October 9, 2011
THIS IS ABOUT FORGOTTEN GRAVES. Well, almost forgotten.
Apparently grave markers don’t last long, especially those in old family cemeteries where the land has changed hands or gone to other uses. The effects of weather and age rub out their inscriptions. They topple over. Descendants forget or lose track of where relatives were buried.
Take the Langleys.
They go back almost to the first settlers. They served in the House of Burgesses. They populated Norfolk County in the 1700s and bought up large tracts of land along Mason’s Creek just north of what is now Wards Corner. They were active church members, judges, farmers and owners of large tracts of land on both sides of Hampton Roads. They married, had children, made fortunes – or not – and died.
And many of them were buried right where they had grown up. The Langley family cemetery, one of the largest in Norfolk County, was the final resting place of dozens of Langleys and their descendents.
But then the farm passed out of family hands. The last to own the land was George S. Bunting, and he ended up selling 165 acres to the city of Norfolk in 1906 for the creation of Forest Lawn Cemetery. And the Langley grave site – a cemetery within a cemetery – was mostly forgotten.
Beth Langley Uiterwyk of Hampton has long had a passion for family history. She knew where just about all of her ancestors were buried. But one of them, a great-great-great grandmother, was a mystery woman.
“She had disappeared off the face of the Earth,” Uiterwyk says.
Then, not long ago, Uitewyke got a phone call from a friend who was documenting historic graves in Norfolk.
“I think I found the lost grave of your third great grandmother,” the friend told her.
Sure enough, Elizabeth Langley Herbert, who departed this life in 1840 at the age of 30 – shortly after childbirth – was laid to rest in the Langley cemetery. Her marker is the most legible of the 10 you can see there. The inscription, chiseled by a meticulous stonemason, extols her virtues and moral worth that her many friends would cherish “until they too shall slumber in the mansions of the dead.”
The elliptical cemetery was well cared for – but not for long. Rogers Dey Whichard, noted Norfolk author and historian, wrote in his “The History of Lower Tidewater Virginia” in 1959 that the plot was “formerly well-tended, surrounded by a hedge and containing ornamental trees and shrubs.”
But in recent years, he wrote, “the hedge and trees have disappeared, and the stones, considerably the worse for wear, are laid level, flat on the ground.”
Some of these flat stones have either been overrun with grass or damaged by lawn mowers rolling over the gravesites, she contends, and she has begun a campaign to have them replanted upright.“I just want the stones preserved,” she said.
Recently, the Friends of Norfolk’s Historic Cemeteries – an organization that repairs and restores historically important grave markers – has taken up the cause and commissioned archaeologists to determine how many other graves might lie just beneath the surface.
The Langley site lies in a traffic circle at the northwest corner of Forest Lawn adjacent to Granby Street. The oldest of the visible markers belongs to Louisa Langley, daughter of William and Elizabeth Langley. The date of death is worn off but a family Bible puts it at 1802.
But what about earlier family members? They go back at least to 1650. Might there be other long-lost relatives there?
It isn’t surprising that a team from the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research, after digging parallel trenches through the site, concluded about a week ago that at least 15 unmarked graves are there. (Even after hundreds of years, disturbances in the soil still indicate that digging had taken place.)
It was only through hard work, and a little bit of luck, that the Langleys’ almost-forgotten resting places were discovered.
And you wonder: How many others like this remain undiscovered in this region? How many great-great-great grandmas have gone forgotten?
Photo:William & Mary project archaeologist Will Moore, checks for unmarked graves.Paul Clancy