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OKI Wanna Know: Why is there a graveyard in the middle of a subdivision in Florence?

A headstone lies on the ground in the shade. A plant is next to it.
Bill Rinehart
/
WVXU
Jane Hamilton's stone is not upright anymore, but it is still somewhat legible.

If you've ever wondered what something is, how it came to be, or who put it there, and the answer has eluded you, our feature OKI Wanna Know might be able to help. This week, we dig into the story of a neighborhood burial ground.

Aimee Poole noticed something in her Florence neighborhood, and asked her question with an on-location video. She's standing in front of a rickety, unpainted picket fence enclosing a greenspace with a bunch of trees.

"On Richmond Road, in the middle of Arbor Springs, between these two houses, it's a graveyard, and I was curious if there are other communities, other cities (that) have such things."

Do other communities have a cemetery in the middle of a neighborhood, or subdivision?

Hillary Delaney says this particular plot is called the Hamilton Cemetery, not the Chambers-Hamilton, or the Hamilton-Chambers Cemetery, as some believe. Delaney is a researcher with Borderlands Archive and History Center at the Boone County Public Library.

"What I discovered when I was doing some research on the Chambers family was that the documentation of two cemeteries was merged together, erroneously, during the publication of a cemetery book, and that just got translated into what was put online on Find-A-Grave."

Find a Grave is just that: a website that lists cemeteries across the country and many of the people buried within.

Delaney says appropriately, members of the Hamilton family are buried in the Hamilton Cemetery.

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"The Hamiltons were a pretty early family here in Boone County. I think John Hamilton may have been a soldier in the War of 1812," she says. "I'm not clear on his wife, just off the top of my head. But we had many, many Hamiltons here and I know that some of the family members settled in this area prior to Boone County becoming a county."

This is the final resting place of John and Jane Hamilton, their son Henry and his wife, Elizabeth. Delaney says it's also likely some enslaved people are buried there too.

A gravestone, sitting in the ground at an angle. The lettering is difficult to read.
Bill Rinehart
/
WVXU
The headstone for Henry Hamilton, son of John.

"In the time that this family was in this county, a very long time, it's very likely there would be enslaved people buried somewhere around the family cemetery."

As of 1840, she says the Hamiltons enslaved around 20 people. In 1849, John died and was buried there. Delaney says it was pretty common for everyone, white and Black, to be buried close to each other.

"We're talking about land that was also being used for farming. So, it's not typical to see two separate cemeteries."

But still, she says there was segregation, even in death.

"Tradition would be that the family would be laid out in whatever prime spot they would choose in their property. The enslaved people would be buried nearby, but sometimes if there's a fence, they might be outside the fence," she says. "But they may also be inside the fence, but unmarked."

Delaney says there are lots of burial plots like this across Boone county.

"I can't even tell you a number, but it's over 100. Actually, we have a mapping system on our website. It comes up with little icons that indicate cemeteries, and they indicate either church cemeteries, municipal cemeteries, but also private cemeteries."

With this online graveyard registry, Delaney says if you click on an icon, you can get the name of the cemetery, and when it was used.

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It probably comes as no surprise, but generally, the cemeteries came before the sub-divsions. Delaney says the houses were built around them.

"As development progressed, these small family cemeteries were in the way. There's a couple of routes a developer can take: they can either incorporate the cemetery into the neighborhood, like this one, or they can go through the process of trying to move it."

A wooded area, with the sun breaking through the leaves in a few places. A pair of stones jut up from the ground at odd angles.
Bill Rinehart
/
WVXU
Without looking closely, it might be easy to overlook the gravestones and assume this is just an undeveloped plot of land.

Delaney says that can only happen if the cemetery is abandoned. So, if the plot isn't conspicuous in the neighborhood, it's easier to let it be. In which case, nature can reclaim the area.

"A lot of times there will be groups that go in and handle that as a volunteer effort to clean it up but it's a forever job. It's an ongoing job."

She says sometimes the best intentions can lead to problems. Cleaning off an old headstone can damage the lettering.

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"So the best practice is to leave the stones alone until you know how to approach that," she says. "But it's fine to cut down overgrowth and things like that. Sometimes you can discover new stones if you do that."

Delaney says the Chronicles of Boone County website has tips on how to approach cleaning up a grave site.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.