Thursday, February 4, 2021

Researching Disappeared Cemeteries?


Lebanon, PA, Aug 1992

9 Hints & Tips to Unearthing the Interred
Although the following hints and tips below are relevant for the general reader, know that in honoring Black History Month, this post emphasizes African American examples.  The hints and tips, research collections and repositories, are used for our Irish, German, Swedish, etc. as well as African American ancestors.  Each community and era had its own set of circumstances and influences that shaped disappearing burials. 

Was your Ancestor Buried on Church Grounds
Below I have put an examples of an early lost Freedmen Cemetery in New Orleans, and an example of an unknown Swedish Cemetery in Hickory County, MO. 

As mentioned, the repository search strategies are similar. For example, the location of both churches are unknown. The sacrament’s record books, to include deaths & burials, may have been held in the home of the ministers or held in the home of heirs. The obituary and death records name the  “Sweed [Swede] Cemetery.” Yet, the cemetery no longer exists.  It appeared to be incorporated in the Fairfield Cemetery. The location is sketchy.

May 1868, New Orleans

This is the same scenario is often found when research a Slave Cemetery, African Cemetery, Freedmen Cemetery, Colored Cemetery, Black Cemetery or Negro Cemetery. Same cemetery but naming depends on the era. Was the cemetery grown over or was it cemented over in place of the new interstate or a shiny building? What was the norm? Were the burials removed and / or reinterred? This is not to say an occasional cemetery from any group could have been co-oped into the city limits but the recovery of the burials, as a norm, may have differed.

From Slavery to about WWII
Like many towns in America, cemeteries should be assumed to have been segregated across America until the late 1960’s. Often researchers will find a “black interment section” in the local cemetery - dedicated for the black locals. 

Prior to the Civil War, deceased slaves and free coloreds were often buried on the land of a slaveholder.  Free coloreds may have been buried with the slaves of an employer or a white benefactor, if not in a plot of a local cemetery or a church plot dedicated for freed black citizens. 

Researchers may cross a Freedmen Cemetery in the books, newspapers, old court documents, etc.  However, in spite of pinpointing the noted plat usually through deed tracing, the cemetery no longer stands in its purported location. Many times there is no proof that a cemetery ever existed.  The Freedmen’s Cemetery of old may have been paved over for an interstate, the expansion of the city roads, or a building, etc. 

One notion that must be considered in research is that a cemetery may appear too small for the number of burials.  Know that often coffins were stacked underground.  The north and south engaged in this practice. There was a horrifying story about a 4 layer cemetery, often with no coffins in Pennsylvania. Other cemeteries were just upended for modernization; and the bodies were not removed or reinterred. 

Colonial People of Color – the North

The Ancient Burying Ground Association of Connecticut uncovered stories of interred people of color: both African Americans and Native Americans. The Ancient Burying Ground Association proved  many of these early colonists also served in the Continental Navy for their freedom and the freedom of this nation. 

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Weston, MO

We are seeing similar efforts across America. Recently Weston Missouri identified and memorialized 400 ex-slaves buried in the Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Fort Scott, Kansas has recently launched similar efforts for the “colored” Mayhew Cemetery.  

How to Research the Disappeared Burials?
Where and how to locate missing cemeteries can be challenging when the graves no longer exists, the cemeteries were removed, and records were never maintained. Here are a few tips to reconstruct your ancestor’s final resting place:

Mayhew Cemetery, Ft. Scott, KS

  1. Wilkes-Barre, PA May 1933
    Death Certificates and Obituaries
  2. Newspaper Search: be sure to check the black newspapers of the closest cities. Hutchinson, Kansas black residents, often posted in The Call paper, Kansas City, or the black Topeka, KS paper, and even the Tulsa or Oklahoma City black papers.  Whereas only a death notice was posted in the local Hutchinson, KS paper the idea was to reach relatives who lived and worked in the larger cities.
  3. Church Records, if applicable
  4. Land Deeds: tracing the land deeds may give the researcher the inheritance of the church land which may lead to hints of who may have church records, or any court records associated with constructing on top of the cemetery burials. This was the case with a small black cemetery in Charlotte, North Carolina.
  5. Archives and Historical Societies: be sure to check State and County repositories
  6. Funeral and Coroner Records: newer funeral homes may still house a previous owner’s records. Coroner records may still be held at the local courthouse.
  7. Sexton Records
    The Sexton and Gravedigger in Anthony Kansas opened a book and flipped to the early burials  of the black citizens. Matter of fact, he was the only one who knew the location of every unmarked plot.
  8. Estate Records (of slaveholders or heirs). They may not tell where your ancestor is buried, but it will help narrow when the died. This is seen when a minor was to inherit a slave, but by they time the heir became of age the slave died. The family noted this tragedy (the heir not getting a slave) and managed to come up with an acceptable solution.
  9. Military Records and Pension Files may include where a soldier was interred
Be Historically Correct 

Kathleen Brandt
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