Gilleland Family Cemetery:
A Preservation Challenge

Recently, a New Jersey resident came Catawba County to visit the last tangible memory of his ancestors. In a neglected cemetery in Sherrills Ford, he discovered the stones memorializing his long-dead family members. Passing behind an electric fence, he was saddened to learn that cows had trampled the grave stones, all of which were laying flat upon the ground. Many had been broken--all had suffered indignities that only cows can inflict. The cemetery had been the resting place for many pioneer members of the Gilleland family who arrived in Catawba County before the Revolutionary War.

The cemetery is currently inaccessable, with no public access, contrary to NC General Statutes (see below). The landowner has expressed no inclination to protect the gravesite, in spite of offers by family members to enclose the cemetery at their expense. Such disregard for our precious past and for the memories of the long-dead is challenge constantly faced historians who lack the resources to protect these historic treasures.

To better understand the historic nature of the cemetery and the men, women and children who lie buried there, a list of the graves stones and their inscriptions are provided here. Of note is the fact that some of these people were born well before the Revolutionary War, during a period when the Catawba Valley was under attack by Indians.

These stones were read in 1986 and their incriptions recorded.
Since then, many have disappeared and others have been destroyed.

  • Caroline, Wife of J.W. Litton, June 26, 1825-Jan 30, 1892. The blessing of the quiet life Fell on us like the dew and good thoughts
  • J.W. & G. Litton, Infant died Decem the 5th 1849
  • Infant Son of T. & M.A. Gilleland, Died July 17, 1825, Aged 21d
  • Elizabeth Gilleland, April 8, 1829-Aug 10, 1849. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
  • Mahala A., Wife of T. Gilleland, Dec 9, 1800-June 2, 1880, Aged 79y 5m 23d. In God's own name her orb will rise once more a star in paradise.
  • Alfred H. Son of TL & E Litton, Died May 19, 1874, Aged 2y 1m 2d
  • Infant daughter of T. & M.A. Lennard. Died April 15, 1897, Aged 1d Only a little bud.
  • Thomas Gilleland, Feb 26, 1804-March 23, 1888. A precious one from us is gone, A voice we loved is stilled.
  • Nancy C. Gilleland, Dec 30, 1836-June 15, 1905, Aged 68y 5m 15d. Gone but not forgotten.
  • Lucinda Gilleland, Jan 10, 1831-Sept 28, 1913. Beloved in life Remembered in death.
  • Archie B., Son of E.Y. & A.J. Lee. Born May 27, 1906, Aged 6w
  • Tho. Gilleland, Died Oct 12, 1825, Aged 61y 1m 19d
  • Absalom Sherrill, July 28, 1824-Sept 24, 1876
  • In Memory of an infant daughter of H.A. & S.M. Gilleland Died Feb. 12, 1879, Aged 3y 6m 17d. Budded on earth to bloom in Heaven.
  • Macy, infant daughter of E.Y. & A.J. Lee, July, 1907
  • Infant Son of E.Y. & A.J. Lee, Feb 14, 1901
  • Mary Wife of Tho. Gilleland, Died Dec 22, 1843, Aged 82y 10m 14d
  • Sacred to the memory of Benjamin S. Jones Who departed this life Dec 3, 1834 Aged 10m 14d
  • In Memory of Ella N., daughter of HS & SM Gilleland. Died April 6, 1864, Aged 2y. Rest loved one, rest. While thy body is moldering Thy spirit is boarn away on Eagels wings to a better home in Heaven.

The above cemetery survey was was performed on 23 March 1986 by Elizabeth Bray Sherrill, Samuel F. Sherrill and Jan Brown.
[Catawba County Cemeteries, Vol. 1:75]

The ultimate indignity

This is the cemetery as it currently exists, represented by photos taken by Jeffrey Thomas, descendant of the Gilleland family.

Additional pictures of the gravestones in this
threatened cemetery may be found

As a footnote, Mr. Thomas has attempted to gain the attention of the public by contacting local officials and the newspaper. Thus far, those responsible for enforcing state and local ordinances have been strangely unreceptive. The Hickory Daily Record has been exceptionally helpful in publicizing the plight of this threatened cemetery. A front page report and the follow-up article by the NC State News follows:

Cows overrun cemetery
One man's pasture is another man's past

Record Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006

CATAWBA - Jeffery Thomas wants to preserve the graves of his ancestors. They rest in a burial site off the beaten path and inside what is now a cow pasture.

The landowner wants to use his land as he sees fit. He’s raising 200 head of beef cattle and does not want them disturbed.

Can the two sides agree about the property?

It may take the courts to decide this dispute between the graves and the grazers.

For 15 years, Thomas, a registered nurse from New Jersey, has been tracing his genealogy. His search ended in a remote area of southeastern Catawba County.

Thomas visited there recently on his way back from a trip to Georgia. On Aug. 4, with directions from the county library’s genealogist in hand, Thomas drove the twisty rural roads to the plot where his fifth great-grandfather, Thomas Gilleland and his wife, Mary, lie.

What he saw dismayed him. Just 200 feet off Hopewell Church Road is a stand of trees. Cows stood grazing, hunkered in the shade trying to beat the midday heat. The headstones of Thomas’ beloved ancestry, dating back to 1824, lay on the ground. As Thomas surveyed the scene, his heart sank.

"I actually stood on that cemetery and cried," he said. "I find it frightening that the landowner allowed his cows to take over the cemetery. This is my family history."

Landowner Gary Dellinger bought the property about 15 years ago. His cows freely roam the land.

Dellinger, who owns a pre-cast and rental company in Denver, discovered the cemetery as the land was being cleared. He says he wanted to leave the cemetery intact.

"If I didn’t want the graveyard there, I would have pushed it down," Dellinger said.

Thomas thinks the cemetery belongs to his family, not Dellinger. He’s willing to spend the money to clean it up and put a fence around it.

"It’s our main objective," he said. "That cemetery is a part of Catawba County history."

Ward Sutton owns a cemetery relocation business in Rocky Mount. He deals with cases like this every day.

Sutton says Dellinger should allow Thomas access to the cemetery.

"He (Dellinger) didn’t buy the cemetery, he bought the land up to that," Sutton said. "Those people have rights to that cemetery."

N.C. law seems to agree. General Statute 65-74 requires that "A descendant, with the consent of the public or private landowner, may enter the property of another to discover, restore, maintain or visit a private grave or abandoned cemetery."

Statute 65-75 states that a descendant can petition the clerk of court to allow access to the cemetery.

Dellinger has no problem with allowing a fence around the cemetery. He does have a problem with access to the cemetery. He says he can’t leave the gate unlocked all the time.

Dellinger wants to work with Thomas. He just hasn’t heard from him.

"If he really cares about his ancestors, and was truly sincere about keeping up the cemetery, he would call me," Dellinger said. "If I have a problem, I go to the source, I don’t go to a newspaper."

Thomas says he has tried numerous times to reach Dellinger, but was unsuccessful.

"I honestly didn’t know how to reach him," Thomas said. "I’m more than willing to work with him, I’m not trying to cause him any problem at all.

"I don’t want this to go to court. At the same time, he’s got an electric fence. What am I supposed to do, jump the cattle gate?" | 322-4510 x5406 or 304-6913

From beyond the Catawba County area, voices speak
in support of preservation of the historic cemetery.

Hope for understanding on old family cemetery

Regarding the story in the Aug. 27 paper, "Cows overrun cemetery," I can certainly understand Mr. Thomas's anger and frustration.

Like him, my roots are also in the Catawba-Lincoln-Gaston County area, and I have done my share of searching through cemeteries that have been and still are subjected to abuse and neglect —from man and the elements. However, my husband and I have been most fortunate in that we have made it our habit to ask the landowner's permission to visit a particular cemetery and we have always been treated with the utmost courtesy on those occasions.

Mr. Dellinger is quoted as having said, "If I didn't want the graveyard there, I would have pushed it down." I hope he was misquoted and that he most certainly is not of the opinion that he has a right to destroy an irreplaceable piece of history simply because it happens to lie within the confines of his property.

After all, one has only to access the genealogical resources in local libraries to confirm that the Dellingers were instrumental in settling this portion of the Piedmont and that the remains of these dear people, as well as those of my own Bollinger and Hager ancestors, are scattered throughout the region.

I hardly think Mr. Dellinger would want the graves of his kin desecrated by having someone "push it down."

Quite often, the fragile old tombstones contained in these abandoned cemeteries are the only written testimony to a life once lived. The history contained in their inscriptions might be our only link to the past. These places need to be protected, and I do hope that Mr. Thomas and Mr. Dellinger can come to a mutual understanding on this matter.

Today, we spend countless thousands of dollars in our efforts to preserve our history by restoring landmarks and older homes in commemoration of our forefathers, yet we deny many of these simple folks from bygone years the dignity of a final resting place free from the encroachment of man. What is wrong with this picture?

Judith McSwain Rock Hill, S.C.

[Hickory Daily Record, "Your Voice," (editorial page, September 5, 2006]

UPDATE: This cemetery has been saved from destruction. A fence has been erected around it and the broken gravestones will be repaired. A dedication will take place during the summer of 2007. Details to follow.

For a Clarification of Laws pertaining to cemeteries
in North Carolina, please visit the
North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
web page



--Derick S. Hartshorn

Member Assn. for Gravestone Studies

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Derick S. Hartshorn - 2008
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