In June, my son and I went to North Carolina to see my daughter and her beau. It was our first vacation in many years and we had a wonderful time. We toured several attractions in the beautiful state, but my favorite stop, by far, was The Old Burying Ground, in Beaufort, NC.
We came across the cemetery by accident, and when we found it, we had only about twenty minutes to explore before the property would be closed for the night. I knew I’d want to share as many pictures as possible here at the blog, so I hurried through the gates, a madwoman on a mission.
Just a couple of yards into the graveyard, though, I had to slow down and breathe. The peaceful, timeless atmosphere under the ancient oak and magnolia trees would not allow me to feel rushed. As I stood in the cool dappled shade, taking in the historic beauty of the place, all the tension in me melted.
Below, you’ll find more information about The Old Burying Ground and some of the graves I saw in the cemetery, but before we get to that, I invite you get a sense of what it felt like to actually wander through this sacred place by watching this video:
(For best picture, click on “watch on YouTube”, then full-screen.)
Have you ever seen such a gorgeous graveyard? I wish I could have done it justice, but I hope I captured the feel – at least a little – for you.
On to the details.
THE OLD BURYING GROUND
Address: 400 Block of Ann Street, Beaufort NC, 28516
The Old Burying Ground originally came into use in the area surrounding a building used for sessions of the Court and for reading the service of the Angelican Church in St. John’s Parish. The earliest graves were marked by shells, brick, or wooden planks. Large swaths of the cemetery appear to be sparsely occupied, but an archaeological survey in 1992 confirmed there are many burials in such open areas.
In 1731, the cemetery which had come into existence around a courthouse-cum-church was deeded to the town of Beaufort.
Currently, the entrance of the cemetery is flanked by two churches: a red brick First Baptist and a white clapboard United Methodist. The graves lie nestled between the two buildings until the property opens up a bit at the back. This makes it look and feel like a real churchyard, as you will see in some of the photographs that show the gravestones snugged right up next to the churches.
Beaufort itself is one of the oldest towns in North Carolina. In the early 1700s, when the notorious pirate Blackbeard was going about his business along the coast, it was known as Fish Town. In 1722 it became an official seaport. During the Revolutionary War, it was the third largest port in the state, according to the Beaufort NC homepage.
In 1997, the wreckage of what is presumed to be Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was discovered two miles from Beaufort Inlet, approximately 20 feet below the surface of the water.
This town has seen a lot of living, and a lot of dying.
Captain Otway Burns (1775 – 1850)
In the War of 1812, Captain Burns was considered a great naval hero. He received “Letters of Marque and Reprisal” from the United States, which allowed him to plunder British ships. (The letters made him a sort of legal pirate, otherwise know as a privateer.)
His monument features a cannon removed from his ship, Snapdragon.
Nancy Manney French (1821 – 1886)
In the video, I mark this grave with the caption: “A sad love story.” Here’s the tale, drawn from the guide pamphlet that was available just inside the gates of the graveyard:
Nancy fell in love with her tutor, a man named Charles French. Nancy’s father disapproved of the relationship. Charles left Beaufort with the intent of finding his fortune and earning the right to ask for Nancy’s hand in marriage. In the ensuing years, both Nancy and Charles tried to maintain their romance through letter writing, but the postmaster in town – who was a friend of Nancy’s father – intercepted all the letters. Years later, upon his deathbed and stricken by guilt, the postmaster confessed what he’d done to Nancy. Later still, Charles returned to Beaufort. He was an old man, but he’d never been able to forget his love. He found that Nancy was dying of consumption. The two married anyway. Nancy died just a few weeks later.
The Rum Keg Girl (1700s)
An English family had settled in Fish Town, but a daughter, who had been only an infant upon arriving in the colonies, wanted to see her homeland. The girl’s mother did not want the child to travel, but the father convinced her it would be all right, and promised to bring her home no matter what. The girl reportedly enjoyed her visit to England but she died on the return trip. Traditionally, she would have been buried at sea, but the father chose instead to purchase a barrel of rum from the captain, so that her body would be preserved and she could be buried in the town graveyard.
As you can see, visitors to the burial ground have been touched by the story. Of all the graves in the cemetery, this was the only one displaying grave goods on the day I was there.
Some light research into the possibility that this cemetery is haunted revealed that some guests have reported seeing a young girl playing among the stones, then disappearing suddenly. Sometimes, some of the trinkets from her grave are found in other parts of the cemetery when the gates are opened for the day.
Vienna Dill (1863 – 1865)
This very young child died of yellow fever and was buried in a glass-topped casket. Later, curiosity reportedly led vandals to dig up the grave to see the corpse. According to legend, the girl’s body appeared intact and life-like. The vandals supposedly then opened the coffin, only to have the body disintegrate.
One thing I wanted to draw your attention to is the massive vines that stretch over the area above her monument. If you look very closely, you can see how the thick vines are wound around what looks like a fallen tree trunk.
The graves and the headstones were fascinating and touching, but they are not the only reason this graveyard is so beautiful. Many of the trees, vines, flowers and ferns are breathtaking to a Minnesotan like me.
I was particularly taken by the Resurrection Fern that grew on many of the nearly horizontal branches of the oaks. Apparently this plant causes no harm to its hosts. I’ve read that very dry conditions will cause the ferns to dry up and appear dead, but that providing water will revive them nearly instantly.
I’ve probably rhapsodized enough about this distant-in-time-and-space place that somehow felt like home to me. I’ll leave you will a sincere wish that you find such a place yourself.
PS: I thought it might be a good idea to give you an extra resource, which I found useful when I was looking at these photographs.
Click the following link to see a guide to some of the grave markers you’re likely to see in southern graveyards. Regionality matters. In Minnesota, for example, I’ve never seen a “table tomb” like the one pictured below.
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