Helping to preserve local family cemeteries as links to our past
By Aimee O’Grady
In historically agricultural Fauquier County, large farms owned by one family for several generations usually included family cemeteries. Often, established graveyards near churches were too far to be of practical use, and due to the founding American principle of religious freedom, the denomination of residents’ religious choice may have been even farther away. The burial of loved ones in a close location, which enabled family members to visit often, also helped maintain the oral tradition of sharing stories and family history, keeping memories alive.
Today, cemeteries that are not maintained or delineated with a stone wall or fence are at risk of disappearing. Five years ago, the Fauquier Family Cemetery Foundation, Inc. (FFCF) organized to preserve and protect these hallowed grounds.
“We work with property owners and descendants, who find our website online, to find identifiers on the property,” said Lory Payne, FFCF executive director. In a few cases, identifiers can be the remains of wrought iron fences or rubble walls. Most often, identifiers are fieldstone markers, depressions in the ground, and patches of periwinkle. To the untrained eye, a field of graves looks like nothing more than a field. “People call and tell us that they know of a cemetery that they worry will disappear if it is not documented,” Payne said. From there, volunteers begin a process that includes a significant amount of research and fieldwork.
Referring to original deeds and land grants, Payne and her team can pinpoint areas likely to contain graves. If they find sufficient evidence, they will record their findings and submit them to the county for documentation. In several cases, ground-penetrating radars have confirmed their findings. Although most people think of tombstones when they think of cemeteries, in many cases regular stones were placed at gravesites as markers. But even those stones might not remain. The grazing of cattle on old tracts of land can all but destroy grave markers. “Cattle do a number on existing walls or fences of old family cemeteries,” said Payne.
In some cases, present owners are happy to help with the preservation of a cemetery on their property. “I think some people are excited to have the connection to the past,” Payne said. “One cattle farmer put up a wooden fence around an old cemetery in the middle of his pasture when he learned it was there.”
Once graves have been located, the team turns its findings over to the county government, which has added a GIS (Geographic Information System) layer to its interactive parcel database. The interface, accessible on the website, enables people to review maps prior to excavating for a new home, accessory building, or barn. “We want homeowners and developers to recognize the large number of family cemeteries in the county and not disturb the hallowed ground,” said Payne.
The five-person board of the Fauquier Family Cemeteries Foundation, with the help of about 25 volunteers, has located 350 cemeteries in eight years and estimates that at least 400 others can be physically identified. “These cemeteries can be as big as one acre or as small as an eighth of an acre, with anywhere from 12 to more than 50 graves,” Payne said. The board’s main resource is the Fauquier County Tombstone Inscriptions, Volumes 1 and 2 by Nancy Baird, Carol Jordan and Joseph Scherer, published in 2000, which catalogs almost 1,000 family cemeteries in the county.
The group has experienced its fair share of coincidences. Once, an attorney who was the executor of a property in Alexandria contacted the board. “She found a tombstone among the belongings of the estate and thought we might be able to help her figure out what to do with it,” said Payne, adding that it is a state felony to remove tombstones from any cemetery—family or otherwise. “We did a little research and discovered that the tombstone, that of Luke Woodward, actually belonged in Fauquier County. We went and found the base, which was still in the family cemetery, and were able to reinstate the stone.” Not long after, the group received another call from a chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, also out of Alexandria. “They also had a tombstone,” Payne said. “As it turned out, that tombstone also belonged in the Woodward family cemetery.” At the time of our interview, the foundation was working with DAR members to reinstate the second tombstone. “It is this connection to the past that keeps our volunteers involved,” says Edward Wenger, Chairman of the Board of Directors for 2016-2018.
Family cemeteries are not the only graves the group finds. “We have found that just beyond the boundary of a family cemetery there may be a Civil War soldier grave,” Payne said. It was impractical during battle or on marches to carry a body when soldiers were killed or died. Instead, fallen soldiers (both Union and Confederate) often were buried just outside the fence or wall of a nearby family cemetery with the intention of coming back to collect them after the war for final burial in their home town. In some cases, that never happened. In the past eight years, the FFCF has assisted the Sons of Confederate Veterans in placing 14 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs tombstones for Civil War soldiers of both the Union and Confederate armies.
One such example is that of the tombstone for Owen Reynolds of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry. Reynolds’ descendants acquired the notebook of a Civil War surgeon who had treated Reynolds during the war. “The descendants contacted the foundation via our website and asked if we could help locate the grave of their ancestor. With the meticulous notes kept by the surgeon, it was actually rather easy,” said Payne. “We knew that the soldier had stayed in Camp Reliance, a Federal Civil War Camp, and the surgeon detailed a freshwater stream on the east side of th property adjacent to a family cemetery near Catlett.”
Once they located the grave, the foundation worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs and filed the appropriate paperwork to get a VA tombstone. The VA will furnish, without charge and upon request from descendants, a government stone or marker for eligible veterans, regardless of date of death. The team carried the 300-pound stone to the gravesite and installed it. “There is a Private Green buried next to Private Reynolds, but with no descendants to file paperwork, we can’t get a VA tombstone for him, but we have documented that he is there,” said Payne.
Civil War soldiers aren’t the only graves to be found near family cemeteries. “On occasion, we find graves that are situated very close to one another, adjacent to the family cemeteries,” Payne said. “In most cases, these are slave cemeteries.” Volunteers look for these types of graves near the remains of outbuildings on large, historic tracts of land. “Slave cemeteries were often in sight of their homes,” says Wenger. The FFCF, working with the African American Historic Association in The Plains, is cataloging slave cemeteries in the county as well.
More than 200 years ago, when many of the cemeteries were created, family members knew who was buried where and passed history on through oral narrative. This changed around the time of World War I; With established churches and improved methods of transportation, communal graveyards became more common. Over time, the custom of telling stories faded away along with inscriptions on the old slate markers. As the passage of time obscures the past, FFCF volunteers feel compelled to preserve what remains for future generations. They believe we owe a great deal to the families who received land grants, settled homesteads, tended large farms, wore down the roads that residents of Fauquier County travel each day, and even fought and died on our soil.
“If you don’t know where you’ve been, how will you know where you are going?” asked Payne, describing the importance of the past in shaping the future. Fauquier County contains a wealth of American history buried within its soil. Foundation volunteers understand the importance of learning from the past to protect the future.
The FFCF officially formed in 2012 and worked as a subcommittee of the Southern Fauquier Historical Society for three years prior to that. The FFCF welcomes volunteers of all ages and abilities. The 350 recovered cemeteries require cleaning every three years, so there is no shortage of work to be done. Volunteers who prefer to stay out of the field can help with research, genealogy and necessary government paperwork. Students can earn school credit for volunteer hours. To learn more, visit the foundation’s website at fauquierfamilycemetery.org.