Reclaiming Forgotten Family Graveyards; Counties Are Mapping Obscure Cemeteries In Bid to Shield Them
By Michael Amon
In fast-growing Prince William County, the sleep of the dead is disturbed just as the sleep of the living -- by the din of construction.
For years, residents believe, bulldozers making way for fancy town houses have paved over family graveyards and slave burial sites. The county, like much of Virginia and Maryland, is full of centuries-old cemeteries -- many of which are almost undetectable to developers.
"On just about any development of any size, there's bound to be a cemetery within a stone's throw that needs to be protected," said Don Wilson, a historian at the Bull Run Regional Library near Manassas.
But Prince William officials face a problem common across the expanding Washington region: They don't know where the graves are. So the county is taking measures to keep cemeteries away from the cement. Over the next year, it will search for and document every graveyard in the county -- from the large Manassas city cemetery to those as small as a couple of fieldstones that date to the Revolutionary War.
The effort is similar to others across the Washington region. In Loudoun County, private historians at the Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg have been documenting graveyards and supplying the information to the county for 18 months. Fairfax completed a study of its cemeteries in 1995. And this year, Maryland embarked upon a project to identify and map each of the state's 6,000 to 9,000 burial sites.
"The new people who come in are just plain ignorant of the graveyards," said Kristin Kraske, president of the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites Inc. "Nobody has mapped them out or anything. You don't see them until you hit them, and that has happened."
In Prince William, the new cemetery information will update county maps that the planning office uses when reviewing potential developments. Current maps display about 255 cemeteries, but they're not accurate, said county planner Robert Bainbridge.
"The map will protect people from violating Virginia law," Bainbridge said. It is a misdemeanor to intentionally disturb a cemetery in Virginia.
Ron Turner, the local historian hired to conduct the survey, predicted that he would find at least 150 forgotten cemeteries before next spring. With the help of satellites, Turner will pinpoint the longitude and latitude of every graveyard he finds.
Not knowing where the cemeteries are has been a problem for developers.
In 1985, the Potomac Mills shopping center had to build around two small family burial grounds. Mills Corp., which built and operates the mall, preserves and maintains the graveyards of the Pattersons, who were 19th-century dairy farmers, and the Nashes, a family that lived in the Dumfries District since the turn of the century. Each is isolated from the shopping center by a fence.
Construction crews at Baltimore-Washington International Airport once turned up a potter's field.
And several graves have been found on what will soon become one of Prince William's largest subdivisions -- the $3 billion, 2,500-home Southbridge development on the Cherry Hill Peninsula.
One of them is Dunnington Cemetery. Typical of many old family plots, Dunnington is little more than a few depressions in the ground surrounded by vegetation and forest and covered with periwinkle, a flower often planted on graves before the 20th century.
It is in the middle of what planners hope will become a Reston-style town center with more than 3.7 million square feet of commercial office space. Southbridge developer Mike Anderson said he is going to try to make the graveyard a prominent feature of the development.
"When all is said and done, you'd rather not have a cemetery on the land because it adds a constraint, but you can also use it to make a connection between the past and the future," Anderson said.
Not far from Dunnington is Tebbsdale Cemetery, where Revolutionary War Col. Willoughby Tebbs was buried in 1803. The graveyard is named on county maps, but when Anderson began surveying the land, he found it on the other side of a creek, about a half-mile from its purported location.
Cemetery documentation efforts are common in the South, where family plots often outnumber church and city cemeteries. The issue is particularly keen in Virginia, said Brian Conley, a Fairfax historian who documented cemeteries.
In 1623, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law requiring large plantations to have cemeteries, eliminating the need for large community and church plots, Conley said. "That same idea was passed on to smaller plantations and family farms," Conley said. "The model followed into the early 20th century."
In Maryland, family cemeteries have rubbed shoulders with development and expansion.
In May, the King and White families in Howard County persuaded public officials not to take land from their 172-year-old family cemetery to widen a road.
The King-White cemetery has 29 headstones, but the family believes there are many unmarked graves and slaves who might have been buried closer to the road, said Sylvia Crutchfield, a White descendant who lives in Alexandria.
In the next year, the families will have an archaeologist survey the land and identify all the graves.
And many Kings and Whites want the family cemetery to be their own final resting place.
"I will be buried there myself," Crutchfield said. "These are my ancestors. This is my family. This land belonged to us for centuries. It's something that you know is permanent."
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