Society detects unmarked graves

Published 11:39 pm Saturday, January 24, 2009

By Staff
Forgotten dead near Beaufort County Home
Staff Writer
We walk among the dead in Beaufort County.
Since 1985, members of the Beaufort County Genealogical Society have been proving just that.
According to society President Jean Gurkin, the county is littered with the unmarked graves of the poor, sick and forgotten.
The society recently discovered that many of these unmarked graves lie under the acres of fields and woods next to the now-defunct Beaufort County Home. Society members were sifting through death certificates for another project when they made the discovery.
County Home kept showing up as the resting place on death certificates, Gurkin said.
The society asked county officials about records of an unmarked cemetery on County Home property, but when officials could not confirm the gravesite, Gurkin turned to her friend and expert in the field, Jerome Tyson. Tyson supervises the Oakdale and Cedar Hill cemeteries.
With Tyson’s help, Gurkin and society secretary Louise Cowell surveyed the County Home site.
Tyson showed society members how to use a dowsing rod, or L-rod, to mark graves. He uses the tool to identify graves in Oakdale and Cedar Hill.
The L-rods, or Spanish Rods, are held against the body at a 90-degree angle, with palms facing each other in a “pistol grip” and rods parallel on a horizontal plane.
Grave seekers walk very slowly, and when the rods cross they have found a grave.
Tyson picked a spot on the grassy clearing next to County Home last week, began the procedure and confirmed that there were gravesites when the dowsing rods crossed.
In fact, the society has confirmed that at least 161 graves are on land located on the northeast side of County Home between the building’s parking lot and Reed Drive.
The list of graves come from death certificates, which were printed beginning in 1913. County Home continued to serve as an unofficial cemetery until 1942.
County Home, originally known as the “poor house,” opened on May 27, 1827. It was purchased by the Wardens of the Poor for Beaufort County.
By retracing this history, the society realized the dead were being buried at County Home for almost 100 years before records were kept.
The society approached the county with its findings, and realized it was also surveying the land in anticipation of selling the property.
After the county agreed to keep the property, the society raised a marker on the land. The land is now known as the Beaufort County Home Cemetery.
Around the same time the marker was raised, Gurkin got to work on a list of the dead known to be buried at the cemetery.
The public may look through the society’s current list of 161 dead; Gurkin and Cowell are determined to identify everyone at the site.
The society has asked that people contact it with information about the cemetery prior to 1913.
In the meantime, the society is working on other projects.
Gurkin recently found a slave gravesite on her family’s farm in Chocowinity. Since then, she has been working with Cowell and society members to mark the gravesite and find similar sites.
The society’s monthly meetings are held at 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month in the North Carolina History Room at Brown Library. They are open to the public.