Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Walking Adirondack Cemeteries


I have always been fascinated by old cemeteries. There is something special about the serenity and peace of such places. To the observant visitor, they can also reveal much about the past, and perhaps, some insight into the lives of those who have preceded us.

My interest in cemeteries was re-awakened last year when I began working with other volunteers to restore, straighten, and preserve old headstones that had broken, fallen, or slipped lower into the soft earth at the Mill Creek Cemetery here in Johnsburg. That work, fun among friends of similar interest, re-ignited my interest in the stories these places hold.

If you also find yourself wandering old cemeteries, notice first the different types of stone used for headstones. The most ancient of these might be field boulders you may take for the natural state of the landscape. Then there are the headstones made of vertical tablets of slate or sandstone which were popular during the Colonial Period. You won’t find too many of those in the Adirondacks; most settlement here was of a much later period and slate tablets also quickly break down in the harsh climate of the Adirondacks. White marble headstones, popular in the mid to late 1800s and beautiful when new, will likely be covered with moss and lichens and pocked from years of spalling, a process where mineral salts are carried into the porous stone by moisture creating stress cracks within the stone. Acid rain also eats away at these stones; their inscriptions may be barely legible. Use of Granite headstones first became popular in the early 1900s as these heavy stones could easily be transported by rail to where they were needed. Given the hardness of granite, their inscriptions will likely last hundreds of years.

Next you might notice the various forms these headstones take. Some are strictly rectangular; others have slopes and curves. There are technical names for each of these. On some of the more orate headstones you will find designs and symbols.  In the 17th and early 18th Centuries headstones might be decorated with skulls, skeletons and spent hourglasses reflecting that eras preoccupation with death and mortality. In time, symbols of mourning gave way to gentler presentation with floral arrangements, urns and weeping widows. Any decoration today is more likely to reflect the occupation or recreational interests of the deceased. In Bates Cemetery, just off Goodman Road in Johnsburg, the headstone of George and Grace Lackey Morehouse features a television set headstone.

morehouse grave marker

Headstone of George and Grace Lackey Morehouse at Bates Cemetery

But I would ask that you also notice the orientation of the headstones. Do the inscriptions all face west? Some say that the early headstones inscriptions were oriented to the west so that the body, could, on Judgement Day, sit up, face east, and ascend to heaven.  Why east?  That is where dawn happens and the religious of that time believed that at dawn will be the beginning of Judgment Day. Others claim the orientation was towards Jerusalem, also to the east here in the Adirondacks. In time, orientation in the cemeteries changed, perhaps due to typography. Some faced the cemetery entrance in the belief that the revived could walk through the cemetery entrance to Heaven. In some cases, there is no fence or entrance, and the headstones just face the road.

The grounds of older cemeteries are often uneven, and one must watch their footing.  Tree roots are an obvious obstacle, but so too are older graves that have collapsed. It wasn’t until 1985 that most cemeteries required that caskets be sealed in concrete or reinforced polyethene liners.

One of my favorite cemeteries for exploring is the Wesleyan-Methodist Mill Creek Cemetery in Johnsburg, on Garnet Lake Rd, near Hudson Street. Many drive by it with hardly a glance; too few stop to explore its treasures. Among its headstones is that of Reverend Enos Putnam, an abolitionist preacher who decried slavery before the Civil War. Reverend Putnam died in March 1865, just months before the Civil War ended and about three years before the 14th amendment was passed freeing all the slaves, in the north as well as in the south. He is buried alongside his wife Sybil and their daughter Mary. The Putnam headstones are of marble, but their inscriptions are still quite legible.

cemetery headstone

“Rose of Paradise” engraving on the headstone of James D. Flansburgh’s wife, Mary

The Reverend’s daughter, Mary died February 20, 1862, age 21 years, likely from the trauma of childbirth. Note the rose motif on Mary’s headstone. The rose of Paradise adornment, without thorns, symbolizes being without sin and often was used on the graves of young woman. The family was unable to keep Mary’s infant son Frank alive after Mary’s death. Frank died March 7th, age 1 month and 12 days.  Mary’s husband, James Flansburgh, in rage over these deaths and feeling forsaken by God, soon thereafter enlisted with the 118th NYVI to fight in the Civil War. At his mother’ s request, his brother Henry signed on at the same time “to keep an eye on his brother” who, distraught over his personal losses, seemed to have a death wish. James’s recklessness on the battlefield was interpreted by his superiors as bravery; he was soon promoted from Private to Corporal and then to Sergeant. He was killed at the battle of Chaffin’s Farm on the outskirts of Richmond September 30, 1864, age 26 years and just months after his last promotion. Henry, James’ brother, had been wounded at the battle of Drury’s Bluff just 3 months before and was recuperating in a military hospital. Henry survived the war, but had lost the use of his right hand, a severe disability being right-handed. He found it difficult to do farm work on his return but was said to entertain the woman and children of the neighborhood when he learned to peel a potato solely with his left hand. Henry and his brother James are buried just a few feet apart, near Mary, James’ wife.

There is a quaint old cemetery on aptly named Christian Hill in North River. The first one said to have been buried there was three year old Christiana, killed in the midst of a storm when lighting struck a nearby tree. A limb broke free and fell, crushing her.

family plot cemetery

Baby shoes on the Jarus Westcott family obelisk

Family cemeteries can be particularly special places. They are often quite small, perhaps near the ruins of a stone foundation of a now long gone farmstead; forsaken in the woods, and slowly disappearing back into wilderness. One of the most picturesque family cemeteries I have ever found is the Wescott Family Cemetery in Bakers Mills, near the end of Bartman Road in Bakers Mills. This cemetery too features a Civil War veteran, Jarus Westcott. The cemetery is quite glorious in the fall, surrounded by fine field stone walls. A massive maple trees dominates the cemetery with its reds and yellows each autumn. There is only one headstone here, an obelisk, into which the names of the family have been cut. The family suffered great tragedy Christmas Day 1880 Alice J, born May 6, 1836, and Edna, born October 28, 1871, both died. Francis, Jarus’ wife, lived only until the following April and their daughter, Maud, died a month after, on May 27, 1881. This place seems to have become a pilgrimage for those who have lost young children; atop the obelisk someone has left a pair of baby shoes. Diphtheria swept those places in the 1880s and was likely the cause of theses tragic deaths, so close together.  Jarus lived until 1923.   The Jarus Wescott cemetery is on private land, but the public has graciously been granted access.

The old Reformed Dutch Cemetery on NYS Rt 28, just north of Wevertown, features an enclosure of large stones now leaning in various directions. There is a story that these large stones had been used as ship’s ballast, but I do not believe that is true. This cemetery is said to contain the remains of John Thurman (1729-1809). Thurman owned much of northern Warren County, northern Washington County and even some of southern Essex County. After the American Revolution he founded  the settlement of “Elm Hill” in Johnbsurg. There is indeed a headstone with the inscription “In the memory of John Thurman”. But is he really buried there? This is not the oldest cemetery in the Township; that lies in the hamlet of Johnsburg, adjoining the southside of the Johnsburg Methodist Church on South Johnsburg Road. In that cemetery there is the Dunn and Roosevelt family plot. These were John Thurman’s relatives. That family plot includes a very small rectangular stone simply marked “J.T.”.  Is this the true place of John Thurman’s burial?

At the Union Cemetery, on Main Street North Creek alongside the Baptist Church, you’ll find an obelisk listing the deaths of members of the Eldridge Family. Obelisks are a look back to Egyptian architecture and, according to Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister, represent a ray of sunlight. Being of marble, the inscriptions on the Eldridge obelisk are barely legible. If you look carefully, however, you’ll note that brothers, Jabey and Norman, were killed on the same day and on the same battlefield in Virginia during the Civil War. The Jabey and Norman notations on the Eldridge monument are likely commemorative. The same is true for most headstones for Civil War soldiers killed in battle. Their bodies, often unidentified, were most often buried in mass graves on the battlefield. After the war, many of these bodies were exhumed and placed in National Battlefield Cemeteries and marked with a white cross on which was carved “ UNK” for Unknown identity.

On the hilltop at Union Cemetery is the mausoleum of Melissa Persons, the mistress of lumberman Jones Ordway. Melissa bore several children with Jones while Jones’ legal wife and children were living in Glens Falls. It has been said that Melissa was very upset how everyone, including her parents and the folks in town, looked down upon her as an unwed mother “living in sin” with Jones. Her will stipulated that she was to have a mausoleum placed on the top of hill so she could look down on those same people forever.

Perhaps this Memorial Day or a day of your choosing, you might wish to check out your own local cemetery. What kind of stones are used? What is their design and orientation? What veterans have U.S. Flags by their headstones? Consider noting your favorite old cemeteries or interesting or historically significant headstones in the comment section below.

Old cemeteries can be fascinating places; places that can offer us entrance into a world we might not have otherwise imagined, if we only take the time to look.

Photo at top: Headstone of Civil War soldier Sergeant James. D. Flansburgh, killed at the battle at Chapin Farm, Virginia. All photos provided by Glenn Pearsall


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Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008), When Men and Mountains Meet (2013), and the Adirondack novel, Leaves Torn Asunder (2016).
In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park.

When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.


19 Responses

  1. Bob kibbey says:

    You never can tell while checking out head stones, when you’ll
    Meet a family relative.

  2. Eileen Quinn Graham says:

    Glenn, your articles are always so interesting. I could walk through an old cemetery for hours. Thank you.

  3. Douglas says:

    Dear Mr Pearsall,
    I was very impressed with the detail and obvious research that went into your article. The Adirondacks is a special place. Keep up the good work…

  4. John Omohundro says:

    As a manager of a large old rural cemetery myself, I enjoyed your article, Glenn. There’s an amazing amount of symbolism in tombstone art, and it does change over time. Hands pointing up, willow trees, broken columns, draped urns, open books, lambs… all mean something. And the epigraphs are great, when you can read them. One of my favorite conventional ones, popular in the 19th c.: “as you are now, I once was; as I am now, you will be.”

  5. nathan says:

    i find interesting in the adirondacks that when hiking along some areas off trails. That you can find foundations and graves in the middle of nowhere, how old some are and how many children never lived past 5. over the years of fishing and hiking all over I have stumbled across dozens of old foundations and some times a rock has been chiseled with names and dates marking graves. Long lost history when the adirondacks was cleared and farm steaded for generation.

  6. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “If you also find yourself wandering old cemeteries……”

    Now we’re talking! I’ve got more miles in cemeteries than I do anywhere else foot-wise. Some years back (ten or eleven years ago I believe) I started noting, or making a list, of ‘Cemeteries visited’ up here in the northeast. I never knew, or thought of, where this would go but it became a mission for me which I am still on every chance I get. After I made 500 graveyards, I aimed for 1000, which I accomplished on April 21,2021. Since then I am nearing 1100. I doubt I’ll get another thousand in as things are changing in my life, but every chance I get I’m stepping into a graveyard, old or modern.

    Most of the graveyards I have visited have been in Vermont which has some of the most interesting cemeteries, but then they all have their charm in some way or another. I have been in graveyards in some of the most out of the way places. I walked a mile into a woods near Peru, Vt. once to find the “Stone’ plot which is small and is surrounded by an old iron fence. Nothing exciting about it except for the fact it was way in the woods, and I believe the death dates went back to the 1840’s. A local whom I met at JJ Hapgoods told me where it was when I went through there some few years ago, so I went and found it. I’ve been to graveyards in Vermont both feet away from the Canadian border & feet away from the Massachusetts border; up and down and all over that most wondrous of states I have wandered old (and modern) graveyards. I have photos of every graveyard I have been in…..

    I don’t know why I am drawn to them but I am! They excite me, an energy overwhelms me whenever it is I step into a graveyard, especially the old ones. In Johnsburgh I’ve been to Pasco Cemetery & Johnsburg Church Cemetery. I’ve been to North River Cemetery; to the Cemetery on Rt 28 at Wevertown, NY; Union Cemetery, North Creek & to Melissa Persons mausoleum in the same, the mistress of lumberman Jones Ordway. Ordway was once a big name up in them parts as is revealed in Township 34 & other publications…..

    I can go on! I have seen some of the most interesting headstones, in some of the most out of the way places, and I sure as heck put many miles on roads dirt and paved up here in the northeast, generally in Vermont and New York, but also in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Many of them I happened upon, most of them I knew their whereabouts due to maps. I’ve met some of the most interesting people in graveyards who have had some interesting stories to tell. Also I have had some of the strangest coincidences relative to graveyards which I have entered into my journals.

    Paranormal & graveyards! I’ve got a few stories….and photos. I was with my little girl at Albany Rural one year at the Charles Fort plot, Fort who is considered the grandfather of the paranormal. I took a photo of my precious girl standing near Charles’ plot and when that image appeared in my camera (which I didn’t look at until some time afterwards) two bright glowing orbs, which look like ufo’s, one smaller than the other, were clearly visible in that image. The oddest thing! I took the photo to a specialist who said he never saw anything like it, and also he said that digital photography works in a linear way, or in horizontal or vertical lines, or something to that effect…. which didn’t fit the orbs in my ‘caught’ image. The 800 or so photos in my camera card prior to that one photo, and all of the photos after, were normal. Also I used no flash which would maybe account for the light from that flash somehow creating the images by way of dust particles in the air just maybe. And nothing had changed weather, or other-wise from the photos taking prior to, or after, that one image near Charles Fort’s plot. It was probably just a coincidence, but what with all of the other strange experiences I’ve had over my years, I keep an open mind. The image is very interesting to say the least, especially considering where it was taken!

    Also I have an image of a strange light my camera caught up in Green Ridge Cemetery in Saratoga Springs. Again, I used no flash for this early morning shot, which is probably explainable but you never know and it’s always good to keep an open mind, as I say! There’s much more but I’ve been a bore enough! Thank you for your story above, which invoked these memorable moments in my life!

  7. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Bob kibbey says: “You never can tell while checking out head stones, when you’ll
    Meet a family relative.”

    There is so much truism to what you say Bob. Through genealogical research I found distant relatives whom I never met, but whom I have communicated with, and shared information, for a bit….out of which came the discovery of a grave of a great aunt I visited in Forest Hills Cemetery Jamaica Plain, Mass. She died in the early 1890’s at the age of 21, or 22, after giving childbirth. Her name is not even on the headstone, but the names of two small children are. I knew she was there only due to cemetery records. Were it not for my research none of us ever would have known who she was or where she was buried. Another thing is….we can be passing people on the street who are kin to us and we never know about it. The only reason this is known is due to other’s stories relative to the same. Life is very interesting to say the least!

  8. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “Given the hardness of granite, their inscriptions will likely last hundreds of years.”

    This isn’t always true, as I have seen fairly modern granite stones whose etchings are barely discernible, which I believe is due to the carvers not etching deep enough, and the elements. There may be other factors also. I say etching, which is the way it used to be, but nowadays they sand blast the lettering and dates into the stones, but if they don’t go deep enough the wording fades which I have seen often. Another method for inscriptions is laser images which at first didn’t grab me as much as they do now. These laser images are the most interesting images I must say, and some of them, like epitaphs, are an indicator of who is creative and who is not. I take photos of the more interesting laser images which are a record for future historians as my understanding is these images will fade after so many years. I also understand that laser images are cheaper than engravings……which makes sense when considering the old adage, “You get what you pay for!”

  9. louis curth says:

    Appreciation is due to Glenn Pearsall for sharing his extensive knowledge of Adirondack history with the rest of us.

    Whatever subject he chooses to delve into, Almanack readers can be assured that Glenn’s offerings will be well written, thoroughly researched and always interesting.

    They also offer students of history a peek into the lives and times of the early settlers of the Adirondacks with lessons to help us better understand our own times.

    Thanks Glenn, and don’t forget to keep a watchful eye on my favorite mountain.

  10. Sharon Biesele says:

    Thank you Mr. Pearsall for this wonderful article. I, too, enjoy old cemeteries. The oldest one I have been in was in California in a little town called Amador. Amador had many fascinating aspects to it, especially considering you could walk the whole town in about 15 minutes. But the best part to me was the cemetery. The graves were very old and each one gave a glimpse into history. I was amazed at what you could learn from the few words listed on the stones. Many indicated the people buried there were a result of “shoot outs”. You have renewed my desire to visit more of these old cemeteries and for that I thank you.

  11. Deana Wood says:

    Thank you Glenn for the wonderful account of some of Johnsburg’s cemeteries. We certainly have learned a lot of interesting facts and discovered much about how our ancestors may have lived. Our journey continues as we work to clean and restore our Johnsburg cemeteries. Deana Wood, Town of Johnsburg Historian.

  12. marjorie palmatier says:

    Very interesting write-up re burial grounds.You have piqued my curiosity and we are already planning ‘a tour’ of some of the older cemetaries in my area..

  13. Charley Shields says:

    Of interest–when a gravestone has green algae on it, use “Wet and Forget” to remove, (can be obtained on Ebay or Amazon). Spray on with a garden pump sprayer and rain will clear it off.
    The spray is normally used on house sideing, decks, etc.
    Enjoyed the article. We have visited the famous Hope cemetary in East Montplier,Vt.

    • Deana Wood says:

      We, the Johnsburg Cemetery Volunteers, use a product called D-2. It is a biological product with no harmful chemicals. With the older stones sometimes we just spray them and leave them. The D-2 works great. We buy it from a company called Atlas Preservation. I haven’t checked the ingredients in “Wet and Forget”. Hopefully, it isn’t harmful to the stones.

  14. Bill Kitchen says:

    Does anyone know the story behind the television set headstone for George and Grace Lackey Morehouse?

  15. Charles Stehlin says:

    “Do TV repairman still exist?”

    Gone with the wind Glenn! There’s no need for Tv repairmen anymore as all is disposable nowadays, and by design at that. Why manufacture digital tv’s for longevity, and why supply parts, when they know people will keep buying new ones each time the old one blinks out 2 years later. Or is it 3? We just cannot live without our tvs! They know this! I haven’t owned one of them contraptions in over 30 years. Is why I’m so smart!

  16. Mark Friden, Clifton Town Historian says:

    A very well-written and thought-out story. And so true! Cemeteries are amazing places for historians, genealogists, and others with like interests.

    There are not many local cemeteries where I live, but among my favorites is the Benson Mines Cemetery (also known in years gone by as Fernwood Cemetery). There is a lot of history here, and I have done a lot of research on it as well as on those interred there.

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