Photo by Walt Grayson.
No cemetery is more beautiful 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.
A search both melancholy and magical.
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 a Native American 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 Native Americans 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 to be buried. Human life is finite, each grave and stone 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 that are both beautiful and accessible for those who set out to uncover secret cemeteries.
Not far from where Courtland Smith built his fated house is a small 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.
Courtland Smith’s tomb is in the Philanda Smith burial ground on Retirement Plantation near Second Creek in Adams County. It is one of three small, private family cemeteries found on the plantation.
There are many such cemeteries scattered throughout the area. The oldest, which is still in use by the original family, 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.
There is a family cemetery at Lansdowne Plantation, also still owned by the same family since the 1840s and also still used.
Longwood 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.
On Lower Woodville Road just up the street from Lansdowne is Gloucester, the home of Winthrop Sargent, first governor of the Mississippi Territory. The cemetery is directly across the street. 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 was murdered in his home in 1864.
Catherine Van Court included an account of the murder in her book, The Old House. It was told to her by Anne Swayze, who with her husband, Philip, 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.”
My favorite plantation cemetery is directly across the street from Dunleith on Homochitto Street. As a child, I spent many an hour playing in that cemetery 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, he 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. 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 the 1828 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 Native American mound in the United States. Yes, many have left their mark.
Further down the Natchez Trace is the tiny community of Rocky Springs, a once-thriving community of nearly 3,000 people that disappeared due to hardships, including the Civil War, bad land management and mosquito-borne epidemics. All that is left of the town are the church and 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 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
And then there are the cemeteries that are returning or have returned to the earth — the ones we no longer see. Human remains have been uncovered at Fort Rosalie in Natchez. The most recent was a skeleton found in 2011 with its head facing west, arms crossed neatly over its chest.
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.