December 31, 2018

Graves in the Woods (1)

Moormans River, near Free Union, Virginia

M. and I rolled in Sunday the 30th after a long train trip to Virginia to see (most) of her East Coast relatives.

Cabin chimney above
the Moormans River
We like to travel by train, which leaves you with a lot of episodic memories, like being awakened somewhere in the Ohio River valley by the bright lights of a coal-fired power plant shining in the window, or further up the drainage, watchcing the Kenawha and New rivers running brown and out of their banks with water from this winter's storms.

We walked from her brother's house down to the Moormans River, which was high enough for boating, had anyone so desired. I know that it often drops to a trickle, and he did tell a story of abandoning a kayak trip one summer for lack of water.

This chimney and foundation, laid up with local stone, are on the trail to the river. The brother, who has lived there more than twenty years, said that he only recently had spotted some grave sites near the cabin. Two are parallel sunken graves, the others less sunken but still marked with small headstones and footstones.

Those markers are small slabs of the native stone. They bear no inscriptions. Either there were once wooden markers that decayed, or there were none. Perhaps people just remembered: "That grave was Ma's, and little Bessie is buried next to her."Now no one remembers.

Two sunken graves. Others are nearby.
We all went hiking too in Shenandoah National Park, on a little piece of the Appalachian Trail, and that was an afternoon that I cherished.

I support public lands as much as anyone, but here too there are hidden presences — a overgrown old road, a pasture gate lost in regrown forest. People were evicted to make the park.

Although the lands earmarked for the new park were covered with homes and farms, there was little public outcry when inhabitants of the nearly 5,000 individual land tracts were expelled, their lands presented to the federal government. After all, the Blue Ridge dwellers were not only different from the mainstream of American society, but, according to one contemporary journalist, their existence in the dark hollows represented "about the limit of destitution at which human life could be sustained." Park promoters and government officials publicized the fact that "these people will be moved to more civilized regions of agriculture and industry." The creation of the national park propelled these backward mountaineers into a world they had previously eschewed.

When archaeologists found a toy ray gun in the rubble of Corbin Hollow, they knew these were not people "cut off from the current of American life." 

From the first day of the survey in Nicholson, Corbin, and Weakley hollows on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge, formerly home to three communities with eighteenth-century roots, it was obvious that some observations about the region were flawed. Automobiles, Coke bottles, Bakelite toys, cologne, hair tonic, and hot-sauce bottles, even a half-torn 1931 cellulose card calendar featuring the artwork of Maxfield Parrish, all shattered the accepted image of backward hillbillies eking out an existence that was "completely cut off from the current of American life." (Archaeology magazine, "Shenandoah's Secret History," Jan.–Feb. 2000).
More graves there too, I am sure, if you know where to look.


Unknown said...

It's always the poor who pay for these improvements. And while it's hard to tell, I think that's not just any gun, but a ray gun. The kids, at least, in the house were thoroughly modern.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Oh yes, definitely a "ray gun." I straightened out the caption to make that clearer.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Someone on Facebook made a similar comment, and I replied, "Yes, when I read that ARCHAEOLOGY article back in 2000, what struck me was not the utilitarian "for the greater good" argument that some people should be relocated so that many more could have a national park, but the social worker-ish language that these 'hillbillies' would benefit from it, that it was for their own well-being, after all."

Woody Meristem said...

There are graves in the woods in most forested areas, at least in the northeast and probably everywhere. Those are the graves of Native Americans who died long before European exploration and whatever remains of those people who died of introduced European diseases when so many died that there were not enough people remaining alive to bury the dead.

Years ago I saw an old woodland cemetery of 20+ graves where all but one of the headstones were flat slabs of fieldstone. There are also isolated single graves scattered in woodlands -- at least three in the county where I live, and probably quite a few more.

Anne Johnson said...

This was, pure and simple, a forced diaspora. I have heard they let some older people live out their lives in their homes. But let me tell you, lots of people wanted to stay in that area, and they had no choice. Everything you think you own actually belongs to the powers that be.