Most genealogists eventually encounter ancestors supposedly buried in unmarked graves.
Many old country cemeteries have an area where the earliest settlers in the community were buried. Those pioneers frequently lie under simple field stones.
In the beautiful mountains of Cherokee County, N.C., my third great-grandfather, Asa James, lay unheralded on the family farm for 75 years, and his wife, Elizabeth, for 47 years. In 1938, the Tennessee Valley Authority dug them up because a dam on the Hiwassee River was about to flood their acreage.
There were no markers on their graves. A granddaughter identified their burial plots and those of 11 other relatives as the government disinterred them and reburied them at the Harshaw Chapel in nearby Murphy.
When I learned that Asa and Elizabeth were buried at the historic old church, I searched the cemetery inch by inch looking for their graves. I expected - hoped - the TVA had put some sort of identification on them. No such luck.
When I grew more experienced as a researcher, I went in search of the original TVA records, housed at the National Archives Southeastern Branch in Atlanta. I hoped to find information about how the authority moved bodies before flooding the area.
When authorities opened a grave, they filled out forms describing exactly what they found. The files showed that the original containers Asa and Elizabeth had been buried in were decayed. All that was left of their bodies were a few bones, buttons, pieces of clothing, and black dirt.
The remains were placed in new 3-foot-long wooden boxes, loaded into a station wagon and carried to the cemetery in Murphy. The records were fascinating. I was lucky because most researchers never find such details about their ancestors' burials.
The real treasures in the files were two plat maps: One showed the graves of 13 people on the James Farm, and the other showed the arrangement of all 13 bodies at the Harshaw Chapel. The graves were numbered, and a corresponding list showed who was in each.
Apparently the TVA or the family had arranged for the deceased to be placed near two other James family members already buried at the church under engraved markers. That was a lucky stroke for us descendants. We were able to use the marked graves to determine exactly where Asa and Elizabeth were reinterred.
A campaign for memorials
As far as I know, I am the only James descendant to plow through the TVA records. Fearing that later generations would not find the plat hidden in the annals of the archives, I began a campaign among my cousins to purchase grave markers for Asa and Elizabeth.
Cousins discovered through the Internet, with whom I had exchanged e-mails but never met, sent checks. Cousins with whom I grew up sent checks. Amazingly, we collected just enough for the project.
Only one cousin was able to join me last year on Oct. 23 when the markers were placed. It was an emotional moment when I saw the first stone moved onto Asa's grave. Because a few of their great-great-great grandchildren cared about their heritage, for the first time in 145 years Asa and Elizabeth rested together - under markers that will allow future generations to pay tribute.
We didn't know them, but on that day, we paid our respects to a couple who eked a living out of an isolated rocky farm and raised 13 children, which eventually produced us cousins. Rest in peace, Grandpa Asa and Grandma Elizabeth.