Tromping Through the Tombstones

I don’t normally admit to this, but I like walking through cemeteries. Not at midnight and not for the purpose of raising the hair on the back of my neck. And it can’t be just any cemetery. It needs to be an historic one. One with old tombstones and centuries of past lives beneath the soil.

Last month, I was in Granbury, TX for a writers retreat, and I realized I had the perfect opportunity to engage in a little tombstone tromping. Just a short drive away from where we were staying was the historic Acton Cemetery. I made sure to stop by there on my way out of town on Sunday afternoon. Here are a few of the highlights:

Davy Crockett’s second wife, Elizabeth, is buried here along with two of their children. I love how the monument depicts her looking into the distance as if waiting for her husband to come home. So bittersweet.

David and Elizabeth Crockett’s son, Robert, and his wife Matilda were located to the left of Elizabeth’s grave. To the right were her daughter, Rebecca, and her husband J.M. Halford. Unfortunately, Mr. Halford’s tombstone was so weathered, it was nearly impossible to make out the words. Thankfully, a new marker was erected for him indicating J.M. Halford was a Baptist preacher. Rebecca’s original tombstone was nowhere to be found, but she, too, had a new marker erected by her descendants.

John Washington Middleton is buried here, a Texas Ranger from the early days. He rose to the rank of Captain and fought valiantly against outlaws and Indians. A bit ironic, since his son, John Whitfield Middleton ended up being a rancher and adventurer who many believe fought alongside Billy the Kid during the Lincoln County War of the 1870s before splitting ways with the famous outlaw and returning to Texas ranch life. Both men lived into their 90s.

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My heart broke to see the numerous tombstones of children who’d not lived to see their first birthday, a somber reminder of how difficult life was back in the 1800’s.

And then, I found this pair . . .

My favorite find in the cemetery was this pair of grave markers. They instantly made my romantic imagination run wild. This hand-carved tombstone seemed so precious and personal. Carved, my imagination wants to believe, by the grief-stricken physician husband who’d not been able to save his beloved wife. In fact, his grief was so great, he left the “c” out of their surname – McPherson – and had to add it to the left of the name as an afterthought. No date is visible on the wife’s grave stone, but the doctor was buried beside her in 1905 at the age of 87.

  • Do you ever walk through old cemeteries and imagine the lives of the people who lay there?
  • What are some of your favorite history-related finds that you’ve come across either on vacation or just a random encounter?
  • Any famous ancestors in your family tree?
Karen Witemeyer
For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

35 Comments

  1. Karen- I love this and I know where Acton is, I’m from Stephenville, TX just 30 miles from Granbury, what a small world. I love looking at the old grave markers from days gone by.
    Well I do have a famous person in my family. I’m a distant cousin to Bonnie Parker. My dad can tell just how we are related, but I can’t remember the exact way, so I won’t even try to describe. Thanks for a great blog!!

    1. Have you ever visited the Acton Cemetery, Tonya? I just loved walking through all that history. And you’re related to Bonnie Parker? How fascinating. What a colorful character to have decorating your family tree. 🙂

  2. Thank you for the post Karen and the pictures. I enjoy walking through old Cemeteries to read the old grave markers. There is a small cemetery near me the has grave markers dating back to the late 1700’s. It was sad to see how the shape of some. Crumbling and broken. But members of the Church decided to repair them due to the historic nature of them all.
    Carol Luciano

    1. How wonderful to have so much history in your area, Carol. I’m guessing you are on the east coast somewhere? I remember being on a high school trip back east and coming across a small churchyard with gravestones. They were all historic, many of them dating back to the 1700s. Such rich history!

  3. Yes, I love walking through them. And I have an ancestor that founded Western Kentucky University……

    1. How cool, Tonya! I love that your ancestor valued education so much and shared that love with thousands to come after him.

  4. I have many time. We have many family or ranch graveyards that are small and the stones are amazing to try and decipher.

    1. I think the mystery inherit in deciphering the old worn stones is part of the charm. Though it can be frustrating when I can’t make out the writing.

  5. Karen, love this post! There was a small family cemetery on the hill at my grandmother’s that I would walk up to and visit when I was younger. I could barely read the names then, and probably couldn’t make them out now, but I’d love to walk back up there and try.

    I have a few famous ancestors. On my dad’s mom’s side of the family, our ancestors came over with William Penn. Another ancestor-Rittenhouse-had the first papermill in PA. A farther back ancestor was a baron. Also, Olive Schreiner is in our family tree. She is an author from South Africa. Her father was a missionary from Germany. I love genealogy and love hearing people’s history. I would love to eventually write the story of my dad’s ancestor who came from Germany in the 1850s. I’ve traced that ancestry back to the 1600s.

    1. I love that you’ve done so much research into your genealogy, Sally! And what a rich history you have. Back to William Penn. Wow!

      Did you ever watch the TV show Timeless? It was only on for a couple seasons. It was about a group of time traveling scientists/historians. They were battling a powerful villain organization called … Rittenhouse. Ha! I guess they grabbed a name out of history and your family was selected.

      1. I hadn’t watched that! That’s an awesome name lol.

  6. I really do enjoy going to old cemeteries. I just wish my husband shared the same interest because I won’t go wandering alone. I liked the old cemetery in Galveston the best of all of the ones I have visited. But I do remember when I was a little kid exploring the woods and finding an alone grave marked Jesse James. I’m sure it was just someone with the same name as this was in New York. But it was still interesting. The boys threatened to dig it up so I left. I didn’t ant to see a dead body. LOL! But of course they didn’t do it. I think they were just trying to scare us girls.

    1. What a fun story, Janine! There was a Jesse James buried at the Acton Cemetery, too, but he was laid to rest next to his wife and the more modern tombstone had him born in the 20’s, I think.

      I did have one rather creepy moment in the cemetery. It was early afternoon, bright sunshine, and I wasn’t the only one there, but the wind kicked up and started a little whirlwind of dead leaves a few feet from where I stood. It howled and swirled and moved straight for me. I remember smiling and thinking that if I was the superstitious sort I would be freaking out. Instead I just turned my back and let the swirling leaves smack into my legs and the back of my head as the little whirlwind passed. I wish, now, that I had taken a photo. It was just the right touch of creepy to fuel my imagination without actually scaring me. 🙂

      1. That is a cool experience. I could have just been someone saying hello and thanking you for visiting.

  7. Great post, Karen! I live a couple of hours from Washington on the Brazos. It would be a fascinating area to explore.

    1. I imagine so, Caryl. Another area I’ve never explored. And such a vital part of Texas history.

  8. I lived close to a cemetery for a few years as a child, I developed an odd fascination with graveyards. I loved reading the headstones. As a teen, we went to “visit the graves” with my grandmother, in a smaller than small town in Indiana. Her parents were buried there. There were plenty of hand-carved markers. I remember some of the older professionally carved stones, there were dates in the 1700’s. My grandmother is buried there now. Visiting ghost town graves out west was very sad, so many children and young mothers.

    1. I love that you visited with your grandmother, Andrea. And seeing lives reflected there from the 1700’s – that’s just humbling and awe-inspiring to me. You’re right about the children, though. So tragic to lose so many so young. Thanking God for my healthy children and for the medical advances that have helped to keep them that way.

  9. I’ve tramped through cemeteries for the love of history and genealogy. History first: The Granary Burying Ground in Boston has Paul Revere, the five victims of the Boston Massacre, and three signers of the Declaration of Independence: Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Robert Treat Paine. Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia has Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence. Then there’s Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, SD. And so on. If I’m there, I’m a-gonna look. 🙂

    Genealogy: My mom, son and I started my genealogical journey tramping through Oklahoma cemeteries looking for my great-grandparents and other relations from when they were there during Indian Territory days. Over time, I traced my mom’s family back through the South, state by state, one at a time during vacations, including cemeteries as well as courthouses and the like until I found my original colonial ancestor right here in the Northeast in the late 1600s, married to a Quaker and living among them all his life, which eventually lead me to finding his family back in England into the 1500s via parish records.

    My odd story is that although my mom’s family was from Oklahoma, as I grew up in the Northeast, we traveled regularly about an hour away to visit family members. And guess where that 1600s ancestor had lived and was buried ? About a mile away from the route of our routine journeys, passing him all those years, every time, without ever knowing. It’s a small world. Also smaller because I met new, distantly related cousins everywhere.

    My most famous relation it turns out was Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. In the PBS documentary “The Civil War” by Ken Burns, historian Shelby Foote states that the Civil War produced two “authentic geniuses”: Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest. NBF is buried in Memphis (for now) but his statue was just recently removed.

    1. Wow, Eliza! That is fabulous! Famous ancestors, retracing your family’s steps without even realizing it, and getting to see so many founding fathers. You are my tombstone tromping hero!

  10. My mom and I are tracing our family trees and enjoy going to cemeteries where we believe that ancestors have been buried. I love to look at the old headstones, some of which are very ornate and others that are very simple. We haven’t been able to find proof yet, but we believe that Captain Cook and Jesse James are possible ancestors on my dad’s side of the family. It’s exciting to do all this research. I enjoy learning about the history of my family.

    1. I love that you and your mom are sharing that journey back through time together, Theresa. I hope you turn over a few interesting ancestors in your search, famous or not. 🙂

  11. I’ve walked through many cemeteries the one’s I find hardest are the orphanages that burned to the ground with so many children inside or when an epidemic hit an area. No famous in our family tree but sure is cool to see headstones of people rich or poor.

    1. My heart break for those little ones, too, Kim.

  12. I love going to cemeteries! I’ve been to several looking for ancestors and found a lot of them. But the older the tombstones are the more Intrigued I am to know their history. I have found ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary and Civil War.
    For me the tombstone I would love to know more about are the unmarked graves. Just a rock sits where they are buried. The name buried with them.

    1. Doesn’t that make your imagination spin, Pam? So many questions about who the unknown person was and how he/she came to be buried there. Who knew a cemetery could be such an inspiring place? 🙂

  13. When we were kids our parents took us to the cemetery in the summer to help take care of the family plots—-no “perpetual care”at that time–and we would explore looking for our ancestors and people our grandmother and dad had told us stories about. We learned a lot of local history this way and being in northeast NY there were dates from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. I’ve enjoyed exploring cemeteries ever since.

    1. What a great way to learn family history! How wonderful to hear stories about family members as you tended the graves. And all the other history surrounding you as well. Fascinating!

  14. I also enjoy looking at tombstones. I like Tonya Lucas am from Stephenville. I have actually been to the Acton cemetery. I attended a funeral service there about 33 years ago. I also enjoy the old grave stones. It also breaks my heart to see the gravestones for babies and kids.

    1. We tromped some of the same ground, Stephanie. 🙂 So much history there. I’m so glad I had the chance to experience it.

  15. I’ve gone through cemeteries and taken pictures of tombstones to catalog my ancestry.

    1. That’s a great way to not only find genealogy, but to feel close to family members that came before. Thanks, Denise.

  16. I don’t see my comment listed. I fell asleep posting it and likely shut the computer down before posting it. When traveling in Quebec, Canada, we noticed in some places the older grave markers were metal not stone. Never did find out why. The way wives are listed is interesting. They are listed by their maiden name, then wife of “the husband’s name” plus the dates. The husband is listed by just his name and of course the dates. Children are sometimes listed as “child of” and sometimes just with their name and dates. We have seen similar listings on a few old stones in New Orleans, LA. At one church in a small town, all the grave markers (mostly metal) were in rows next to the church. The markers were close enough in the rows to touch each other and the rows were only about 3 feet apart. It was not possible to have coffins under them. Asking around we finally found someone with enough broken english to answer our questions. It seems the only place to put a parking lot was where the graveyard was located. So they moved the stones and displayed them on one side of the church and paved over the graveyard. I have never heard of something like this being done. I love to go through old cemeteries. You can learn so much from the old stones. What were the predominant groups that settled there. What was the mortality rate among children. How well off were the community members. Sometimes they put other interesting information on tombstones. It does tell you much about the area. The burials in Williamsburg, VA are really interesting. They put a lot of information on the “lids” over the graves of the wealthy.

    1. What an interesting and strangely sad story about the church and its parking lot, Patricia. The metal grave markers is something I’ve not seen. I’d be interested in learning more about that as well.

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