Cemetery records are another invaluable resource for your ancestry research. Historical societies also retain cemetery records, or transcriptions, of virtually all old gravestones for every cemetery, large or small, within any given county. Unfortunately, I have typically found this work to have been done several decades ago (often from early to mid 20thcentury), and desperately in need of updating. However, with our modern technology, a great resource not available when I first began my research journey in the late 1990s is the Find-A-Grave website.
Cemetery associations maintain each cemetery, retaining records for all burials. They can often provide more information from their records on the deceased than that which is on a headstone, including full dates of birth and death, and family relationships with parents’ names and/or name of the spouse. On the other hand, I’ve also seen where my trip to a specific cemetery gave me more data on a gravestone than was written in the historical society’s record.
It is also well worth making a trip to the actual cemetery whenever possible. On one trip, I walked up and down virtually every row of a very old, but still used, cemetery north of Cobleskill. Frustrated at not finding specific ancestors, I decided to give it one more try and got out of the car, facing a short steep slope. Climbing to the top of the little knoll, I walked directly into an unusual circular plot. Peering closely at the stones, I had that “aha” moment – I’d found exactly what I was looking for! For there were my mother’s grandparents and great-grandparents! As a teen, my Mom would drive her mother to this spot to place flowers on family graves, but she was unable to recall exactly where to find the plot.
While researching, it is helpful to know that a.e. (i.e. anno aetatis suae) on a gravestone is Latin for in the__ year of life versus age meaning year of age. For example, you may see a stone with a date of death and age as follows: Jan 10, 1834, a.e. 16y. This indicates the deceased was in the 16thyear of life; but, in reality, was 15 years old on the previous birthday before death. You may also see the deceased’s date of death with age as follows: d. June 15, 1827, 10y 3m 5d. From this date, you can count backwards to the date of birth, i.e. b. March 10, 1817. Take photos of gravestones for documentation, along with proof of the location of the stone(s) and exact cemetery of burial.
In the case of very old stones from the 1700s and 1800s, I have done rubbings – either with washable chalk to make the eroding chiseled letters stand out, or by pencil rubbing on paper lain atop the sunken lettering when nothing else was available. The latter gave me data on my ancestor, John Caldwell McNeill, that was not in the cemetery records. I knew he was a sergeant in the New Hampshire Line, serving at Bunker Hill as per his pension file; but, a separate gravestone revealed these barely discernable words etched in stone by doing a pencil rubbing on paper: “Corp.1, Co.1, N.Y. Regt. Rev War.” Questioning what he was doing in a New York regiment, I spent the money to purchase his full Revolutionary War pension application file.
I then read historical books about the Revolutionary War for their collateral documentation of the era. Reading “The Spirit of Seventy-Six,” author Morris Commager confirmed that the New Hampshire unit was asked to join the above-noted New York regiment on a mission to Canada. Records researched by Commager detailed how the men were captured, stripped of all clothes and possessions, and imprisoned on an island in the St. Lawrence with many soldiers dying. The remaining soldiers were bought back in a cartel by Benedict Arnold and released to serve out their enlistment, confirmed by other reputable sources, including “Benedict Arnold’s Navy” by James L. Nelson – a really great read! This all substantiated affidavits in John C.’s pension file and the story in a New Hampshire county historical book about the capture and release as celebrated annually by John C.’s friends and relatives who remained in Londonderry, NH after the Revolutionary War when he removed to Carlisle, Schoharie County, NY.
Although rare, cemetery records and gravestones do occasionally contain conflicting dates or errors. A death certificate, if available, would be the more accurate record, along with collateral records.
I have personally seen few errors in gravestone data, but one stands out as part of my documented and published research thesis. My ancestor, Lt. Timothy Hutton (b. 1746) had a nephew Lt. Timothy Hutton (b. 1764), both serving in military units in New York. A monument to my Lt. Timothy Hutton at Carlisle Rural Cemetery in Carlisle, Schoharie Co., NY credits his service under Capt. Gross of Willett’s Regiment in the Revolutionary War.
On checking roster records, two Lt. Timothy Huttons are listed in Col. Marinus Willett’s Regiment at the same time – one in Capt. Gross’s company, the other in Capt. Livingston’s. Purchasing military records of my ancestor, with my editor supplying a copy of affidavits for the younger Hutton, provides our proof. This documentation notes both Lt. Timothy Huttons served in Willett’s NY Regiment. But, Lt. Hutton b. 1764 stated in affidavits he served under Capt. Gross, with other documentation noting he died in New Jersey, while his uncle, my ancestor, Lt. Hutton b. 1746, though not stating which captain he served under, is thus presumed to have served under Capt. Livingston as per the unit’s roster records. My Timothy Hutton (b. 1764) was documented serving in Schoharie County, NY, settling and dying in Carlisle, my mother’s home town. And so I proved my Lt. Timothy Hutton did not serve under Capt. Gross as per his cemetery monument, but rather his nephew of the same name did. With both men sharing the same name, it’s no wonder the kind folks who put up his monument were confused!
There has also been a concerted effort over the last several years to put cemetery records online, a great aid in research, but you should still document and prove data accuracy. As the years pass, more and more data is making its way online than was available before 2000 when I began my research. Again, check out the Find-A-Grave website. Through the kindness of many people, photos are taken of gravestones, and, along with data written on the monuments, are placed online.
Obviously, not every grave is to be found online, nor is all information and family data accurate as I recently discovered from someone’s erroneous tie to my paternal family which I personally knew to be absolutely false. I emailed the contact person and did not receive a reply back; I don’t know if it was ever corrected online as I’ve not gone back. But, admittedly, it is very rewarding to find a photo of just the grave you’ve been searching for!
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"Homespun Ancestors is written by Linda Roorda. To see more, visit her site HERE