Family cemeteries are gold mines for you the genealogist. Are you finding all possible clues for your ancestors in your cemetery research?
Family cemeteries are gold mines for you the genealogist. But, I have to ask….
Are You Finding All Possible Genealogy Clues in the Family Cemetery?
Are you missing important clues to your research questions? Do you leave the cemetery where your ancestor is buried with answers or clues to the next step in your research?
In my excitement of just finding a particular ancestor’s gravestone, I have missed important genealogy clues in the family cemetery. I want to help you not make the same mistakes I did.
Let’s look at a few interesting family cemeteries/plots together.
Rev. Caswell Suggs Harward/Howard
Rev. Caswell Suggs Harward [Howard] died in 1871 in Harnett County, North Carolina and is buried in the Baptist Chapel Church cemetery near Sanford, Lee County, NC. Caswell was 42 yeas old at the time of his death and left behind a wife and children.
His wife Mary Adline [Thomas] Harward is buried with her husband. [Her information is on the back side of the tombstone.]
The gravestone gives the basics: Caswell’s name, birth date, and death date. We get a little more information by the use of the title “Rev” supporting the scant oral history the family knows about Caswell being a minister.
Now it’s time to look around.
This is a church cemetery.
For all practical purposes, Baptist Chapel Church cemetery functions as a family cemetery as it relates to my genealogy research. The church itself is a newer structure (having been re-built due to a fire) and situated a little ways away.
Howard Road runs down one one side of the cemetery. A small tobacco farm is behind the cemetery. This is a rural community which is consistent with all I have learned about the Howard family in this area.
I confess, on my first visit to this cemetery as a new genealogy researcher, I never questioned Howard Road would have some bearing on my family history research!
Yes, early on I missed the fact that Howard descendants lived right behind the cemetery! 😳
Who else is buried close?
Besides, Caswell and his wife, their son Allen Suggs Howard is also buried at Baptist Chapel Church Cemetery. Interestingly most of the closer graves to Caswell and his wife are more contemporary (i.e. in the mid – to late 1900’s). Most have the surname Howard. [Howard is a variation of Harward and used by later generations.] Other surnames common to the area are there, too.
A little ways off is a small “section” of what appears to older gravestones. These stones are more worn and even off kilter. Closer inspection reveals most are of the Thomas family and dated into the 1800’s.
Hmmm…… graves dating to the 1800’s. Could this be important?
Well, yes. It turns out these early graves held an important clue for my research. Keep reading…..
What Did These Clues in the Church Cemetery Mean?
Based on the tombstones in this church cemetery, I could make a few assumptions.
- This is a church cemetery, BUT some of these graves, including Caswell’s pre-date the church! In this case, I knew when the church was founded, but if you do not know, check the church sign or cornerstone for a possible date the church was founded.
- Faith was important to the Howard Family. After all, Caswell was a minister.
- Multiple Howard/Harward generations are buried in this cemetery. Since many of the dates for the graves are contemporary, I would conclude the Howard family continues to be active in this church.
The Next Question
The biggest and most obvious questions that arose when analyzing this cemetery were:
“Why was Caswell Howard buried here?
“If this is a church cemetery, why does a section pre-date the church?”
The answers to these questions were in the cemetery itself and the land surrounding the cemetery. Remember Howard Road?
The older section of this cemetery was originally the Thomas Family Cemetery located on what was originally the land of Mary Adline Thomas Harward/Howard’s parents. After Caswell’s death in 1871 leaving her with young children, Mary Adline came “home” to bury her husband and raise her children. Eventually, her descendants inherited the land and they in turn provided land for the church’s current location.
The Thomas Family Cemetery became incorporated into the current church’s cemetery and continues to serve the church’s community.
What I Got Wrong in My Genealogy Research
What did a I do wrong on my first research visit to the cemetery?
Pretty much, everything!
I completely missed all of this the day I visited the cemetery. (Ahem!) Weeks later as I worked with the photographs I had taken that day, and pondered the conversations I had had with my aunt, I realized what I had missed and began putting the pieces together.
4 Tips For Finding All of the Genealogy Clues in the Family Cemetery
Avoid making the mistakes I did! Use these four tips to individual family cemeteries as well as family plots in larger cemeteries to make sure you get all of the information it has to offer on your ancestors.
1.Always ask Why?
Why is your ancestor buried in this location? Why this cemetery? Why this plot within the cemtery?
2.Note who is buried close by?
Even if you do not know who an individual is that is buried close, make a note. This person(s) could turn out to be relatives and/or close associates of your ancestor. If not now, this information may be helpful to you in future research.
3.Determine why the cemetery itself is in this location?
Is your ancestor in a cemetery “out in the middle of nowhere”? Why? What is the history of that land? Could it be the old home place or the family farm?
Is your ancestor buried in a church cemetery? Could this be the church where your ancestors worshipped?
4.Observe the gravestone markings or designs.
Markings and engravings on the tombstone may indicate military service of your ancestor, religious beliefs, membership in the masons or other clues about your ancestor’s personal life. Again, make note of the tombstones of those surrounding him/her. Markings on their stones may provide you clues to the type of community where your ancestor lived. [Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography is a nice resource to learn more about gravestone symbolism.]
Spend a little extra time in that cemetery where your ancestor is buried!
Other Posts You My Find of Interest:
- How to Determine Your Ancestor’s Birth Date (Even If No Birth Record Is Found)
- How To Evaluate Your Ancestor’s Tombstone
- How to Make Genealogy Sense of Census Records – Census Records Part 1
- How to Make Sense of Those Tick Marks on Pre-1850 Census Records – Census Records Part 2
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