On Memorial Day, numerous ceremonies were held throughout the United States and elsewhere honoring this country’s veterans. Many of these ceremonies will take place in cemeteries where hundreds, even thousands, of simple gravestones mark the burial places of those who fought in wars dating back to the American Revolution. Not only do their gravestones remind us of our nation’s history and the freedoms for which our men and women in the Armed Forces fought, they remind us, also, of just how fragile life often can be. And sometimes the only reminder of that life many years later is a simple gravestone in a cemetery among others like it.
Cemeteries and the gravestones contained in them are among the most valuable sources of information for family history researchers throughout the world. Inscriptions on gravestones often reveal not only a birth date and a date of death, but they may include other vital information as well. This additional information often includes where the deceased was born and limited relationship information, such as a spouse’s name, parents’ names, or a woman’s maiden name. In older locations in the United States, it is not unusual for several generations to be buried alongside each other in a cemetery that bears the family’s surname. And often, families who intermarried may be buried in the same cemetery in close proximity to each other. Discovering a family cemetery and especially one where allied family members are buried is simply “pure gold” for genealogists everywhere.
The cemetery where your parents or grandparents are buried may be the first place to visit if you have decided to embark on the journey to trace your family’s history. And some amazing discoveries about a family’s origins and relationships within that family often have been made from just one trip to the cemetery. Most of us are not fortunate enough to have families that have lived in the same location for several hundred years. But if you are one of those people, that one trip to the cemetery may provide you with enough information to fill the branches of your entire family tree. In reality, the one cemetery trip scenario is certainly not the norm, simply because our early ancestors were adventuresome people who seemed to be forever “on the move,” searching for personal freedoms, land, and always a better way of life.
If your ancestors were already living in the south, the southeast, in Indian Territory, or in other locations west of the Mississippi River in the early to mid 1800s, tracing your roots certainly will involve trips to more than one cemetery. Most of the early settlers to these areas of our nation’s expansion, migrated through the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. Some later moved into northern Louisiana, Texas, and to points further west. Many who began the trip decided the journey was too long and too arduous and decided to put down roots somewhere along the way. Others settled for a time near family and friends, eventually choosing to forge ahead to distant places where others waited for them in newly opened lands to the south and to the west. Because the Great Migration took years to complete, family members often died along the way and were buried wherever it was convenient to do so.
Because such a large majority of our families’ early generations were so transient, it was extremely difficult at one time to determine a location to begin researching a family’s origins. The free database known as Find-A-Grave (www.findagrave.com), however, now makes it easy to pinpoint the locations where our ancestors lived and died - all without ever leaving home. Although it is only one of many tools available to family history researchers, this website is absolutely among the best.
If you are among the many families throughout the country who attend summer family reunions, consider taking the time this year to visit a family cemetery. Talk to older family members whose ancestors may be buried there. And take a few photos of the gravestones....you never know what you might discover.