OPINION | Tom Dillard: Cemeteries contain important pieces of Arkansas’ past

For readers who do not share my enthusiasm for cemeteries, please forgive this second-in-a-row foray into some of the burial grounds of Arkansas.

Every cemetery in the state has a story behind it. Every person buried in every cemetery has a story. Cemeteries help us recognize the outstanding among us and honor those who died in service to the United States. In addition to historical significance, cemeteries offer ever-elusive quiet time for a walk or a green space to sit and reflect not only on those dead and buried, but also on the times in which they lived.

Also, I simply have more to say about graveyards.

Arkansas is home to thousands of cemeteries, many of which have been lost to memory. This is especially true of family burial grounds, which were common throughout the antebellum era.

Among family cemeteries which still exist is the resting place of the pioneering Jacob Pyeatte family, who helped settle Crystal Hill along the Arkansas River upstream from Little Rock in 1812. Along with Jacob was a brother, John, as well as John Carnahan, a Cumberland Presbyterian minister. Carnahan preached what is said to be the first Protestant sermon in Arkansas in 1812.

The Pyeatte-Mason family cemetery with its 10 graves is the only surviving remnant of historic Crystal Hill. Enclosed in a fence, it's in Maumelle at the corner of Waterside and Lily streets.

Another example of a surviving family graveyard is the Whittington Family Cemetery near Mount Ida, the home of Granville Whittington. He was the progenitor of a family of accomplished people, including some living there today.

It is so easy for a cemetery to be lost. Many have eroded and washed into rivers, such as the original burial grounds at Arkansas Post. They were often abandoned when rural residents moved to towns.

But it is difficult to understand why a cemetery holding the dead from a Confederate hospital in Little Rock would be paved over by the city after the war.

In May 1904, city street workers were excavating at Broadway between 24th and 25th streets when human bones began to emerge. Throughout the summer more graves were encountered, and it does not appear that action was taken to retrieve the bones and other artifacts for safe keeping. The Democrat reported on July 14 that "a large number of bones is still being unearthed at the old Confederate cemetery ... and being thrown out on the bank of the cut by the workmen."

The shocking thing about all this is that the workers found nearly 20 tombstones, which had been laid flat when the area was originally covered over; the destruction of the cemetery was not an accident.

Most recorded death dates during April 1863. However, Sgt. M.V. Henley of Co. B, Missouri Volunteers, died Dec. 29 that year. Sadly, most of the tombstones, like the bones, were "carried away by the boys of the neighborhood," as the Democrat reported.

Those graves should have been relocated; the bodies had been buried only 40 years earlier. Failure to relocate seems to be an exception to the rule. The original graveyard in Little Rock, in the vicinity of the modern federal building, was relocated at least once. However, since exhumation and removal was up to the family of the deceased, not all the graves were moved, causing consternation over the following decades when construction workers had to deal with digging up human remains.

Fortunately, many of those killed on both sides in the Civil War were buried in organized cemeteries. Confederate and Union cemeteries can be found in Little Rock, Van Buren and Fayetteville, among several other places.

Those same cities are home to some of my favorite cemeteries, starting with Mount Holly in Little Rock. It's absolutely beautiful, packed with interesting tombstones and monuments, and easily accessible on Broadway just south of I-630.

I have written extensively on that burial ground and the numerous notables buried therein, so I will merely say that Mount Holly should be visited by anyone who appreciates Arkansas history and beautiful graveyards.

Evergreen Cemetery in Fayetteville is another historic burial ground. When there, I always make a point to visit the grave of Sophia Sawyer (1792-1854), famous for her work educating Cherokee girls and founding the Fayetteville Female Seminary in 1839. Another educator buried there is Walter Lemke (1891-1969), longtime professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas and a remarkable historian.

Very much unlike either of these accomplished educators was Archibald Yell, the gregarious but undisciplined early Arkansas governor and congressman killed in the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847. Yell's remains were moved from the battlefield after the war to the family cemetery in Fayetteville. In 1874 the Masonic order moved his coffin to Evergreen Cemetery.

Though Evergreen did not allow the burial of Black people, the Blakeley family insisted that their formerly enslaved servant Adeline Blakeley be buried in their plot. The family was rumored to have claimed the woman in the closed casket was an aunt. Miss Blakeley is well known in Arkansas history, in part for having been interviewed for the historical record on three occasions during her old age.

Another unexpected tomb can be found at a graveyard in Fort Smith's Forest Park Cemetery. It is the final resting place of Yanko Urich, known as the "King of the Gypsies," who died in Fort Smith in 1923 following surgery.

It turns out that Fort Smith was an important city for Gypsies who not only lived there but used the city as a gathering point and unofficial post office for Gypsy travelers throughout the area. Urich's funeral procession was preceded by a Gypsy band playing dirges. It is reported that his estate, which was probated locally, amounted to a staggering $200,000.

Note: I want to congratulate Governor-elect Sarah Sanders on her appointment of an outstanding person as Secretary of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism. Mike Mills is an excellent choice given his many years of experience in both parks and tourism. Stacy Hurst, the incumbent, was unsuited for the post, especially after she politicized the staff of the heritage agencies in her domain.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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