The Pettigrew Family Cemetery: Tragedy, Mysteries and Myths

Published 6:31 pm Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Deep within the woods of Pettigrew State Park in Creswell, there lies the Pettigrew Family Cemetery. Four generations of Pettigrews are buried within. There are many tragedies surrounding the almost hidden cemetery that began in 1830, although the oldest grave is from 1786. There are also myths and legends that could have ruined this long-ago family burial site.

First, a little back history on the original plantation. Hiking down Bee Tree Trail, the clear waters of Lake Phelps can be seen through the dense forest of Cypress, Sycamore and Sweet Gum trees. Sometime, you can just catch a glimpse of the reflective lake through the trees or feel the cool breeze. The area is peaceful and quiet, much like it would have been in 1782 when the Reverend Charles Pettigrew, the family patriarch, purchased land in Tyrrell County and built Bonarva (also spelled Bon Arva). This would be the first of three stately Pettigrew plantations built in the area. Only a marker sits at the home site now, standing guard over the crumbling, handmade bricks that were once Bonarva’s foundation.

Located off Bee Tree Trail, Cemetery Trail veers to the left of the path heading northeast, about half a mile from the Bonarva home site. Four generations of family members are interred here. The oldest grave could date from 1782 and would have belonged to the daughter of Reverend Charles and Mary “Polly” Blount Pettigrew. Her name was Mary, like her mother’s, a common practice for naming children during the 1700’s. The infant was only a year old when she passed away. Her mother, Polly, also gave birth to sons Ebenezer and John, but sadly died after the birth of twins, named Mary and James in 1786. Polly and her twins are buried together in the family cemetery. At age 20, John returned home for a visit when he caught a fever and died.

Ebenezer, the only child to live to full adulthood, and his wife Ann “Nancy” Blount Shepard Pettigrew gave birth to 9 offspring. Three of her sons were afflicted with Chorea and all died before reaching age 11. Nancy died during her last childbirth, but her baby, Ann, survived to adulthood. Nancy’s 16-year-old sister, Hannah Biddle Shepard, is also buried in the plot. After visiting her family at Bonarva, Hannah died suddenly in 1818. She was first buried at her family’s estate, Mulberry Hill near Edenton, but later moved in 1831 to Bonarva after Nancy’s death. Ebenezer, deeply “afflicted” by his wife’s death, moved his father, mother, brother and sister-in-law, Hannah’s, remains to Bonarva. He wished for them to be with his love, his dear Nancy, so that he would be able to look out from his home, which he then referred to as “his prison” and “see the spot where all my heart is buried”. (The Pettigrew Papers, Vol. II) Sadly, daughter Ann, who married the Reverend Neill McKay, died during the birthing of twins in 1864 at age 34. The mother and infants’ remains are also buried at the Pettigrew Family Cemetery, just like her grandmother Polly’s 78 years before her.

James Johnston Pettigrew, son of Ebenezer and Nancy, was mortally wounded and died on the retreat from Gettysburg. He was leading a regiment at the battle of Pickett’s Charge in 1863. Although first laid to rest in Raleigh, after his will surfaced, he was moved 3 years later back home to Bonarva. Interesting fact, Ivy from Bonarva was taken and replanted at Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, in remembrance of General Pettigrew. The ivy also surrounds the Pettigrew Cemetery.

Although there were many tragic deaths associated with the Pettigrew family, while the family lived and farmed in Tyrrell and Washington Counties, they were prosperous planters, educators, clergymen, and politicians. The family held great wealth up until the Civil War. Ebenezer’s son, Charles Lockhart and his wife Jane Caroline “Carey” North Pettigrew, were the last couple to live and work at Bonarva Plantation. The couple had 8 children. Mary Pettigrew Browne, Charles’ married sister, also lived with the couple at Bonarva. After the Civil War ended, Charles and Mary were the only two siblings left. Charles and Carey had 8 children, but after they passed away, Mary moved with the remaining girls to Plymouth. Mary Browne died in 1887, shortly after Carey, and was the last person laid to rest in the Pettigrew Family Cemetery.

So, where lies the mystery? Currently, there are only 13 grave sites marked at the family cemetery, yet there are 16, possibly 17 graves. Why? Because after the war, the family, always heavily dependent on their slave labor, could no longer keep the large farms running and so lost their wealth, their homes and their livelihood. The Pettigrew Papers (Lemmon) tell us that the family lived in “much reduced circumstance”. After the deaths of Charles in 1873, then both Carey and Mary in 1887, the family did not have the means to purchase tombstones for their loved ones. After finding three sources that verified this fact, these names were recently added to the cemetery registry. Mary, the baby born in 1781, is thought to be buried next to the Reverend Charles Pettigrew, her father, but no tombstone exists for her. Hers would have been the earliest grave, if indeed, she is buried with her parents. More research will have to be done to add her to the cemetery list. Hopefully, one day, there will be markers for these graves.

Although the cemetery is maintained by the North Carolina State Park System, the graveyard belongs to the University of Chapel Hill. What is the link between the Pettigrew family and the university located hours away? The Reverend Charles Pettigrew helped to finance this institution of learning and sat on its first Board of Trustees. Both John and Ebenezer, his sons, were enrolled by their father in the first session (1795) held at The University of North Carolina. Ebenezer’s son, James Johnston, who would later become a Brigadier General during the Civil War, entered the university at the young age of 15. It was the Johnston Pettigrew Chapter #95 (Est. 1896) of the United Daughters of the Confederacy that stepped in to clean up the devastation the cemetery suffered due to a local myth.

After the war, times were lean and food was scarce. Money was hard to come by and “easy money” even harder. During this time, a rumor had started that the Pettigrew family, who had considerable wealth before the war, had been buried with their money. Unfortunately, for the secluded cemetery, vandals broke open vaults, knocked over tombstones, and desecrated graves. Of course, no money was to be found, as the family was all but destitute themselves after the war. The cemetery lay in ruin until the Pettigrew Chapter of the UDC donated funds to repair and clean up the graves in 1928. If you visit the cemetery, notice the inscription on the gate. The fence, erected at the time, no longer exists around the cemetery, but can be seen in many of the older photographs taken over the years.

Although the epitaphs are hardly visible on some of the over 200-year-old graves, the family and their contribution to the State of North Carolina has not been forgotten. It is not uncommon to visit the cemetery and find gifts or small tokens left on the graves “in remembrance.” The poetic, sometimes melancholy epitaphs can be viewed at the park office. One such touching tribute for former State Senator, Ebeneezer Pettigrew, and reads…

When by a good man’s grave, I mused alone,

Me thinks an angel sits upon the stone,

Like thou of old on that trice hallow night

Who sat and watched in raiment, heavenly bright,

And with a voice whispering joy, not fear,

Says, pointing upward, that he is not here.

He is risen.

This article was researched and written by Christy Maready, Pettigrew State Park.