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'They deserve to be respected,' volunteer says Forgotten graves squeezed as open land grows scarcer
The roots Cliff Williams sought as he poked the soil on land just off Middle Sound Loop Road weren't those of the oaks that cover the property.
Instead, he was looking for old branches of someone's family tree, graves forgotten years ago that might lie hidden after the passage of so much time.
The great-great-grandson of a solider killed in the Civil War, Williams has spent the last 10 years working to protect the dead in Southeastern North Carolina.
"I owe it to these people," the 71-year-old retired U.S. Coast Guardsman said. "I was born and raised here and I think they deserve to be respected."
New Hanover County has already lost too many links with its past as it has grown, Williams said. The dead don't deserve to be another footnote on that list.
Armed with historical and cultural knowledge and a four-foot-long poker, Williams looks for clues that the ground might be home to old graves.
A search often starts with a tip, sometimes from a resident whose family has been in the Cape Fear region for generations.
Williams is a member of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans, which, along with United Daughters of the Confederacy, is active in scouring the region for grave sites.
But he said they aren't just out looking for former Rebel soldiers and their families.
"It doesn't matter if it's a white cemetery or a black cemetery," Williams said, his voice rising. "These places need to be protected."
A tip that slaves were buried in some woods just off a bend in the road sent Williams to the wooded Middle Sound site.
He kicked some oyster shells, which he said slaves often used to decorate a burial site because that's all they could afford. Other clues include small wooden markers, depressions in the ground and odd-looking stones.
Thrusting his cemetery probe into the spongy ground just a few hundred feet from a $3 million waterfront home for sale, Williams said the region's climate helps him out.
"The ground only freezes at the freeze line, which for us is usually 6 to 12 inches down," he said.
Even decades later, the soil remains soft enough to push through without much pressure.
"And back in those days, they didn't bury them very deep at all, maybe with a sheet if anything because they couldn't afford boxes," Williams said.
Williams did discover some telltale signs that someone might be buried among the Middle Sound woods, including six "soft" spots.
But Christine Neal with County Engineering said not enough definitive proof - headstones, markers or bones - could be found without calling in an expert to know for sure.
She said, however, that the county has sent letters to the property owners alerting them of the potential burial site.
Williams said that's just fine with him.
He said he's happy being the eyes and ears for the county, letting them know when there's a possibility of a grave site - then fixing up abandoned sites and transferring the remains of Confederate soldiers if the need arises.
While New Hanover has done a good job of documenting its grave sites, Williams said the situation isn't as organized in burgeoning Brunswick and Pender counties simply because they're growing so quickly.
"You can't move without stumbling over grave sites out there," he said of the neighboring counties.
Unlike New Hanover, there also isn't a point person for grave issues in either Brunswick or Pender, which can make protection efforts challenging.
But Williams said he's more hopeful now than when he first started trudging through forests and fields looking for forgotten burial sites, largely because awareness of the state law is increasing and more people are looking out for these old graveyards.
"I think we're holding our ground," he said. "We're not winning.
"But we're not losing like we were before."
Forgotten graves squeezed as open land grows scarcer
The granite tombstone, in remarkably good shape for its age, peeked from the ground as gnarled trees and thick brush crowded in on all sides.
The headstone marks the final resting place of 19-year-old Morris Nichols. The date of his death is listed as 1796.
After brushing the smooth stone with his weathered hand, Cliff Williams poked the nearby ground with his 4-foot-long cemetery probe, a metal rod used to find soft spots in the ground that could show where bodies were buried.
It slipped easily into the soil at several places in the middle of the burgeoning Vineyard West neighborhood just south of Market Street, especially near some faded wooden markers.
“It’s loaded,” Williams said of the heavily wooded plot. “There’s no telling how many people are buried back here.”
But the final resting place could soon be the next-to-final final resting place for the estimated 30 residents of the overgrown cemetery.
The builder of the Porters Neck subdivision, which covers 43 acres and has 67 lots and is connected to the much larger Vineyard Plantation, has asked New Hanover County for permission to relocate the roughly half-acre cemetery to open up the land for development.
With homes going for $500,000 and the cemetery affecting three potential lots, it’s an easy economic decision.
But Williams, a volunteer “cemetery cop,” shook his head at the thought as he pointed out more old gravestones half hidden by the encroaching brush.
“Why would you move it?” said the president of Bellevue Cemetery, another job he jokingly said he doesn’t get paid for. “It’s nothing to help these people out. It’s about helping the developer out.”
Saieed Construction Systems, which is developing the neighborhood, referred inquires to John Clauser, an archaeologist with Raleigh-based Of Grave Concerns, which advises property owners on grave sites. Officials with St. Lawrence Homes, which is selling homes in the subdivision, referred all questions to Saieed.
For nearly as long as Europeans have settled North Carolina, their dead often have settled close to home.
State Archivist Dick Lankford said that in rural areas the Southern folk cemetery tradition of burying the dead, including slaves, on the family property remains legal today.
“We didn’t bury people next to our churches like they did up north,” said Clauser.
But as the living move into formerly rural or agricultural areas, they often run into conflict with the remains of those who preceded them.
Clauser got into the grave business after seeing the scope of the problem while working at the Office of State Archaeology. The trick, he said, is balancing the economic needs of the present with the respect owed those from the past.
“There you have the argument, and there’s no easy answer,” he said. “We can’t save everything, and I don’t think we should save everything. Some cemeteries need to be moved. But what are those criteria? I don’t know.”
New Hanover has about 85 known grave sites, including major cemeteries like Greenlawn and Oakdale. Christine Neal, a supervisor with the county Engineering Department, said that number could increase as development pushes into the largely undeveloped northern section of the county.
The extent of the sites range from a few graves to an estimated 10,000 bodies – most of them the city’s least fortunate residents buried years ago – in the sprawling old Oak Grove Cemetery just south of the Star-News building on 17th Street.
Many were abandoned or forgotten, only to be “rediscovered” when coastal property became desirable for more than crops or timber.
Lankford said in many cases new property owners become “accidental” owners of the ancestors of others.
“When they clear the land there’s a cemetery there that they didn’t intend to purchase,” he said. “It happens all the time. And the problem isn’t going to get better anytime soon because we’re rubbing into areas that we weren’t in before as we move from a rural to a more urbanized environment.”
North Carolina has had laws on the books for decades making it a felony to encroach, desecrate or move a cemetery without permission from government officials, with or without family permission.
Even so, no central agency is tasked with enforcing the rules. And counties, many strapped for cash and personnel, are often unprepared to deal with the issue. The problem has prompted the General Assembly to study whether to strengthen the state’s rules protecting grave sites.
In New Hanover County, Christine Neal is the “grave lady.”
The county Engineering Department might seem a strange place to have someone working to protect the dead.
But Neal said the job fell into her lap because years ago the department, then known as Engineering and Facilities, ran the old Flemington Cemetery off U.S. 421. Today New Hanover maintains five cemeteries.
Beverly Tetterton, local-history librarian with the New Hanover County Public Library, said that years ago, before protection of cemeteries was taken seriously, farmers and developers often would move the headstones, but not the remains, or just plow or bulldoze over sites.
With a chuckle, Tetterton – who used to be the county’s cemetery coordinator – said she wasn’t against calling out the Sheriff’s Office to stop a desecration or to help guarantee access to a grave site for family members.
Both Tetterton and Neal said things have improved in recent years because of increased awareness about the rules and stronger enforcement by the county.
A success story
One key change has been a modification to the county’s subdivision rules to let Neal review all development plans for known grave sites.
If one is found, the project is frozen until the graves are surveyed and a plan developed to protect or relocate the remains.
“They’ve pretty much done what we’ve asked them to do,” Neal said. She said she didn’t know of a developer who had willfully destroyed a grave site.
One success story is the Old Nixon Cemetery in front of the Porters Crossing development off Porters Neck Road. The developer paid for improvements and incorporated it into the subdivision’s entrance way.
Donna Girardot, executive officer with the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association, said she doesn’t think anyone, developer or not, willfully looks to desecrate graves.
In some cases, she said, a grave site can be a marketing advantage, especially in fast-growing areas like Southeastern North Carolina where many residents aren’t originally from the area.
“I think we’re sometimes looking for an anchor, and these historical sites can give us that,” Girardot said.
The high ground
Under North Carolina law any property owner has the right to petition a county to move human remains to another location.
This is often done when graves, which usually weren’t marked, are found during construction.
Neal said this happened in the early 1990s during construction of The Enclave condominiums on Market Street, which was built atop part of a Catholic cemetery.
The county also moved remains from Oak Grove Cemetery when 17th Street was built, and it transferred nearly 150 graves from an old landlocked Pine Tree Cemetery at Seventh and Queen streets in 1999.
The N.C. Department of Transportation often relocates remains in the path of a road project.
But Neal said moving the dead isn’t her favored option for dealing with abandoned or forgotten grave sites, especially if other alternatives are available like incorporating the site into a project or simply marking it off.
The history of burying the dead on what now is often a property’s choicest land, however, doesn’t always mesh with modern economics. Clauser said high ground has had religious significance for centuries.
“But there was also a practical aspect,” he said. “High ground is generally dry and not good for agriculture, so you weren’t wasting good land to bury people.”
The high ground, however, often has the best views and is a parcel’s most buildable part, the very attributes that make it highly valuable for homes.
Then there’s the emotional queasiness some people have about living next to the dead, a factor that might lead them to favor relocation.
But Neal said that shouldn’t be enough to uproot someone.
“They decided to be buried there for a reason,” she said. “So who are we to say they should enjoy the rest of their days somewhere else?”
‘Speaking for the dead’
Several years ago, the Foy family moved some of their ancestors from the Vineyard West grave site to the nearby family cemetery at Poplar Grove Plantation.
Robert Foy, patriarch of a family that’s lived in the area for more than two centuries, said they decided to move the four relatives so they could be with other family members and because of concern about the cemetery’s future as development plans began surfacing.
“We just got fortunate we got enough money together to do it on our own and not have to rely on the county or the state to get it done,” he said.
Neal said that transfer didn’t raise any red flags with her.
“But that was family speaking for family,” she said. “I feel differently when it’s a developer speaking for the dead.”
But Neal said the process of protecting a cemetery, or moving the dead before they are disturbed, only works if you know something is there.
“Until I have positive proof, I can’t stop anybody,” she said, noting the important role played by Williams and other volunteers to investigate potential sites.
‘Rest in peace’
If a grave is to be transferred, Clauser said, it should be done with utmost respect and care.
“Everything goes – the hardware, nails, buttons, bones, clothing, teeth, whatever is left, even if just a human stain in the soil – gets put in a wooden box and transferred,” he said.
But Clauser said a transfer isn’t the answer for all situations, especially when family, architecture, location, and historical factors are considered. It also isn’t cheap, with a move costing as much as $1,000 per body.
Clauser said that while the small graveyard at Vineyard West was an interesting case, it wasn’t a unique situation.
“It’s less significant than others I’ve seen,” he said.
If the proposed relocation of the Porters Neck cemetery reaches the County Commissioners, it will be the first such request in nearly a decade.
Neal said she will recommend leaving the grave site in place, but the commissioners make the final call.
Williams said he just hopes that the commissioners realize they eventually could be in the same place that Morris Nichols and the others buried in the small grave site are in today.
“Most of the tombstones say ‘rest in peace,” he said. “They don’t say, ‘build a house or highway over me.’?”
Gareth McGrath: 343-2384