Center For Transportation Research
Personalized care for the dead and cemeteries was an important aspect of family and community life in rural sections of the Southern Appalachians from the frontier period until the introduction of professional funeral services and perpetual care cemeteries in this region around the 1930s-1940s (Bettis et al. 1978; Brewer 1952; Crissman 1994; Garrity 1976; Montell 1975). Long-standing patterns of care for the dead, ranging from practices relating to preparation of the body to curation of the gravesite, are potentially reflected in the material remains and soil deposits encountered at pre-World War II cemetery sites in the Southern Appalachians. Familism and neighborliness were core values which supported this system of burial customs (Crissman 1994). There was, however, temporal, intra-regional, and interethnic variation in mortuary activities and symbolism within Southern Appalachia (Bettis et al. 1978; Brewer 1952; Crissman 1994; Garrity 1976; Montell 1975).
The first cemeteries in colonial America were church affiliated and maintained by the congregation. Family cemeteries developed as populations and settlement areas expanded inland (Coffin 1976; Crissman 1994; Puckle 1968). Jeane (1989) has defined three phases of folk cemeteries in the Upland South, including the Southern Appalachia region. These are pioneer, transitional, and modern folk cemeteries, all of which had an uneven spatial and temporal spread. The pioneer folk cemetery was in use in Virginia and western North Carolina by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, peaked in the Upland South during the 1830s, and is still maintained in some rural locations. The design, material culture, and iconography which appear in transitional and modern folk cemeteries in the region were influenced by those which developed in urban centers and small cities between 1830 and 1920, which were, in turn, influenced by the landscape architecture and public parks movements (Farrell 1980). Religious themes (reunion with God, family, earth/dust) and social and aesthetic symbolism and practice (consolation, instruction, asylum; class distinction and reinforcement - location, monuments, taste, refinement; individualism) were more pronounced in transitional and modern cemeteries but have gradually invaded folk cemeteries. These later shifts resulted in important changes in the handling of the dead, including changes in care of the body, container type for the body, places for the funeral, and funeral procedures. Attention was increasingly directed away from death to the trappings of death and from the deceased to survivors. Even the term "cemetery" ("a place for sleeping until resurrection"), often replaced the earlier more literal terms of "graveyard," "burying ground," or "churchyard" (Farrell 1980; Jeane 1989).
The cemetery at Cool Branch (40HK9) best fits Jeane's pioneer folk cemetery model (Jeane 1989). This phase and type of cemetery is characterized by a preference for hilltop location; scraped ground; mounded graves; east-west grave orientation; cedar and other evergreen trees; surface decoration with personal effects, toys, and/or items such as shells and rocks; gravehouses; and reliance on informal "cults of piety," which consist of immediate family or extended kin groups who perform maintenance rituals, such as grave cleaning and decoration, communally on annual Homecoming and/or Memorial days. Most of these associated practices derive from customs in use in western or southern Europe, the British Isles, and Mediterranean areas prior to America's early colonization, though some practices, including the use of shells and personal items as grave decorations, also were adhered to in Africa for different reasons (Jordan 1982; Vlach 1977). Pioneer folk cemeteries frequently covered less than 1 acre (0.4 ha) and because of prevailing settlement patterns contained the remains of one or more often interrelated kinship groups. The earliest pioneer folk cemeteries in the Upland South were neither strictly family cemeteries nor necessarily associated with a religious congregation (Jeane 1989). In fact, pioneer folk cemeteries were often in use before local churches were organized. Even when clearly associated with a particular congregation, the pioneer folk cemetery was not always located near the church building. Complicating this, traditional marriage and kinship patterns and practices in Appalachia frequently resulted in congregations that consisted of a small core of related families (Dunn 1988).
Initial settlement of the Southern Appalachians occurred between 1750 and 1775. Significant Anglo-American settlement of Hancock County, which was part of Hawkins County until 1844, however, did not occur until around 1795. At least one white family probably lived in what became Hancock County before that date (Hancock County History and Genealogical Society 1989).
Most early settlers of the Southern Appalachians moved westward from the English colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina or southward from Scotch-Irish, English, and German settlements in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Jersey (Crissman 1994). Local legends say that the earliest settlers of Hancock County were predominantly of Scotch-Irish descent. The county is often noted for its Melungeon population, originally associated with the Newman's Ridge community a few kilometers northeast of Sneedville (Figure 5). The Melungeons were socially marginalized in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because they did not fit neatly into prevailing racial categories. The county also had a small African-American presence -free black and slave (Hancock County History and Genealogical Society 1989). In the early twentieth century, a black community, large enough to support a school and church, existed on Copper Ridge in the southern part of Hancock County (Brown Johns, personal communication 1996). An abandoned cemetery behind the Brown Johns home in the Cool Branch community is believed to be a "slave cemetery."
Settlers lived along War Creek at least by 1802 when a congregation called the War Creek Baptist Church was organized. Initially, as many as 54 members met monthly in the home of Richard Byrd who lived at an as yet undetermined location in the community. The first War Creek congregation served a number of settlements south of the Clinch River and north of Clinch Mountain. These may have included the Flat Gap, Duck Creek, Providence, and Chinquepin communities. No church minutes survive for the early decades of the War Creek Baptist Church (Fullerton 1974; Goodspeed 1972; Hancock County History and Genealogical Society 1989).
About 20 years ago, a church member examined associational records and surmised that there had been at least four building sites and five structures which served the War Creek congregation. She apparently included the Richard Byrd home on War Creek, the original meeting site, as one of the five structures. She believed that the first church building was possibly erected near Elrod Falls (PawPaw or Low Gap vicinity) but admits her evidence for this is scanty and unclear at best. She gives no date for the move of services from Byrd's home to the first meeting house. The second building probably was at Flat Gap (1849); the third (1878) "just below the bridge crossing War Creek on Highway 31," and the fourth "at its present location" (1906 and 1963), immediately west of the intersection of Cool Branch Road and State Route 31 (Hancock County History and Genealogical Society 1989). It should be noted here that Cool Branch was also known historically as Big War Creek (Fullerton 1974). Given current research findings and regional patterning it is still not possible to firmly attribute the Cool Branch Cemetery (40HK9) to a particular group of people. It may very well have served the widely dispersed early War Creek Baptist Church congregation. The cemetery temporally fits within the first quarter century of the congregation's history and it is located near the sites of at least two of the later church structures. On the other hand, there are numerous family cemeteries within the civil district in which the site is located. Also, given early frontier cemetery and settlement patterns, the cemetery may have been neither strictly church or family restricted. The Cool Branch Cemetery does seem to temporally and stylistically fit Jeane's pioneer folk cemetery model.
In Southern Appalachia, attendants washed the body, placed the extremities before rigor mortis set in, arranged the hair, shaved the face (if a male), weighted down each eye with a coin until the muscles set, and tied a handkerchief or strip of cloth from the top of the head around the chin to close the mouth. Preventing deterioration of the body, especially during warm weather, was a problem. Sometimes this was attempted by applying "sody clothes" (material soaked in a soda or camphor solution) to the face and hands to keep them from darkening or by placing a plate of salt on the chest, which was believed to keep down swelling. The prepared body, left on the cooling board it was prepared on, was placed in a handmade coffin or laid on the deceased's bed. The body was then ready for viewing. Family and friends watched over the body ("set up") during an all-night vigil or wake (Bettis et al. 1978; Crissman 1994; Montell 1975; Wigginton 1973).
In the 1500s in England, wealthy people were often buried in fine or other clothes symbolic of their social rank while ordinary people were wrapped in a sheet or linen shroud. Burial clothes for the deceased in the Southern Appalachians from the frontier period into the twentieth century could be a shroud, a specially made dress or new suit, or a curated outfit such as a military uniform, wedding dress, or workclothes. Any jewelry the deceased might own was more likely to be left to a family member than buried with the deceased; this was especially true for women (Crissman 1994).
Shrouds, which consisted of a piece of cloth draped (not fastened) over the body so that only the face and hands showed, were still very common in the early nineteenth century and continued to be used occasionally into the twentieth century. Shrouds were often black, although white might be used for children and women for whom a decorative ruffle around the neck, hand, and feet areas and a ruffled cap might also be added. The bodies of babies or small children were sometimes simply wrapped in a blanket or quilt (Crissman 1994; Wigginton 1973). Older informants in Hancock County remembered seeing shrouds used for the burial clothes of both men and women. A man's shroud at this late date looked like a suit but was open in the back for easy draping of the body (Brown Johns and Phoebe Seals Greene, personal communication 1996).
Simple unadorned coffins of the mummy type were made by bending and shaping the wood or by a simple break side technique. One piece lids were nailed on at conclusion of the graveside burial service. Such coffins were commonly manufactured from choice hardwoods, poplar, or oak (Bettis et al. 1978; Crissman 1994; Wigginton 1973).
Formal coffin linings were not in common use in the United States until after the 1850s (Farrell 1980; Haberstein and Lamers 1981). In the Southern Appalachians, the body was often laid on or wrapped in a quilt before interior padding and linings which were held in place with small tacks came into use. Exterior cloth covers were sometimes used as well (Crissman 1994; Wigginton 1973). The interior of the coffin might also contain paraphernalia from the body preparation phase - the coins used to weight the eyes of the deceased which were sometimes deliberately knocked off into the coffin; personal items or momentos; or, among Southern blacks, the dish of salt and ashes placed underneath the cooling board to absorb disease or other substances (Crissman 1994; Coffin 1976).
Mummy coffins continued to be handmade in Hancock County into the twentieth century. Johns Brown also stated that his mother, who came to Hancock County as a girl around the time of the Civil War, said that bodies were wrapped in the family's best quilt for burial. This suggests that formal coffin linings had not been adopted locally at that point in time.
The oblong hexagonal-shaped subfeatures of the graveshafts at 40HK9, which contained the adult remains, are the outlines of mummy coffins. Concentrations of nails along the sides of the subfeatures also approximated the shapes of these coffins. No coffin hardware or lining tacks were recovered. Subfeatures for infants were more linear suggesting that infants were interred in a rectangular shaped container. Nails recovered from infant graves at 40HK9 were considerably shorter than those associated with adult graves. The use of distinct rectangular coffins for deceased infants and children in rural Appalachian communities was a common practice (Wiggenton 1973). The relatively simple design of an infant's burial container may be indicative of an age distinction. Less time and effort may have been invested in the manufacture of coffins for those in which there was less community investment (such as infants) than among older more socially embedded individuals.
Graves were oriented east-west and the body later was placed inside so that on rising from the grave on Resurrection Day the person would face Christ who would appear in the eastern sky. Those who committed suicide were considered beyond redemption and therefore unable to rise and meet Christ. They were deliberately buried in north-south orientations, usually outside the edge of the cemetery.
In the eastern United States from the late eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century, a preparation technique and style of burial chamber called "vaulting" was commonly employed (Garrow et al. 1985; Lofton 1968; Swauger 1959). Both the use of mummy coffins and vaulting declined sharply after the mid-nineteenth century when the funeral industry slowly emerged. In Hancock County and elsewhere in the Southern Appalachians, this style of burial chamber was still being constructed in the early twentieth century.
In the vaulting technique, a larger external shaft was dug down to a particular depth and then stepped in to where an interior shaft, which conformed to the shape of the coffin, was dug to a deeper level thus acting as a "vault." Once the coffin was in place in the interior shaft or subfeature, boards were laid across its top, that is, across the bottom of the primary grave shaft. Vaulting was believed to prevent the surface of the grave from sinking as the coffin deteriorated and to make it more difficult for animals to disturb the burial. However, as the boards soon rotted, vaulting may have actually accomplished the opposite result and created a need for routine remounding of the grave (Bell 1987; Crissman 1994; Brown Johns, personal communication 1996; Swauger 1959).
Johns Brown used the term vaulting for the inner grave shaft and referred to the covering boards as "rail and boards." He also said that the lid was left off until viewing was over and then it was nailed onto the rest of the coffin. Phoebe Greene described one twentieth century grave on a neighbor's farm that was completely lined with wood "like an underground room." This appears to have been an idiosyncratic occurrence built by the farmer to protect his beloved wife's burial chamber.
All graves encountered at 40HK9 had a rectangular straight-sided grave shaft (primary feature) with a form fitting chamber (or subfeature) cut into its floor. Artifacts and interments were found exclusively within the interior subfeature, that is, inside the earthen "vault" where the coffin would have been placed. Use of the double chambered grave pit at 40HK9 is archaeological evidence of the early nineteenth century use of the vaulting technique in the construction of graves on the Southern Appalachian frontier.
In some rural cemeteries, a early custom of burying or placing with bits of pottery, china, cutlery, medicine bottles, and personal items on or around the grave continues. In many cases, this action served aesthetic and commemorative functions. Traditionally among Southern blacks, however, it was performed "so [the deceased's] spirit may use them in another life" (Brewer 1952).
Flowers as a form of grave decoration were not widely used in the United States until after the mid-nineteenth century. In the Southern Appalachians, traditional grave decorations included personal effects, toys, and other items such as shells, rocks, and pottery sherds. Bunches of wild flowers and weeds, homemade plant or vegetable wreaths, and crepe paper flowers gradually attained popularity later in the nineteenth century (Bettis et al. 1978; Brewer 1952; Crissman 1994; Jeane 1989). Placing formal flower arrangements on graves was gradually incorporated into traditional decoration day events in the twentieth century.
Social affirmations of community ideals are largely expressed during primary funerary rituals and secondary maintenance events; however, a larger audience can receive funerary ideology when it is communicated over a broader period of time. One effective means of accomplishing this is through the use of grave markers. The use of undressed field stone as a form of social communication has been observed at numerous mortuary sites in the Eastern United States. In East Tennessee, they are particularly associated with the burial grounds of rural and lower socioeconomic status communities (Crissman 1994). Archaeological investigations note a tendency for these stones to be present in cemeteries dating to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, their use is noted well into the twentieth century (Faulkner and Roberts 1985; Swauger 1959). The custom of building and maintaining gravehouses is still practiced in a few places in Hancock County today. However, there was no archaeological evidence at the Cool Branch Cemetery (40HK9) to suggest that this practice ever occurred at this site. Here, the only remaining surface decoration on the graves were 33 fieldstone markers. Other graves were apparent from surface depressions. The markers consisted of slabs of locally available Rome limestone set vertically at the east and/or west ends of the graves. None of the examined stones were inscribed, and it also seems unlikely that these markers were dressed. Placement of the markers at the head and foot of the mortuary features communicated the exact location of existing graves. More importantly, concentrations of graves in a specific locality is viewed as an indication of social unity; they are permanent designations of a social structure which tended toward an egalitarian mode (Saxe 1970; Warner 1959). By marking graves within the designated burial area, the community was able to communicate to all audiences that the dead held a place in the natural and cultural landscapes.
Gregory Jeane's model of pioneer folk cemeteries in the Upland South suggests that cemeteries of this period were not strictly family or community repositories but some combination of the two. This probably was the case with the Cool Branch Cemetery (40HK9). Pioneer folk cemeteries were often located on hilltops; the Cool Branch Cemetery is located on a hillside. The lack of artifacts on grave surfaces at the Cool Branch Cemetery suggests other aspects of Jeane's pioneer folk model - frequent ritualized scraping of graves and/or the entire burial ground, with repeated remounding over graves - were practiced. Double chambered burial pits, the end result of a grave digging custom called "vaulting," were also encountered. Interior pits were designed to snugly fit the handmade "mummy" coffins of adults or rectangular boxes which held children or infants. The paucity of artifacts within the double chambered burial pits reflect coffin-making, burial clothing, and interment customs which reached peaked popularity prior to the 1850s. Many of the burial customs in vogue on the Appalachian frontier around 1800 continued to be practiced into the twentieth century in Hancock County, Tennessee and other rural areas.
History of Hancock County
Click below for general resources.
Prehistoric and Historic Background
This page was last updated on 4 Aug 2006.