Dorchester history is set in stone

Grave-inscription researchers for the Upper Dorchester County Historical Society occasionally had to piece together old headstones to read them. John Coburn, of Givhans, died in 1819.

ST. GEORGE — The grave hunters took it shard by shard, digging out one headstone shattered into more than a dozen pieces, getting down on their hands and knees to scavenge what they could, then putting it all together like a jigsaw puzzle.

That might be the most remarkable thing about the book “Memorial Stones”: the community that compiled it.

The exhaustive compilation of 15,000 gravestone inscriptions in more than 150 cemeteries was just released by the Upper Dorchester Historical Society.

Cemetery genealogies tend to be assembled by a single devotee or a few diehards. This one was amassed by more than 50 volunteers.

They gave time over two years, wending through fields and woods, to ferret out even the most obscure family graveyards in the upper county and nearby region.

They were helped by untold people who pointed the way — members of old families, church elders, deer hunters. The community that wanted their own remembered.

The inscriptions recorded date back to Rebecca Stiles, 1695-1749, whose finely carved stone stood abandoned “way out in the middle of the woods by itself,” said Bill Blakely, of the group.

The inscriptions include astonishing information, such as for Addie Kitt Smith, who lived from 1862 to 1982, according to her headstone.

Some of the inscriptions are long, hymn-quoting odes to an “unblemished name.” Some are single word epitaphs: “Quartermaster.”

The work was relentless, hand-over-hand, sometimes with picks and shovels. Where researchers found two stones standing, they might find another dozen covered over.

They were packing it in after one long hot day in the Shady Grove Cemetery when Alin Rigby asked the others if they wanted to do the “extension” too. Back in the woods, unknown to them, more graves waited.

When society president Phyllis Hughes mentioned that painstaking detail at a ministers’ meeting, one minister asked, “Did you get the (cemetery) across the ditch?” So back she went.

“Memorial Stones” breaks ground in the upper county by including both black and white cemeteries.

Rigby, who is black, took a personal pride in recording in those cemeteries. She just turned 90 years old.

“This is an historic time for me,” she said. “Beautiful. It goes so far back,” she said about the book.

The book is the cornerstone to what society members hope will be an ongoing genealogical database for families to research, Hughes said.

“So all of our great-grandchildren can come find (family history),” she said. Any number of the inscriptions that searchers uncovered were all but faded away. “A lot of these people would have been gone if it hadn’t been for the book.”

It’s another milestone, as well, for the grass-roots society in its by-the-boots effort to foster the little-regarded, storied past of the rural county.

Hughes points to the inscription for 16-year-old Willie O’Brien in the mid-19th century.

The tale is that O’Brien wandered up out of nowhere as a young teen in the midst of the Civil War, never told anyone who his people were or where he came from.

At night he would sit for hours in the Buck Springs cemetery, even though he didn’t know anyone buried there. He eventually was buried beside them.

The story isn’t on his headstone. It’s in the Diary of David Gavin, a one-of-a-kind saga of the rural county’s past.

The diary was in fragments among a few families, half-forgotten, until the society put it back together and published a few years back.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.