Thursday, June 30, 2005

Along the Trace: Douglass Cemetery

All tombstones found at Douglass Cemetery were gathered and grouped here, at the west end of the cemetery, after its rescue. The view is to the southwest. The most northeasterly bend in the Chariton River is perhaps a quarter of a mile or somewhat more over the brow of the hill and down in the distance.

To my mind, the old Douglass Pioneer Cemetery just southeast of Chariton and west of the Blue Grass Road may be the most evocative place in Lucas County. It encompasses Lucas County's history from beginning to the present in a way no other place quite does.

The name "Douglass" has nothing in particular to do with the cemetery other than the fact it once was surrounded by the farm of Noble Douglass. His home seems to have been located across the Blue Grass east of the cemetery, but there is no indication that any of his family is buried here.

There is no deed to the cemetery, although its ground always has been excepted in deeds conveying the property that surrounds it. There are no documents to explain its origin. It simply has been here as long as Lucas County has.

The most common explanation for its origin is that this was the site of the graves of Mormon pioneers who died at or near Chariton Point, most likely Elder Freeman Nickerson and members of his family who perished during the winter of 1846/47. Chariton Point became a consistently used camping point and minor way station during and after 1846 for those headed west from Nauvoo toward Utah. The Blue Grass Road, from Russell west then northwest into Chariton, follows almost precisely the route of the Mormon Trace, used by a majority of these refugees from early summer 1846 until about 1849. Lucas County's first "white" settlers were, according to tradition, a party of some six families, likely the Nickersons,  who wintered during 1846-47 at Chariton Point.

Chariton Point was the last major stopping point on the Trace before Garden Grove, a larger way station perhaps a day and a half's travel southwest in Decatur County, or Mount Pisgah, three or four days west of Chariton in Union County. Although the beauty of the Trace to Mormon eyes was that it went around the northern-most bend of the Chariton River near Chariton Point, rather than crossing the river, the passage at Chariton across ravines and a tributary could be difficult. So Chariton Point was a good place for teams and people to rest, preparing for a fresh morning start.

The Daughters of the American Revolution Chariton Point marker is three-quarters of a mile or so south of the cemetery, but no one really knows precisely where the reported log shanties and associated fields and gardens of Chariton Point actually were. The encampment area probably stretched all along the ridge, a distance of a mile and a half or so.

Mormon traffic on the Trace diminished as Nauvoo and nearby areas emptied and LDS families who had stopped in southeast Iowa to round up resources to equip themselves did so and moved on toward Utah, but the Trace continued to be a busy road as '49ers flocked to California and others used it to acess the unsettled West. The last record I've found of Mormon travel on the Trace was during 1853, when a Danish party that had come upriver from New Orleans disembarked at Keokuk, then headed overland on the Trace, camping near Chariton before continuing west to Utah.

Permanent settlers began to arrive in the Chariton area during 1848, and these pioneers probably began burying their dead near the first Mormon graves. This was a relatively common practice and the explanation for the existence of both Salem Cemetery, a couple of miles southwest of Chariton Point, and Last Chance Cemetery, at Lucas County's western edge, where Mormon pioneer Lafayette Sherwood, killed by stampeding cattle, reportedly was the first to be buried.

Here's the sign along the Blue Grass Road (Mormon Trace) pointing the way to Douglass Cemetery from the Blue Grass Road just southwest of Chariton.

To get to Douglass it is necessary to cross a privately-owned field and climb this slight rise. The trees at left are in the east end of the cemetery. The memorial area (barely visible here against the horizon), at the west end.

The oldest tombstones at Douglas date from 1852-1853 and the latest from about 1870, but the surnames of many of the 60 or people whose early burial here can be confirmed by tombstone or other sources are old and familiar in Lucas County: Ballard, Larimer, Dixon, Chase, Clowser, Hellyer, Wilson, Relph, Threlkeld, Renfro and more. There are indications, as in the case of John Relph, that families brought the bodies of their loved ones to Douglass from several miles away for burial because it was the nearest cemetery.

Then, probably not as abruptly as it seems, most Lucas Countyans stopped using Douglass. In all likelihood, they now preferred the newer Chariton Cemetery, established about 1863 a mile northwest on hills overlooking the Chariton River valley. Some graves were moved from Douglass to the new cemetery as were graves from the first cemetery established within Chariton's city limits, on the site of Columbus School.

Douglass Cemetery remained public ground, however, and Lucas County continued to use it for those who had no family or no funds and were buried at county expense. Hiram Wilson, the horse thief who shot and killed Sheriff Gaylord Lyman and was lynched for his trouble at the courthouse, was buried here by the county during 1870, for example. Most buried here between 1870 and the turn of the 20th century, however, were good people who were merely poor. Their graves were unlikely to be marked at all.

Because of its use as a burying place for the destitute, Douglass became known as Potters Field, and that is the name used most frequently by my father, who passed it frequently en route to and from his home in Benton Township, and most others of his generation.

Once Douglass was abandoned even as a burial place for the poor, all attempts to maintain it seem to have ceased. This continued for nearly 100 years and the result was not pretty: An overgrown enclosure of trees, brush and weeds in which only a few intact tombstones could be found.

Perhaps during the 1950s or 1960s, a house was moved from Chariton into the small field separating the cemetery from the Blue Grass, set back almost against the boundary fence. That helped Lucas County to forget the cemetery almost entirely.

Reclaiming Douglass was one of the first projects of the Lucas County Pioneer Cemetery Commission, established during the 1990s. The area was cleared of brush, weeds and dead trees and all tombstones that could be located were removed to a memorial area at the back of the cemetery and mounted on a concrete platform.

A bronze plaque at the memorial site lists the surnames of people whose burials at Douglas have been established beyond a reasonable doubt.

The cemetery is not fenced, so it is difficult for the casual observer to tell where it begins and ends, nor is the grass cropped short. But it is a vast improvement over the situation it was in during a majority of its history.

And if you're willing to walk the short distance back to it, Douglass is a good place to stand looking off to the woods and contemplate the dashed dreams of Mormon pioneers, Iowa pioneers and Lucas County's poorest --- all of which rest beneath your feet --- then remember their survivors who soldiered on.

This is the tombstone at Douglass Cemetery of Daniel B. Chase, who died Dec. 2, 1853, age 32 years, 1 month and 13 days.When the 1850 census of Lucas County was taken during December of that year, Daniel, single and born in Ohio, was living in the home of Henry Allen, a hatter. Henry reportedly lived on what now is the Chariton square and his cabin doubled as a hotel. Daniel married Mary Johnson in Chariton on 25 May 1851 (theirs was the 12th marriage recorded in Lucas County), then died two years later. When the 1850 census was taken, Lucas County had approximately 450 residents.

No comments: