Graves removal revives family historical efforts
By Scott Nicholson
The graves in the Hartley Cemetery are now quietly laid to rest in Mountlawn Memorial Park and Gardens, but the recovery of family history has been sparked in the aftermath.
Descendants and relatives of Reuben Hartley, whose 1857 will gave the name to the cemetery, are holding a memorial service on Sept. 22 at the new gravesite, and some family members are busy accumulated genealogy records. Some researchers say the number of Hartley descendents number in the thousands and include some of the county’s most prominent people.
Watauga County removed 39 graves from the 94-acre high school site in Perkinsville, following state statute and using a licensed funeral service for the procedure, which took place in early summer. Family members and locals, including those with an interest in archaeology and history, were often on the scene during removal work.
Joanne Hartley, one of the family members who worked with the county throughout the grave removal process, said the process had been “sadly rewarding.” Though oral history is all that remains to suggest who might have been buried on the property, Hartley said the removal renewed interest in the past and will lead to more searches for records and answers.
“It’s been sad in a lot of ways,” she said. “In another way, the fellowship and the way it’s brought the family together has been a blessing.”
Despite careful removal of the artifacts, time had taken its toll on the remains, leaving little evidence about the deceased. Tom Whyte, an archeologist and professor at Appalachian State University, was a witness for some of the work, taking time off from his summer duties because he was interested in the project. He said the entire story was “special,” though the artifacts yielded no unusual clues about the era or the people.
Whyte plans to examine the evidence and photographs in more detail later, but said generally the graves offered typical artifacts for the region and era. He also expressed gratitude to the family for allowing scientists to study what could have been a private process.
“It’s amazing we can actually learn from this,” Whyte said. “Usually, scientists are not invited to participate, and the remains are boxed up and moved.”
Whyte said cut steel nails, coffin screws, porcelain buttons and jewelry suggested the bodies had been buried between the early 1800s and the early 1900s. Black broaches found in some of the graves hearkened to a fashion trend dating to 1861 and an English royal burial, with the broach a symbol of mourning. Whyte said at this point the family’s oral tradition offered more evidence than the remains did.
Most of the remains belonged to children, and in some graves no visible skeletal remains were found. The family believes one grave was that of Reuben, due to the discovery of a pair of spectacles, which generally were affordable only by the affluent. Reuben was a legislator and had a large land holding, believed to have been over 1,000 acres.
One lingering puzzle was the discovery of 14 graves grouped apart from the original 25, a short distance separating them. Whyte said the graveyards could have both been used at the same time, though there wasn’t enough evidence to verify one way or another. However, he said legends that the graves belonged to slaves or Native Americans was likely “fantasy,” though it was difficult to determine from the scant remains.
Joanne Hartley said the family would continue to gather birth certificates, war records, deed copies and cemetery records and continue to piece together the lineage. The family is holding a memorial service at the Broyhill Inn & Conference Center on Sunday, Sept. 22, with a graveside service to follow. Joanne said the event would provide some closure, though the family is working with the county to pursue a permanent monument on the new high school grounds.
“We’ve picked out the grave markers,’ Joanne said, with a committee of family members making plans for the new graves. “We’re still compiling history and we welcome any information.”
The Hartley story now has a Web presence at http://nfei.com/hartley.html. The site has details posted about Reuben and his wife, Joanna Green Hartley, as well as the proposed marker noting the general family history. The suggested copy says the couple settled in the area in 1798 and had seven children.
Joanne said while many family members would have preferred the graves had never been moved, the county has been responsive to the family’s needs. She also praised Mike Austin of Austin & Barnes Funeral Home for his care during the removal.
“We feel very fortunate in being able to locate the cemetery and being able to find as many graves as possible,” Joanne said. “Of course, we’ll never know if we got them all.”
The cemetery was described as an acre in size in the 1857 will, and the original headstones had been removed.
A number of possible headstones were found during a geologic survey, though any markings or etching had eroded. The county has retained a geologist to be on standby in case any more graves are found during site grading, which is expected to begin this month.