Saved by Grace, Mapped by Archeologists: historic cemeteries at Blue Ridge Parkway

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RASP archeologists Guy Prentice and Robert Hellmann mapping with a total station.
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A stone chimney once part of a house in a community in Rock Castle Gorge.

Between August 23rd and September 3rd, archeologists from SEAC’s Regionwide Archeological Survey Program (RASP) recorded and mapped cemeteries on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, from Mabry Mill to the northern end of the Parkway at Shenandoah National Park. This stretch of the park mostly runs along the central ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park generally manages 400 feet from centerline on both sides of the majority of the road but Cultural Resource Project Manager Steven Kidd described the Parkway as “a string of pearls,” the 469-mile ribbon of asphalt set at intervals with various overlooks, visitor information stations, interpretive centers, and recreation areas.

For millennia Native Americans camped, hunted, gathered, fished, and quarried stone at places along what would become the Blue Ridge Parkway. Perhaps as early as the 1730s, Anglo Americans and African Americans migrated to the region south from Pennsylvania and west from the Virginia coast and Piedmont. These settlers established homesteads, farms, mills and stills in the mountains and set aside places to bury their dead.

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The Thompson Cemetery.
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Click this image to explore the Mammoth Cave interactive map.

The mapping project was prompted by Blue Ridge Parkway after SEAC published an interactive online GIS map of cemeteries within Mammoth Cave National Park that includes individual grave locations, photos and metadata. It is accessible to members of the public and professionals alike. The data collected during this project will also be made available on the Find-A-Grave website. The information is important to the descendants of those buried in cemeteries in the parks and researchers in fields like genealogy, as well as park visitors and NPS resource managers.

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Yucca can be clues to the location of historic cemeteries at Blue Ridge Parkway.

The cemeteries visited during this mobilization included those marked only by a single undressed flagstone set on end in the woods or a cattle pasture, family plots near abandoned homesteads, multi-family graveyards with various kinds of markers, to large well-organized and maintained community burial grounds with monumental stone signs. Sometimes the most apparent clue to the location of a cemetery were ornamental yucca plants among the poison ivy, greenbriar, and sassafras saplings.

The location of at least each footstone and headstone at each marked grave in each cemetery was recorded. A total station was used in larger cemeteries, and measuring tapes, compass and graph paper  in smaller cemeteries. Photos of each marker were taken and all inscriptions were recorded. No rubbings were made but a mirror was used to side-light weathered inscriptions making them more legible and better defined in pictures.

Certain cemeteries were very clearly situated in a broader cultural landscape that imbued them with a more personal context. For example, the Painter Cemetery was located across the Parkway for the Painter homestead.

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The Painter homestead.
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Headstone of John King, a veteran of the Revolutionary War.
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Headstone of Humphrey Claytor, an African American Confederate soldier.

Some cemeteries stood out for the presence of certain burials. For example, the Wimmer-Poff Cemetery contained the grave of a Revolutionary War veteran. The Reynolds Cemetery contained the grave of an African-American Civil War soldier. Other cemeteries brought to mind questions about the lives and deaths of the individuals buried in them. For instance, do many of the stones engraved with death dates between 1918 and 1920 mark graves of people who perished during the 1918 influenza pandemic?

On the ground, in spite of the tedium of the process, recording each grave felt like an act in memoriam for each individual. Some of the most moving plots were those that contained a couple’s infant children, like the Tates’ who lost three sets of twins; or double headstones for husbands and wives who died decades apart or where only half of a couple was buried.

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The graves of the three sets of infant twins buried by James and Bessie Tate.
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An elaborately incised headstone for a young woman.

While familiar epitaphs like “Gone but not forgotten” were recorded, several unique remembrances stood out; some seemingly ironic like, “Saved by grace, if saved”, others movingly forlorn like, “How desolate our home bereft of thee “. Many professionally carved and inscribed headstones and footstones were recorded as well as a few hand carved field stones sometimes both marking different graves in the same cemetery.

Documenting cemeteries as important historic resources rarely requires justification. They seem to have an inherent significance to all of us; a tacit understanding that can be more elusive when trying to explain reasons for mapping the ruins of a poor farmer’s cabin, an old whiskey still, or a wagon road. But together, these and other elements are parts of historic cultural landscapes that can teach us about what it was like to live and die in the past and how these stories are part and parcel of the big picture narrative of the human experience.

MACA little hope cemetery

Experience the interactive GIS map of cemeteries at 
Mammoth Cave National Park here
 !

Interested in recording historic cemeteries in the Blue Ridge Parkway ?Adopt a Cemetery BrochureLearn more about how you can get involved with the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway here !

Visit the Find-A-Grave website here !Find A Grave logo

3 comments

  1. […]  SEAC archeologists recently completed their first mobilization mapping cemeteries along the Blue Rid… These cemeteries range from single graves seemingly forgotten in the woods just off of the Parkway to regularly arranged and named, well-maintained multi-family graveyards with well-made headstones and regularly refreshed artificial flowers. Others are overgrown plots filled with poison ivy, greenbriar, and poplar and sassafras saplings, with clusters of field stones whose pattern is only manifest when the pin flags are set. […]

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