A Preservation Challenge;
Saving the Oldest Catawba County Cemetery
Derick Hartshorn picks up a marker
that had fallen in the Wilson-Robinson Cemetery.
At left is the grave of James Robinson who died in 1786.
Note: This cemetery
contains the remains of members of the
Wilson family who are described in detail at the WILSON web site.
Off Startown-Lincolnton Road, past rolls of hay and a dead end sign, at the end of a half-mile red dirt read winding between two pastures, past goats, cows, and yapping dogs, lies a forgotten and decaying piece of Catawba County's history.
Tree roots and time threaten to destroy a cemetery holding the remains of Catawba County pioneers. Their descendants say the First Presbyterian Church in Newton has neglected to care for the graves of the Wilson, Robinson, and Angel families.
A layer of leaves, weeds, and rotting limbs cover the graves of 27 men, women, and children who lived and died between 1717 and 1919. Cows may have toppled recently downed gravestones. Piles of cow dung litter the graves. The fence seems intact, but cows found their way in nonetheless.
The fields of pasture around Sherrill's family farm in Newton once sustained three pioneering families through America's birth, the, Civil War, and Emancipation. The families started to leave their home after the 1840's and left behind the land of their forefathers. By 1920, they had urbanized.
Today, gravestones in a lot on the edge of a field are the in only signs that the community ever existed, and few people know about the gravestones "It's just something that people have passed down by word of mouth," said Derick Hartshorn, a local genealogist.
Weeds three and four feet high grow along the field's most recent human labor, a chain-link fence constructed a half-century ago.
Just inside the fence, a second, older boundary mark made of stone slabs and a single chain runs along the inner perimeter. It dates back to around the turn of the century
Inside, shaded under a canopy of dense foliage, rests the bones of Matthew Wilson, an Irish immigrant who settled in Catawba County in 1752. His son, Andrew Wilson, 1761-1845, and 25 other. Catawba County ancestors are buried here alongside him. These graves are some of the earliest graves in Catawba County.
The cemetery holds the body of Elias Wilson, 15; Liney Angel; 14;;Andrew Q. Wilson, 5; and Andrew Wilson, 18 months. The bodies of, Joseph Wilson and Catherine Debtor Wilson lie beside the bodies of another Joseph Wilson and Catherine Robinson Wilson.
One gravestone depicting the Angel of Death marks the grave of James Robinson who died June, 1817. "I know that Matthew Wilson probably died sometime before 1790," said Hartshorn: "Most of the graves that are in this cemetery are family members, Robinsons and Wilsons." Hartshorn said he did not think any of the grave stones had been replaced.
Their servants' remains lie in graves outside the fence. Rocks still mark some graves. Another 50 or more are buried there. Until 1960, a board fence protected the slave graves. The boards no longer stand.
A memorial marker erected in 1912 states that Matthew Wilson and his wife Charity Smith Wilson married in Ireland in 1740. They came to America in 1745. In 1755, North Carolina Provincial Governor Arthur Dobbs issued to Matthew Wilson a 510-acre land grant.
The couple moved to Catawba County before the French and Indian War, when migration into Catawba County stopped for eight years. "Pioneers either came before or after, and they all came the same way, down the great wagon road from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pa., down through Winston-Salem, down to alongside the Catawba River.
But the cemetery with so much history has long since started to deteriorate. Dead limbs and weeds make the ground indistinguishable from that of nearby woods.
"A lot of these trees are growing up through markers and are being permanently destroyed or lost," said Hartshorn.
The cemetery now belongs to the First Presbyterian Church in Newton, and the :Church is responsible for the site's' care.
The church, agreed to take the cemetery in 1978 after Thomas W. Warlick, a Newton attorney, and his sister, Martha Warlick Brame of North Wilkesboro took a turn looking after the site. Warlick said volunteers for the job are scarce, but the church would welcome any assistance.
"If the cemetery was deeded to a church, they should keep it up, If they are not willing to do so, then Catawba County or the City of Newton should see that it is maintained as a historical site," said Marti Sherrill, a Wilson descendant who now lives in Auburn, Georgia.
"My wife and I visited the cemetery about four months ago and were appalled at the condition we found the site to be in. While this is off the beaten path, those buried there are family members," said Joe Brown of Hickory, husband of another Matthew Wilson descendant.
"I cannot believe those entrusted with the responsibility of caring for this hallowed place would permit it to get in the shape it's in. I want to believe the church entrusted with this is unaware of the responsibility they were given. In this cemetery are the relatives of Judge Wilson Warlick and many others who contributed to Catawba County.
The Historical Association might be interested in this project," said Brown.
"I'm disappointed, of course. I think cemeteries deserve better care," said Sidney Halma, director of the Catawba County Museum of History.
However, the Catawba County Historical Association could not take over the site until it meets three requirements: First, family cemeteries must have a fence around its perimeter. The chain link fence surrounding the cemetery now has some historical significance and will require yet another fence to protect it.
Second, someone must treat the cemetery to an initial cleaning. That means, someone will have to rid the area from intrusive roots, weeds, and trees.
Third, organizers must set for the Association an endowment fund to pay for future upkeep. Since the Historical Association is a private nonprofit organization, it relies on donations. Taking care of family cemeteries like Wilson-Robinson would drain the Association's resources, said Halma.
The cemetery fails to meet all three conditions.
Halma said he believed the First Presbyterian Church should assume responsibility for the cemetery's maintenance. Failing that, the descendants of those buried in the cemetery should take over the task.
"I believe it is the custom of families to take care of graves of the families," said Wilson descendant Alice Wrenn of Newton.
To get to the Wilson-Robinson cemetery, go south 1.6 miles past the intersection of Startown Road and Highway 10. A wooden stake propped against a brick column on the right denotes the address, "4687." The paved road turns into dirt. Park at the end and walk or else open a gate to the right and drive through the pasture, following the trail left by tires. Close all gates. One may find the cemetery under a grove of trees past the power lines. The land surrounding the cemetery belongs to Buddy Sherrill of Hickory.
The above article appeared in the
Newton, NC Observer-News-Enterprise, August 14, 2001, pages 1,3.
Article and above photo by O-N-E Staff Writer, Thad Eckard
and Angel cemeteries
Catawba County Pioneer Cemetery Abandoned by Trustees
-a commentary by Derick S. Hartshorn -
The history of Catawba County goes back nearly a hundred years before it was formally organized in 1842. German and Scots-Irish settlers began arriving about 1747. One family, composed of Matthew Wilson and his wife, Charity, residents of Northern Ireland were responsible for settling an English-speaking conclave, in what is today, Catawba County, North Carolina. This unlikely family sailed for America in June, 1745. Settling briefly in Pennsylvania, they moved onward to North Carolina, traveling down the Great Wagon Road, about 1755. A colonial land grant of 510 acres provided ample space to raise a family and leave property to the eventual heirs. Today, that original plot of land encompasses much of the Newton Startown.
During the next two hundred years, the family increased in size and influence. As the years passed, many family members died and were buried in a cemetery on the family estate. The cemetery still exists and overlooks a portion of the new Highway 321, a little north of the Highway 10 exit.
Time has not smiled kindly upon this historic site. While the spot, known to historians as the Wilson-Robinson Cemetery, is one of the oldest in the county, it lies in poor shape, not having been maintained for many years. The occasional visitors do what they can to clear the brush that obscure the ancient stones but an organized effort is desperately needed. Access to the cemetery is somewhat limited. Having been there several dozen times, I fail to find this an impediment
Sometime after 1919, when the last burial was made, a trustee was found that agreed to maintain the cemetery, in perpetuity. Sadly, that trustee, the First Presbyterian Church of Newton, NC, has failed to exercise its trusteeship. Perhaps the passing years are responsible for this oversight or the fact that the church is unaware of its pledge.
As citizens begin to discover their heritage and value that what history has taught them, this is a most appropriate time to remind our dear friends at First Presbyterian church of the agreement they made some time ago. Especially so, since they have embarked upon a multi-million dollar building project and appear to have sufficient funds to clean up less than a quarter-acre.
If you would like to know how you can help, the key is in contacting the individuals most closely related to this neglected cemetery. The property holder and trustee is First Presbyterian Church of Newton. The pastor, Rev. Joseph Welker, Jr., [(828) 464-3610], should be able to rely on the church attorney, Thomas W. Warlick to explain the church's commitment to their trusteeship. For more details, see the bottom of this page.
--Derick S. Hartshorn
Member Assn. for Gravestone Studies
Clarification of Laws pertaining to cemeteries
in North Carolina, please visit the
North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources web page
PRESERVING CEMETERY DATA
THE NORTH CAROLINA CEMETERY SURVEY
UPDATE -8 Dec 2003
I am delighted to post this update of the Wilson-Robinson Cemetery Project. Before I attempt to include history on the folks who lie buried there, I'd like to relate today's (12-08-2003) experience.
John Jay Cline (Hickory Travel and close friend) and myself drove to the old cemetery in John's 4X4, within sight of the new US 321. With gullies and cow patties abounding, this was the only fit means of transportation.
We found the cemetery awash in winter weeds. One large oak, probably 50 years old, about the girth of a stout man, was growing up through and displacing the graves of some unknown Wilson children. Many trees surrounding the boundaries of this tiny 0.17 acre tract block the sun, even though all the leaves have fallen.
Refer to the cemetery plat (.17 acres) as:
PARCEL ID: 362814445994 on the Catawba Co. GIS site
[MAP TO CEMETERY]
[John Cline walks amid the tumbled,broken and neglected stones]
A movement has begun to restore this historic spot. John Cline, above, is the Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop #903 sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church of Newton. They have offered to take on this cemetery as their troop project.
Cline expresses concern over the condition of
In addition, there is another area of sacred
groundthat needs to be recognized and honored.
It is no secret that some members of the Wilson family were slave-owners, as were their cousins, the Robinsons.
James Robinson, contemporary of Matthew Wilson, and future in-law of many Wilsons, was the grandfather of Henry Weidner Robinson. Henry was listed in the 1850 census as owning 34 slaves.
The concern of slave owners for their charges appears to have been, for the most part, relatively benign. Catawba County history shows David Robinson as owner of a ninety-year old male slave. At the time (1850), David (1751-1801), son of James (1725-1786), was probably more of a companion to this 90-year old black man than an owner. Both of them were in the winter of their lives. Both are buried at this site. David's grave is marked. His companion's grave is not.
[John Cline examines the gravestone from another century.James Robinson, the Pioneer (1751/52-1786) lies here.
And here are the results:
The citizens of Catawba County and historians everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to John Cline, Jr. and Boy Scout Troop 903 for the great effort they made in saving this endangered cemetery and making others aware of the struggle that historic sites everywhere face.
And here's another thorny point: The Wilson-Robinson families owned a minimum of 69 slaves in 1850.
The burial place of these children of God, servants to their owners, lies but a hundred feet away from the white cemetery. Looking beyond the cemetery, toward a magnificent oak tree, twelve-feet in diameter and likely a sapling duriing the War Between the States, one can distinguish depressions in the ground.These are the graves where the slaves were laid to rest. Known but to God, these, His children, lie buried here.
This project is a wonderful opportunity for folks of all ancestries to come together. As a people, we have more in common than not. A great sense of heritage flows through the blood of all of us. The desire is there but cohesiveness seems to be lacking. The many competing interests, some of which seem to be designed to enrich the egos of some participants, stifle concrete action. Until Catawba County adopts a common sense approach to heritage preservation, all the do-gooders and posturing panderers will continue to flounder in their own self-importance and waste well-intentioned contributions and resources.
Since the very first CATAWBA COUNTY WILSON REUNION, an annual gathering of the descendants of Pioneer, Matthew Wilson, the Wilson-Robinson Cemetery restoration and preservation project has been our focus and concentrated goal.
We welcome to our family all those who lived in the Wilson-Robinson community, regardless of their heritage. This is a wonderful opportunity for all folks to work together.
The old slave cemetery existed at the foot of the old oak tree for several centuries. Thus far, this hallowed site has failed to gain any sense of recognition. Too many years have passed since we recognized the heritage of those who preceded us, regardless of heritage.
People of both colors shaped and settled this county. The time has come to recognize and work with them.
Created 29 Dec 2001
Derick S. Hartshorn - © 20113