right or wrong about the homestead's exact location was not overly important in this case.

My main interest was to locate a family cemetery, noted on the following land plat.  You can click on this scan to see a larger version but it is still hard to read.  What you will see are two tracts of land, one large and one small.  The smaller tract has a note that states something along the lines of "1/2 A. Res-erved for a grave yard."  The area is boxed off as a perfect square, right along the property line.  There is also a note that states something like "52 1/2 Acres of Woodland situated about 6 3/4 miles east of the Home Tract."  Again, the exact acreage and mileage is hard to read but I know that there is a cemetery within say 10 miles of the home the east.

In this case, exact figures did not matter too much.  I knew in my brain, roughly where the different Brock families lived over the generations.  I knew that Mary Ann Griffin Brock's family owned land near the county courthouse.  With that in mind, I started looking at a modern county map for features that matched the Brock plat.  I knew that the southern boundary of the property adjoined "Old Coal field Turnpike, now Broad Street Road."  Broad Street Road stretched from the city of Richmond, all the way through Henrico County and into Goochland.  I am sure it goes further than that, but I digress.  I needed to look to the north of Broad Street (they now drop the word Road from the end in Richmond and Henrico but still use it in Goochland).

The original plat was drawn in 1857 so I was sure a lot had changed.  A few things I noticed about the plat, for one was its shape.  It was narrow at the bottom and spread out toward the top.  It was also pretty regular in shape, the sides did not vary much.  I also saw that, to the west, was a road of sorts.  The road was not drawn the entire way down so it may either have curved off or stopped.  I also noticed the branch that flowed in the middle of the tract and forked off.  When it comes to creek branches, they can be a little deceiving.  What constituted a branch was subjective.  It could have been a tiny ditch or a large stream.  I think the key was that the body of water remained somewhat constant in shape and size and the water actually flowed, it did not tend to sit stagnant.  With that in mind, I kept an eye out for creeks on my modern map but I did not fixate on their being a creek.

After following Broad Street from Richmond toward Goochland, something caught my eye.  It was a tract of land, the scale seemed about right and the shape looked pretty close.  I did not see any creeks, although they could be hidden in the tree line.  There is a pond or lake near the tract so maybe the branch was diverted into a larger body at some point.  There appear to be neighborhoods in the direction from which the branch was running so maybe they did away with the water when the houses were built?  Take a look for yourself and see if you think the plat and this aerial view match up?

I went ahead and finished looking up Broad Street and never found anything else that seemed to fit.  I thereafter zeroed in on this spot being the Brock home tract.  It was definitely in the area I knew later generations of the Brock family lived, so I felt pretty good about it.  With my newly discovered information, I went down to the Virginia Historical Society to check out their map collection.

The Virginia Historical Society has a great collection of Civil War-era maps from Virginia, known as the Gilmer Collection.  I wrote an article about the GilmerCivil War Maps of Jeremy Francis Gilmer

The Gilmer maps show, in great detail, the outline of personal property boundaries and give the name of the various landowners.  I obtained the map for Henrico County, Virginia.  I cannot remember the exact date of creation but the map was probably drawn between 1861 and 1865.  Luckily, I was able to locate "Mrs. Brock" on the map with R. Ford as her neighbor.  The shape of the land was similar so I knew I was on the right track.  In this drawing, there is a creek but it is shorter and does not fork off.  Maybe the creek started drying up between 1857 and say 1865?  Now, keep in mind that Gilmer's maps were not scientific.  He did not survey the land necessarily so his maps are more artistic than scientific.

As a side note, Gilmer maps are protected property of the Virginia Historical Society.  I am including this tiny portion of the map, so you can see Mrs. Brock's name and to let you get a general feel for how the maps look.  The Historical Society sells posters of the maps at a reasonable price.  If you are interested in the history of a specific Virginia county, you should seriously think about ordering a Gilmer map if it is available.  You can check out their website here:  Virginia Historical Society Gilmer Maps

With the Gilmer map, we can see more roads and even a set of railroad tracks.  However, if you notice, the railroad tracks are actually just a spur that goes to the Springfield Coal Pits.  Perhaps that set of tracks was allowed to decay once the coal pits closed up?  

So, once again, there was nothing to say the Brock home place was located where the Boy's Home current sits.  However, looking at the overall modern map, I knew I was in approximately the right area on the modern version.  Remember, I was looking for the cemetery, not the home tract so precision was not required at this point.  I only needed a rough starting point.

Once I decided on an approximate location for the Brock home place, I took a stickpin and placed it where the house would possibly have stood.  I took a piece of string, and using the scale of the map, cut a piece that was approximately ten miles long.  I tied a pencil to the string and drew a twenty mile circle (ten on each side) that featured the "Brock farm" at the center.  I then cut the circle out and folded it in half, bring east and west together.  I opened the circle and cut it down the fold, leaving me with the eastern half of the circle.  My cemetery should be somewhere in that half.

What happened next was almost comical now that I look back on it but I had no idea how this would unfold at the time...

I was at the archives one day,  talking to one of my buddies who works there.  I mentioned that I was looking for a family cemetery in Henrico County.  He told me that a woman, representing perhaps the Henrico County Historical Society, was compiling a book of all the county cemeteries.  It has been awhile since this happened, so my memory is a little fuzzy.  I think I gave him my name and number to pass along to the woman when she came to the archives.  A little time passed and, if I remember correctly, she called me.  We spoke on the phone for just a few minutes and she asked what family was I looking for.  The second I said Brock, she said there was a Henry Brock cemetery near the county courthouse...and my jaw dropped!

She told me that the cemetery was noted on the official tax map for Henrico County as the "Henry Brock Family Cemetery."  It was located in an apartment complex but she was never able to find it for herself.  She also told me of another cemetery in the complex but that one had been found.  Here is a photo of that cemetery and its one stone.

Getting back to my story...  After thanking the woman, I got off the phone and went straight to the apartment complex.  I walked all over the place and could not find anything.  There is a hospital next door so I went over there, asking if anyone knew of a cemetery in the area.  I was told that a cemetery was in the hospital parking lot, in a bricked section, but I knew that was probably not what I was looking for.  Later I found more on that cemetery but that is another story, for another time.

I left that day, dejected because I could not find anything.  I did not give up hope though.  It was a day during the week and I cannot remember why I was not at work!  Anyway, I went to the court house and asked for the personal property tax division.  When I got there, I explained that I was looking for a family cemetery and was told that it was on the tax map.  The woman was very helpful and, in the matter of a few minutes, she was able to produce a map that showed the "Henry Brock Family Cemetery" boxed off.  It was in the apartment complex but it was split into two pieces...that seemed strange to me.  No matter, I was thrilled with the find because now I had a treasure map with an "X" on it.

I do not exactly remember how this part happened, but I am glad that it did.  Maybe I asked her who owned the property but either way she looked it up in the computer.  It turns out that no one owned the land, that it was just tax-free land with no contact person.  I asked if she could put my name on it and, within a few seconds, I was listed as the contact person for the tract.  No paperwork, nothing.  I guess only a relative would be looking for a 150 year old cemetery with no owner on file!

I left the courthouse with all kinds of excitement.  I went back across the street, map in hand.  Surely I would find it now!  But no luck!  All I found was the building on the map and a playground.  I sat there and studied the map for awhile and started to realize that something was not right.  Now remember, I do not know what happened to the land after the 1857 deed, but it looked to me as if that building was built in the middle of the cemetery.  The 1857 tract does not show two graveyards, it shows one half-acre graveyard.  I still, to this day, do not know the answer but it seems to me that building was put up on the Henry Brock family cemetery.  One day I am going to research it and find out for sure.

Anyway, I wanted to find out if the apartment complex people knew anything about the cemetery so I went to the office.  The lady there was not helpful, defensive even.  She refused to talk to me and said I had to talk to the property manager, who was not there.  Again, I do not remember all of the story, but I do not remember the manager ever calling me back.  I finally wrote them a letter and faxed it.  I did not say anything mean or accusatory.  I wanted to make them aware that my family cemetery was basically in their playground.  I also wanted to know what was there when the apartments were built and if any tombstones or graves were moved.  I never received any response.

Time went by and I stopped by the site a few times.  One day I was walking around and I bent over to pick up some trash.  For whatever reason, something caught my eye.  I passed this thing at least ten times and never noticed.  Maybe I was too worked up on my other trips but there, in plain view, was a tombstone.  It is just a rock but it is definitely marking some one's grave.  After all of that time, I finally found the Brock cemetery!  I had no idea who it belonged to or how many people were buried there but I found it!

Years went by and, without asking, the apartment complex moved the playground.  I guess they realized that the land was not theirs so they moved their stuff off of it.  It worked out for the kids who live there because they got a nicer play area in another part of the complex.  I still want to ask about the building...who knows, maybe I will prove they do not own the land that it is built on.  That could open up a can of worms at this point so I have pretty much let it be.  I would like to maybe fence the cemetery one day but that takes money.  It would probably also invite vandalism whereas the cemetery now sits in peace.

So, after all of this writing, what is the lesson to be learned here?  This one is simple...never assume that something is lost.  The Henry Brock cemetery was on the county's main map.  I assumed that it was lost to time and that I had to rescue it in some way.  If I checked with the county first, I would not have needed Gilmer maps, pieces of string and stick pins.  It was hiding in plain sight, I was just to blind to look for it.  Even when I "found" the cemetery, I did not see it.  It took probably five trips before I actually noticed the tombstone!  Overall, it was a very humbling experience.


Apple said...

Congrats on sticking with it - a great find! I'm surprised there was anything left at all and frankly I would have given up long before you did.

Kevin Lett said...

You have to have great patience to find great things. (I sound like a philosopher)!

Cadeho said...

Really great research. I am intrigued. Where exactly did you find it? Also, Broad Street Road was originally the Deep Run Turnpike which ran between Henry Street to Three Chopt Road (that intersection has been destroyed and is now Broad and John Rolfe). I am always interested in tracts of land and researching our history.

Anonymous said...

I am with the Henrico County Historical Society and one of the Cemetery Committee members. What a good story. Wish more could be found like this one. Good work.