The Final Word: 3 ways cemeteries reveal “hidden” histories
When I started looking at nineteenth century headstones in Sag Harbor and East Hampton, NY, this spring, it was after months of reconstructing local demography from census schedules, church records, deeds, probates, and any other historical sources I could find. Yet they still surprised me – there were names I didn’t recognize, and the images of communities they gave me were definitely distinct from the ones I’d formed from written records. Here’s how I’ve found that cemeteries can be really useful historical sources.
1) Infant mortality. In my research, I spend a lot of time looking at households, kinship networks, and labor, wondering about the lives and responsibilities of women in African American and Native American whaling families. Seeing rows of children’s headstones is the only sign I have found of an incredibly common and painful part of life.
Many children who die at young ages are invisible in other historical sources, perhaps because they were born and died in between census collections, because church records of their baptisms or funerals may be nonexistent, or because their families and communities only made their way into written records in contexts of property, pay, or legal trouble.
On another note, children are not the only people whose headstones mark their presence when official records don’t. While burial doesn’t necessarily prove residence in an area, it can certainly be a sign of social connection.
2) Namesakes. One of the tricky parts of researching families is when people name children after their parents, siblings, or other relatives. You can easily run across two people with the same name, living in the same neighborhood, at the same time – or, in places with prominent family names, three or four. Sometimes it’s possible to tell these people apart in government records if they’re listed in the one census year as different ages, or if you can find individual probate or marriage records. But sometimes, multiple headstones might be the first sign you find that you are dealing with more than one person!
This was the case for me with the two William J. Primes in the AME Zion Cemetery in Sag Harbor, NY. I knew William J. Prime was one of the founders of the church, but he was elusive in other records, and I was confused by his age. I learned from the cemetery that he, in fact, named his son William J. Prime as well.
3) Relationships. Family plots or compound monuments like the Prime family obelisk, which memorializes eleven people, can help reconstruct relationships that aren’t as visible in other sources. They might use kinship terms like “mother” or “son,” making it obvious, but they might also put unexpected names in proximity. For example, the Prime family monument also includes people with the last names Williams, Denham, and Nicoll.
This may be a sign that I need to do further digging in genealogical sources, looking for connections, but it also makes me consider that perhaps the relationships the monument represents weren’t based in blood. After all, the elder William Prime did help form an AME Zion Church in 1840, and the surrounding neighborhood had become home to many African American and Native American families within a decade. Could this monument be a testament to the families people built around common experience, faith, and mutual support, rather than the ones into which they were born? Research will tell!