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Friday, November 2, 2012

Where the Dead Lie Buried

Dunbar Cemetery
When Courtland Smith returned from battle after the War of 1812, he was a changed man — disfigured, and embarrassed. So instead of living in town, he chose to live in relative isolation near the Kingston Community south of Natchez.  He picked an Indian mound as a site on which to build his house. 

 His family tried to dissuade him, but he liked the spot. The hill offered a lovely view, and most of the Indians were gone. He should have heeded their warnings. Not long after the house was finished, he was found dead in his bed with an arrow shoved through his heart. Burial places are sacred. 

For eons man has honored his dead with physical monuments. Nothing speaks of place and our relationship with it as where we choose not only to live, but also to be buried. The arrowheads that reappear above ground after the rain are as much a testament to those who came before as the ivy-covered angel that weeps above the grave in a forgotten wood. Each grave and stone is a testament to someone’s journey on this earth. History is all around us. Indeed, it is underfoot. 

The Historic Natchez Foundation has an exhaustive list of burial places and the names of those interred. Many are on private property, but there are still a few in that are both beautiful and accessible. 

Kingston Cemetery
Not far from where Courtland Smith built his fated house is a beautiful little cemetery in the Kingston Community. Rising on a gentle knoll shaded by large oaks, are several old family plots with names of the original Kingston settlers: Ogden, Swayze, Thorne, and others. A beautiful spot for a fall picnic.

Ogden Cemetery at Retirement Plantation

Courtland Smith’s tomb is in the Philanda Smith burial ground on Retirement Plantation near Second Creek in Adams County, just off Kingston Road. It is one of three small, private family cemeteries attached to Retirement. What is not found at Retirement are the graves of some 40 slaves, who were tortured and hanged after the rumor of a slave revolt was discovered. 

There are many private, family cemeteries scattered throughout the area. The oldest, which is still in use and within the original family -- the Surgets, whose descendants are the McNeils who also own Elmscourt -- can be found near Kingston at Cherry Grove Plantation, which has been in the same family since it was obtained as part of a Spanish land grant in the late 1700s. 

Surget Cemetery at Cherry Grove
There is a family cemetery at Lansdowne, on land that has been in the family since the 1780's.

Longwood Plantation has a small cemetery as well, which is open to the public. A short walk down a wooded path brings you to several graves in a small opening in the trees. Thanks to the late Alma Kellogg Carpenter’s indefatigable efforts, many of the names of people interred there have been identified. 

Longwood Plantation
 On Lower Woodville Road just up the street from Longwood Plantation is Gloucester, the home of Winthrop Sargent, first governor of the Mississippi Territory.  Although Sargent is not buried here, many in his family are, including a beloved pet with a small, simple stone reading, “Pug,” and that of Sargent’s son, George, who had returned to Gloucester after being wounded in the Civil War, and was murdered. 

Catherine Van Court included an account of that murder in her book, The Old Home. It was told to her by Anne Swayze, who with her husband, George, was visiting one night: 

George got up and limped over to the fire where he slid one log over another. …Suddenly, the half-smile on his face drifted away. Something had attracted his attention. Back in the dark recesses of the house bells had begun to jangle. They were ringing rapidly and seemed to be growing louder every moment. I looked up at the clock. Twelve o’clock was late for us to be riding about the country. 

‘Who can it be?’ I asked. …At that time, we were cautious about opening the outer doors at night.

 George chose one of two doors – the one with heavy inner bars before it. 

"As the door opened slowly, two men crowded close. 

 ‘What do you want?’ George demanded. 

 ‘We’ve lost our way,’ a broad-shouldered Dutchman announced. It was evident he had been drinking. 

 ‘But fellows,’ George said. ‘You’re not lost. You are on the Natchez Trace right now. The town itself is only a couple of miles away.’ 

 ‘We want a bed,’ the smaller of the two pleaded. 

 ‘Just two more miles,’ George urged, ‘then you can get a bed, eats and everything.’ 

 When the men insisted, George informed them that there was a lady in the house and it was inappropriate, especially in their inebriated state. 

"‘To hell with her!’ the Dutchman yelled. ‘You open this door, you dirty Reb, or I’ll…’ 

‘What’ll you do?’ George asked tauntingly. 

The muzzle of an army pistol was thrust through the bars. A flash flared. George’s big body swayed for a moment. Then he crumpled to the floor. …’Blue uniforms, I thought, as I slipped an arm under George’s head. ...By the time [we had gotten] George upon the sofa both Philip and I realized he was dead. He had been shot directly through the heart.” 

Routh Cemetery
 My favorite plantation cemetery is directly across the street from Dunleith on Homochitto Street. As a child, I spent many an hour playing there when visiting my friend Alma Carpenter, who lived at Dunleith. 

The cemetery is connected with the Routh family whose home, Routhland, was built at the site where Dunleith now stands. Although the gate is locked, the giant oaks and crepe myrtles dripping Spanish moss welcome visitors. 

 Peering through the gate is like coming upon a secret garden that still whispers about the past. There are the usual obelisks and headstones and crucifixes, along with a cast-iron sculpture of a large, Newfoundland dog, which was commissioned by the family patriarch, Job Routh. 

When he was eight years old, Job fell into the Potomac River and nearly drowned except for the efforts of a beloved family dog. He never forgot it. 

 Driving south on Highway 61 toward Baton Rouge, and about a mile south of Mammy’s Cupboard on the left side of the road, you can see the family cemetery for the long-gone Forest Plantation, sitting amidst oil field equipment. 

Dunbar Cemetery
 Surrounded by a brick wall, it holds the grave of the Scottish scientist and inventor, William Dunbar and his family and at least two of their slaves whose inscriptions are a testament to the real fondness the family felt for them: Lucy Barnes was nearly 100 years old when she died. “Welcome Sweet Day of Rest.” Mammy Betsey Bruin’s reads “Faithful Unto Death.” 

 Heading north of Natchez is a small Presbyterian church, which served the residents of the plantation community known as Pine Ridge. Although the1828 Federal style church was destroyed in a 1908 tornado, the existing church, which echoes the appearance of the earlier church and was dedicated in 1909, still stands with a small cemetery alongside.  There you will find many old Natchez family names: Bisland, Chamberlain, McCalip, Henderson, Archer, Lamdin and Foster. 

 Heading north along the Natchez Trace and on into Jefferson County are more small cemeteries, one of which can be seen just off the road in the woods near the community of Church Hill, known as the Wood Family Cemetery. Efforts to restore this cemetery are ongoing. 

 No cemetery is more beautiful, however, than the one at Christ Episcopal Church in Church Hill. Sitting on a gentle knoll, the church and its graveyard are reminiscent of medieval Europe with its Gothic architecture. To get to Church Hill, you pass Emerald Mound, the third largest Indian Mound in the United States. Yes, many have left their mark. 
Photo by Walt Grayson

 Further down the Natchez Trace is the tiny community of Rocky Springs, a once-thriving community of nearly 3,000 people.  The community disappeared due to hardships, including the Civil War, bad land management and mosquito-borne epidemics. All that is left of the town are the remains of two old safes, one from the post office and one from a store, which are on a beautiful little nature trail. 

The most poignant reminder of hardship is the small cemetery next to the only building left at Rocky Springs—the church. Wandering through its plots, one is struck by the number of babies and children buried there, a testament to the ravages of cholera and yellow fever:

Agnes, age 11

Blessed be the dark 

that wafts us to the shore 
where death-divided friends
part no more 
join those there 
herewith thy dost repose 
all the hope 
thy hapless Mother knows 

 Louisiana’s flat delta land with its shallow water table is not conducive to cemeteries, but a short drive past Jonesville to the tiny, historic town of Harrisonburg reveals one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the area. Giant old cypress trees tower like pulled taffy over the graves, their evergreen boughs reminders of everlasting life after death. 

Harrisonburg Cemetery

 There are also cemeteries that are returning or have returned to the earth — the ones we no longer see. Bodies have been uncovered at Fort Rosalie in Natchez. The most recent was a skeleton found in 2011 with its head facing west, its arms crossed neatly over its chest. 

Fort Rosalie
Another is the tragedy known as The Corral. After the fall of Vicksburg, mobs of hungry, frightened ex-slaves descended on Fort McPherson, which was located on what is presently the Natchez City Cemetery. In order to house them, Federal officials built a stockade on the batture lands Under the Hill near Learned’s Mill Road, where they died by the hundreds from drinking polluted river water, and without any sanitary conveniences. 

A letter written by a Confederate officer’s wife reads: 

It is said 20,000 negroes have come to Natchez. All the able-bodied men are put in the camp at the Forks of the Road, and the old men, women and children are put Under-the-Hill. We hear they die there, sometimes twenty a day… 

A former slave in the Davis-Kelly family related what she’d seen: 

I saw the Corral. It was the terriblest thing that ever was. People died there like sheep wid distemper. The dead wagon would come around ever mornin’ goin’ from tent to tent where people stayed an’ got the dead. Then they hurried off to bury them in pits one on top of another. They didn’t even shroud ‘em or nothin’, just piled ‘em up like cotton sacks guine to the graveyard. ~ excerpts from Natchez-Under-the-Hill by Edith Wyatt Moore, 1958. 

 Left to her own devices, nature takes back what is hers. On a visit to a forgotten cemetery in the woods, I saw a headstone nearly completely enveloped by a tree. The next time I visited, it was completely encased. No sign of the stone remained. Peering through the forest, I witnessed a battle for superiority between the forest and the stones, reminding me that no matter how important we think we are, we are not so mighty in the grand scheme of things.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. 

~ Percy Bysshe Shelley


  1. A beautifully-written description.
    I wish I could visit these places.

  2. I discovered your blog while searching for information about Natchez. I didn't expect to find such wonderful pieces, like picking up a literary magazine. I plan to visit Mississippi from California sometime in the next year. I don't expect it to be modern, it is more like a living time capsule. People can say what they will about the Deep South, but I "know" in reincarnation that the soul lives on, and in returning to and revisiting the places of the past there is healing and wholeness. I appreciate and enjoy your writing and photographs about life in the past in the Deep South and look forward to exploring these places myself some day.

  3. Recently while investigating some of my ancestors (Routh, Percy & Bridge)I came across your blog. I found it very informative, well written and I was impressed with the intensely detailed photographs you included.....I am VERY new to Genealogy and have found it, like a good book, hard to set aside. One of my very favorite hobbies is photography however and I
    wanted to say you have excellent taste in subject views!! Someday I sincerely hope to be able to come to this area and walk the paths of my ancestors. It brings me great joy to see that many of the Plantation homes still stand. Appreciate you sharing your talents....Roseann Svitak

  4. Roseann, thank you so much for your comments. I, too, hope you'll come visit sometime, and would love the opportunity to meet in person.

    Best regards, Elodie

  5. Wow! Beautiful, evocative and enduring, Elodie! Thank you! Love the Ozymandias coup de grace! Well done, Fair Lady!

  6. And, of course, there is the cemetery at Rodney, on the hill behind the church. Snakey in the summertime, it's best to visit during the winter when the varmints are asleep, and the vegetation sparse. Hundreds lie there, many of whom died in transit on a steamboat, and were offloaded in Rodney for their final repose.
    Wonderful article, Elodie

  7. There is a second cemetery at Longwood - difficult to access - that was the family plot of the first white owners of that land - the Veezy family. James Wade can tell you how to find it.