A Grave Project

Published 2:35 pm Tuesday, March 11, 2014

BUCKINGHAM — As the sun touched the horizon in Buckingham County on February 26th, 1869, a mass of smoldering ruins laid at the foundation of the Thomas Jefferson-designed courthouse. Bricks, burnt wood, and charred papers littered the lawn. About six hours before, the courthouse burned to the ground.

Area residents most likely saw a bright glow from miles around. Flames, whipping through the courtroom and clerk’s offices, burned hot while engulfing names of people inked on birth certificates, land records, marriage records, death records, and court records.

As the smoke rose and disappeared into the air, so did the vital records of Buckingham County. Records of the county dating to its founding in 1761 were lost.

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One hundred and eight years of information, gone in only a few hours.

This event, arguably one of the most profound in the county’s history, was the driving force behind Historic Buckingham Incorporated’s (HBI) Genealogy Committee, which has closed the books on it’s Buckingham Burials project—a 40-year one that has resulted in the identification of over 14,370 graves across the county. Graves of slaves, Revolutionary War and Civil War veterans, and the forgotten with no headstones are now recorded, thanks to the work of the group’s volunteers who have ventured through creeks and hundreds of acres of woods to find and record them.

“I’ve worn the cover off of volume one,” L. Lynne Henshaw, the chair of the genealogy committee, said as she placed the first Buckingham Burials book on her dining room table.

Henshaw took the reins of the work after Janice J.R. Hull, the former chair, moved away. Hull oversaw volumes one and two, while Henshaw did volumes three and four.

Henshaw, who, for about 14 years, served as the Director of the Family History Center at the Church of the Latter Day Saints Chapel, says that Hull turned over 200 cemetery leads to her before she moved away.

“I didn’t really have any problem, they’d just call me,” she said of descendants contacting her regarding undocumented gravesites.

According to Henshaw, HBI started the project in the 1970’s with the first volume being published in 1997.

The process of recording the gravesites and cemeteries is pretty basic. Volunteers get a call about one and they trek through the elements to get to it. They then count the graves, record the information on the tombstones, if they exist, and write detailed notes about the location of the site, along with plotting GPS coordinates of the location. Driving directions are also part of the records, Henshaw says.

“Some of them you have to have four-wheelers to get into,” she described, adding that many times, volunteers had to traverse through creeks and streams to get to the sites.

Breaking the county up into geographic quadrants, volunteers indexed each cemetery using mapping data. “And then it goes into this book,” she said while flipping through one of the bound books that contained one quadrant of information. “And we’ve got 13 of these books.”

Henshaw says when she first started recording the information, volunteers would draw a plat of each cemetery.

Sitting on her living room couch, she showed The Herald a plat she had drawn of the graves at First Liberty Baptist Church. “It had 13 rows,” she explained while pointing to a drawing that displayed each burial plot, symbolized and numbered according to various characteristics.

According to data she gave to The Herald, there are 888 family cemeteries and single graves in Buckingham County, and 82 church and community cemeteries, equaling 14,377 graves that her committee has identified.

“Because the courthouse burned in 1869, it has been our driving force to find and identify the grave of every person buried before that time, as that may be the only record we have of him or her,” the HBI document explains.

When recording and gathering data on family or church cemeteries, Henshaw says she makes contact with either a parishioner of the church or member of the family who can provide information on unmarked gravesites.

“We call them field stones,” she said of the many rocks across Buckingham that represents a burial site.

While most all cemeteries in Buckingham County face east for religious purposes, Henshaw, in her research, found one that’s somewhat peculiar. “I have only found one cemetery in Buckingham County that’s not that way, and there’s a church cemetery over in the woods, and I mean we had to go way in the woods to find it, and it’s (laid out) like a cartwheel.”

Henshaw reports that there are 61 recorded slave cemeteries in Buckingham. She has a large map that depicts where slave cemeteries are, which was donated to HBI from the Buckingham County Afro American Life and History Society.

“All those red dots are cemeteries we had done up to that time. The ones with the orange, that tells you where the slave cemeteries (are),” she said, pointing to one of the slave cemeteries.

Most of the slave burial sites have no markers, but, “Some of their descendants have gone back and actually published memorials to some of these people,” Henshaw cited. “There are slave cemeteries that have 50 or 60 graves in them.”

And looking at the 888 cemeteries in Buckingham, some of the most frequently come across names include Jones, Davis, Brown, and Maxey.

“That’s where all your vital records in the county (were)…We’ve never been able to replace those vital records…” she said of the destruction of the courthouse, which she calls the driving force of the project.

“We just went ahead and did them all,” she said in response to a question regarding only recording those found to have died before 1869, when the records burned.

“If we find a tombstone for someone who was born and or died before that (date), that may be the only record we’ve got of that person and…we feel like we’ve found gold.”

She says that Larry Davis and Mike Duncan were very helpful to the committee’s research, especially because they were both born and raised in Buckingham.

“He and Mike just took over…They were very able because they were both born and raised here…(Mike would be) up the next day loading bread in Food Lion, and in would walk this lady, and (they’d) carry on a conversation and she’d tell him who was buried up there.”

She credits her fellow committee member Mary Ann Haver for assistance as well.

Henshaw added that Davis says the research gets addictive. “And it does,” she agreed.

“We have them all typed up, and now they’re on my computer. This is the Alvis, Booker, and Coleman Family,” she said holding a set of burial records in her hands.

Even though the books have been closed on the project, she says they’re still willing to add their records.

“If somebody wants to say ‘Hey, in the last year, so many people have been buried (at a church),’ we’ll add it to the record we’ve got. We’re not going to publish anymore books.”

While family and slave cemeteries are mostly small in size, she says that the committee found the largest cemeteries at churches. She says Petersville Baptist Church near New Canton has one of the largest ones in Buckingham.

“It’s wonderful,” she said being able to compile the data for HBI.

The large number of private cemeteries and burial grounds has to do with Revolutionary War soldiers and officers being paid in land, rather than money, following the war. “Every planation owner would pick out somewhere to bury their family and someplace to bury the slaves,” she explained.

“Tombstones cost money. And we had a lot of poor white people along the way too, you know, after the Civil War,” Henshaw said, explaining the absence of tombstones from many sites.

Many cemeteries have been destroyed for various reasons, she explains. “I cannot tell you how many cemeteries have been destroyed,” the committee chair shared, even though many locals know that people are buried in some of the areas.

“The farmers didn’t want to maintain somebody else’s cemetery. They’d collect the tombstones and stick them over in the woods someplace and they’d go ahead and plow up the field.”

According to her research, most of the smaller cemeteries aren’t maintained well at all. “There’s opportunity for a lot of that in Buckingham County,” she said of cleaning up and maintaining the cemeteries.

Henshaw, a Mormon, says her religious beliefs fueled her passion to preserve this history. “Part of our religion is determining your family history. We believe in salvation for the dead.”

“I’ve never seen a ghost,” she chuckled after being asked if she encountered anything strange while rambling through the cemeteries. “But, I feel like I’m doing the Lord’s work. I feel good about it.”

Following the interview, Henshaw and The Herald walked through two cemeteries in Buckingham that she and her committee had documented.

“See how they dip. And this one, they put a stone at the head and the foot,” she said, pointing at the ground at a burial site that had a rock in either end.

In the first cemetery we visited, there were only a few headstones and rocks. The vast majority of the burial sites were unmarked, but slight depressions in the ground indicated their presence.

“There’s a Revolutionary War veteran buried around here somewhere,” she explained as she crouched down to one of the stones.

The second cemetery we visited was a slave cemetery. There were only a few rocks, and no headstones. Green grass grew over the wooded area where the bodies rested, and large hardwood trees scattered the holy ground.

“It’s taken countless hours to do this,” Henshaw said as she walked out of the cemetery.

Regarding the final and fourth volume of Buckingham Burials, in which the latest information will be published, she indicates that she is preparing to send the book to the printers. Once printed, the books will be available through HBI’s website, www.historicbuckingham.org.