Meticulous records make this county the best place in state to dig up your roots
By PEGGY SHAW
The more Americans become uprooted, the more we search for our roots.
The more our lives change, the more we long for familiar places — a clapboard church, the old family homestead or an open field where cows still graze. And our ancestors' graves.
No other county in Tennessee has shown more dedication to identifying, mapping and restoring gravesites than Williamson County, says State Archaeologist Nick Fielder, who explains it this way: ''There's more interest in genealogy there, and cemeteries are very important to people doing family histories.''
Local gravesites are catalogued in three volumes of the county Historical Society's ''Directory of Williamson County, Tennessee,'' which is available at public libraries and the county archives, and several residents and groups are actively trying to find and restore new sites.
There's Dennis Lampley, who's writing a book on the burial sites of local Confederate soldiers for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and Tim Westbrook and Jo Ann McClellan, who have helped find the gravesites of many African-Americans in the Spring Hill area.
And Williamson County's Revolutionary War soldiers are being remembered by members of the Lt. Andrew Crockett Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.
A few years ago, Dennis Lampley of SCV Baxter Camp 2034 in Fairview helped compile a book on the burial records of Dickson County Confederates. Then, when the Baxter Camp was chartered last year, Lampley began researching the gravesites of Williamson County's Confederate veterans, who were either from the county or buried here.
''We started out looking at the muster rolls of the men from the county and went from there,'' Lampley said. ''We're doing a lot of legwork, going through graveyards in the county and looking at county burial and cemetery books. We're getting information from family Bibles and we've gone through military records at the state archives in Nashville.
''It's like a giant puzzle.''
With help from SCV camps in Franklin and Brentwood, Lampley and his team have located 2,720 soldiers, including some who moved to Williamson County after the war. (Those buried in the cemetery next to Carnton Plantation are not included, he said, because that listing has been done.)
Of all the Confederate soldiers actually from Williamson County, Lampley has identified 242 killed in battle, 94 who died in Federal prisons and 152 who succumbed to disease and illness in camp. And, 30 of the Confederates identified were African-Americans.
''One is in the Nolensville cemetery and another one is in Leiper's Fork,'' Lampley said. ''But the problem with the African-American Confederates is that the records were poor and finding burial places on them has been difficult.
''Most of them were buried in unmarked graves, but, then, a lot of Confederates were buried in unmarked graves. Tombstones were expensive and people didn't have the money.''
Lampley, who counts 34 Confederates and one Union soldier in his own ancestry, plans to help produce a book this summer on the gravesites, similar to the one compiled for Dickson County. The Baxter Camp also will hold fund-raisers and seek contributions from the Tennessee Division of the SCV to raise money for the project, which includes cleaning cemeteries and placing stones on unmarked graves.
It's a lot of work, Lampley admits, but also a labor of love.
''I've done a lot of searching for my own ancestors' burial places, and I know that this makes it easier for people,'' said Lampley, whose family settled here in 1811. ''It's contributing to history, and it's a way of promoting our Confederate heritage.''
Salute to Patriots
The Crockett Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution has a similar vision. For the past several years, members have been researching, documenting and restoring the graves of Revolutionary War soldiers and plan to someday publish a field guide with maps and photographs.
Chapter members believe that some 200 Revolutionary War soldiers are buried in Williamson County, though only a fourth of them have been located.
''We will never actually find all of them, but we hope that when we come out with this field guide that it will generate enough interest so that other people will come forward with information we don't have,'' chapter founder Fount Smothers said.
To locate the 18th- and 19th-century gravesites, researchers are relying mostly on county records and a map in the county archives that pinpoints known sites. That work paid off two years ago when Crockett Chapter members were able to identify and restore the gravesites of Pvt. David Johnston and his wife, Elizabeth, as well as others, on the grounds of the Tennessee Baptist Children's Home campus in Brentwood. Johnston was born in 1745 and moved to Williamson County from North Carolina about 1807.
Then, last fall, chapter members restored and rededicated the Mallory Family Cemetery, containing the grave of Patriot Roger Mallory, behind Academy Sports in Cool Springs.
''That was done with the help of Stewart Boling, an Eagle Scout,'' Smothers said. ''It's great when we can get young people involved because it helps us pass along to the next generation the ideals and values of the people who gave us this country.''
Next, the group plans to restore the gravesites of Patriot James Turner in the Samuel Webb Cemetery and those of Patriot Minos Cannon and his son, Gov. Newton Cannon.
''What we are going to do as a chapter is remember every (Revolutionary) War veteran buried in Williamson County,'' Smothers has said. ''These were men who risked everything to give us our country, and we regard this as our mission.''
For more than 10 years, Tim Westbrook has worked to help identify and restore graveyards such as the one in Spring Hill's New Town Cemetery off Duplex Road, where both whites and blacks are buried.
''My wife's family is buried in New Town, so I started cleaning off that old cemetery and recording names, and then I donated all that to the Spring Hill Library,'' said Westbrook, who does facilities maintenance at Christ Community Church.
''It was thick with trees and briars. I used an ax, chainsaw and shovels, and sometimes I'd take gasoline and burn the darn things off. And I'd try to rearrange tombstones if they had fallen over.''
Since New Town, Westbrook has worked on several other projects and now serves on a volunteer African-American Cemetery Project committee — a small group who came together, without a government mandate, to identify and restore black as well as white gravesites. Six to eight volunteers go to cemeteries and document information from the headstones, or identify graves as ''unmarked'' if only indentations are found. Ranks are recorded for those with military records, and pastors are noted. Information is then entered into a computer database.
The result will be a booklet of gravesites in the Spring Hill area.
Leading the committee is Jo Ann McLellan, a retired data processing manager who sees the project as a way to help preserve local history as well as document her own ancestry.
''We've got about 60 African-American cemeteries now and we've transcribed about 40,'' said McLellan, who added she's noticed a surge of interest in genealogy in recent years. ''We're finding a lot of interesting people — people who fought in the Spanish-American War and a young man listed as being in a Colored Troops in the Civil War.
''It's taking awhile because it seems every day someone identifies a new cemetery that we didn't have on our list.''
McClellan even found some of her own ancestors' graves about a half-mile from home after moving back to the Spring Hill area two years ago.
''I found a graveyard I didn't know existed right behind my property where my great-aunt is buried, and from listening to my dad's sister, my great-grandmother and great-grandfather are there,'' she said. ''I found several gravestones.''
McLellan knows that her great-grandfather was born into slavery in 1861 and somehow acquired more than 100 acres of land by the early 1900s. But research into black history here prior to 1870 is difficult.
''The 1870 census was the first one where African-Americans were documented by name,'' she explained. ''In the 1860s, we were still in the midst of slavery, and we were just property.''
Identifying cemeteries, then, is an important way to help people trace their families, McLellan said. ''Even if we can't find them through census records, if we go to this cemetery book, we'll know we can see they were buried here.
''And if we don't do this we'll lose sight of our history. Some of these people will be forgotten.''
For McLellan, though, the work to identify African-American gravesites has also become particularly meaningful, personally, as she connects with her own ancestors.
''My great-grandfather had an appreciation for land; I have an appreciation for land. Did I get my love of the land from him? I don't know,'' she said. ''But I think it's ironic that I ended up owning land that's very near the land that they owned.
''This is almost a spiritual experience for me, and I would want my ancestors to know that I appreciate what they did to help us through to where we are.''
How to help
Confederate gravesites: Dennis Lampley, Sons of Confederate Veterans, 799-0916 or email@example.com.
Revolutionary War soldiers' graves: Fount Smothers at 794-3546 or FOUNT99@aol.com; or Dick Spencer at dspen47 @aol.com.
African-American cemeteries: Jo Ann McLellan, 931-375-1501.
Photos of Civil War veterans: Rick Warwick, Heritage Foundation, 591-8500.
Cemetery guidelines: Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 39-17-311. Call 741-1588 for more information.
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