Source:Kenney, Andrew. Grave Hunters

Source Grave Hunters
Author Kenney, Andrew
Place Johnston, North Carolina, United States
Subject Cemetery records
Publication information
Type Article
Publisher The Herald
Date issued 29 July 2009
Periodical / Series name The Herald (Johnson County, North Carolina)
Volume / Film# / Pages 1,7
Kenney, Andrew. Grave Hunters. The Herald (Johnson County, North Carolina). (The Herald, 29 July 2009).
The Herald (Johnson County, North Carolina) website

Grave Hunters

By Andrew Kenney, Staff Reporter

Bentonville — With wide sweeps of a rusty bush ax, Owen Wilson cleared the tall grass from the tombstones. His ancestors’ graves had lain untended for years near a field of cotton on land once owned by his family. “Now, where do you think Mama’s mama and daddy are buried?” Wilson asked his sister, Barbara Whitfield, as he paused in the sweltering heat.

Wilson, 72, had come with his wife, Alma, from Jacksonville, Fla. to tend the family graveyard and find his grandparents’ graves, which the family suspects are unmarked. They found the graves of Wilson’s maternal great-grandparents when they discovered the family plot in rural Johnston County in 2006. But the resting place of his mother’s parents, Julius and Martha Cole, remained a mystery.

The family isn’t alone in their search. Johnston County is dotted with hundreds of graveyards large and small, many long forgotten, and in each rests the roots of a family tree waiting to be uncovered.

Now, for the third time in a century, a group is searching out the county’s lost souls. The Johnston County Heritage Center is updating its list of the county’s graveyards and the people buried in them.

“In olden days, the 19th century, before there were public ceremonies, people buried their kin on their land,” said Wingate Lassiter, director of the Heritage Center. “You ride through the countryside of Johnston County and you think about it: They’re just everywhere.”

Becky Owens, a genealogist at the Heritage Center, is leading the effort to index all of the county’s graveyards and cemeteries. “We’ve walked many a grave,” Owens said.

She and a handful of volunteers are searching out the graves that sleep in overgrown brush and alongside untended fields across the county. She thinks there could be more than 100 unlisted graveyards in the county, some with dozens of graves. The project also aims to update the listings for already-known cemeteries.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a federal program put some people to work gathering names of people buried in Johnston County. An early-1980s effort updated the list.

The results of the previous surveys are bound in seven black books that list more than 100,000 of Johnston County’s dead, some dating to the 1700s.

Forgotten graves

The Town of Selma has worked to uncover one nearly forgotten site. Two dozen headstones mark Walnut Grove, a cemetery near the J.R. Tobacco store just off Interstate 95. They’re still hard to find if you’re not looking, but a few months ago, they were almost totally hidden by trees and tall grass.

“It just looked like a big thick wood,” said Mayor Charles Hester. “You couldn’t even see in there, you wouldn’t know.”

Late last year, the town’s Public Works Department cut down many of the trees and slashed the undergrowth, revealing the graves of reverends, mothers and veterans of the two world wars.

Some of the tombstones are split in two or crumbled to bits, but a few are adorned with blooms of artificial flowers.

“It’s historical, and I think they should be preserved in respect to my family members,” said Quentin K. Wall, whose family once owned the predominantly black cemetery.

Hester said town crews estimated there are another 75 unmarked graves on the land. Wall’s family has owned nearby property since the mid-1800s, he said, but no one is quite sure who owns the graveyard now.


Walnut Grove is a new addition to the Heritage Center’s index, Owens said. She will soon send a volunteer out to survey the graves, bringing back photographs and names.

“We need volunteers, big time,” she said.

The database of graves at the Heritage Center is an important tool for the avid genealogists who come to research their families.

For her part, Owens has plotted out 50,000 of her relatives — turns out she’s a relative of George Washington.

Connie Fisher, a Heritage Center regular, has also traced the branches of her family tree.

“I’ve investigated everybody and his brother,” she said. “Obsessed, obsessed.”

The center’s resources include court records and shelf upon shelf of books and files. Owens is a walking database herself, often spouting off family members that her patrons didn’t know they had. “His name is Neil Davis, by the way, and he’s kin to you by the Coles,” she says to Fisher as she tells a story.

Owens even helped one man unearth a family secret. According to court records, his great-great-great-grandfather died at the hands of his own brother.

“I don’t know how she sleeps at night; her mind must be racing,” Alma Wilson said of Owens. Oz Owens, Becky’s husband, sometimes spends his days with her at the Heritage Center. To him, work with the dead is merely part of life.

“I buried many people out at Fort Bragg,” said the retired undertaker. “Eventually, you’re going back to that where you came.”


The graveyard in Bentonville was a chance for closure for Owen Wilson’s family. When they started, they knew nothing except the names of his parents and grandparents. More than anything, they were looking for the graves of his grandparents, who both died before his mother’s eighth birthday.

“We wanted to find it for my mother,” he said.

No one in the family knew where the site was; the Bentonville plot did not have graves marked with his grandparents’ names. Wilson’s late mother, Effie Wilson, could only recall crying and holding a fence in a field while her mother was lowered to her grave.

Even with the brush cleared, there was no sign of the grandparents’ graves in the family plot. The Wilsons, though, had a trick up their sleeves.

Alma Wilson pulled two L-shaped metal rods from her bag. She held them by their bent ends and gingerly walked across the tiny cemetery. The dowsing rods crossed as she stepped on a bare patch.

“Someone might be here,” she said.

She had learned the tradition from Owens, who calls herself a “grave witch,” at the Heritage Center the day before. The art of dowsing is not exactly scientific, but the rods do spin in one’s hands with a seeming life of their own.

“I’m still not convinced,” said P.D. Whitfield, Barbara Whitfield’s husband, as he looked on.

“You are a doubter,” Wilson said with a laugh.

“I’m from Missouri,” P.D. Whitfield said self-assuredly.

“You are a doubter.”

After months of searching, Owen Wilson and his family were ready to believe: Julius and Martha Cole had lain peacefully by their kin all along.

“I feel secure that they’re here,” Alma Wilson said.

“Oh, I do too,” said Wilson. “It makes you feel better to know — it’s just the emptiness.”

Soon, they said, they will buy a gravestone for Julius and Martha.