Learning to read the landscape
Montgomery Planning is exploring the relationship between burial grounds and surrounding landscapes to better understand these sites and find graveyards whose locations have been lost. Cemeteries are important because they are valued by descendants and may hold valuable information about people’s lives historians and genealogists cannot find anywhere else. Since 2017, county law has required Planning staff to keep an inventory of all the graveyards in the county.
Some burial sites in Montgomery County dating to the 1700s and 1800s are no longer visible, and their exact locations have been lost to time. This may be because the graves were never marked, or the markers have been moved or have deteriorated away. Other sites may be hard to recognize. It is common for graves in Montgomery County to be marked with a fieldstone, a large rock unmodified in any way, and may not be obvious to a casual observer. This is often true for the burial sites of people who were held in slavery. Prior to Emancipation, over 30% of Montgomery County’s people were held in slavery; we believe that many of their burial places remain unknown. As we plan future development in the county, it’s important for us to identify the locations of these sensitive resources to avoid unintentionally destroying them.
There are 55 family cemeteries in the Montgomery County Burial Sites Inventory whose locations we know for certain because they still have visible markers and where we know the location of the original family house as well. Examining maps of places like the Gaither-Worthington Family Burial Ground, I found that most of these cemeteries are between 250 and 500 feet from the original family home. However, the distance varies a lot—from only 50 to over 1000 feet. I also learned that most family cemeteries are sited on a locally prominent landform such as a small hill or the edge of a terrace such as the Clipper Family Cemetery. When I compared the elevation of each cemetery site to the average elevation around them within 500 feet, I found that most were on higher ground than their surroundings.Understanding these relationships between cemeteries and their landscape settings offers us a way to find graveyards whose exact locations have been lost or forgotten. When families sold their farms, they sometimes made an exception in the deed to retain ownership of the family burial ground. Sometimes these deed reservations are specific about where the burial site was located, but often all it says is that it was somewhere on the property. Since we know that most burial grounds were within a few hundred feet of the house, if we can map the boundary of the farm and the location of the original house, we can get a pretty good idea of where the cemetery was located.
The Charles Purdum Family Cemetery
Let’s take the Purdum family burial ground as an example. When Charles Riggs Purdum died in 1864, he was buried on the farm he had purchased in 1837 near Clarksburg. Four years later, his widow Margaret Purdum sold the farm after she remarried. The 1868 deed excludes a quarter of an acre from the sale “for the family graveyard” but doesn’t say where on the property it was. I was able to map the boundary of the farm and original house location in 1868. I then looked at the topography and aerial photographs from 1951 and 1979 when the property was still a farm and identified a group of trees about 250 feet south and about 10 or 15 feet uphill from the family home. We don’t have a record of who was buried in the lot other than possibly Charles Riggs Purdum and his son George. Assuming they were originally buried on the farm, at some point their graves were moved to Upper Seneca Baptist Church Cemetery. However, Charles Purdum held at least six people in slavery as of 1860. Since people held in slavery were sometimes buried near the graves of their enslavers, it is possible that people the Purdums enslaved could have been buried nearby. If marked Purdum family graves were moved prior to the property being redeveloped, any graves of those they enslaved might still be near the original location. We will be bringing this location to the Montgomery County Planning Board for the formal addition to the Burial Sites Inventory later this spring. The likeliest location is now within a road right-of-way or adjacent private property, making further investigation in this location a challenge. However, if in the future there are proposed changes to that roadway, there may be an opportunity for archaeologists to investigate the site.