Hidden Differences beneath a Surface Equality: Mortuary Variability in Two Late-Nineteenth-Century Cemeteries in Crawford County, Arkansas

By Davidson, James M.; Mainfort, Robert C. | Southeastern Archaeology, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Hidden Differences beneath a Surface Equality: Mortuary Variability in Two Late-Nineteenth-Century Cemeteries in Crawford County, Arkansas


Davidson, James M., Mainfort, Robert C., Southeastern Archaeology


Located in northwest Arkansas, the Becky Wright and Eddy cemeteries were inundated during expansion of a reservoir. These small, contemporary, Euroamerican burial grounds date to the late nineteenth century and were situated less than a mile apart. Based on above-ground features, the cemeteries appeared virtually identical, both displaying characteristics typical of the Upland South Cemetery type. Contextualized analysis of the graves, however, revealed dramatic differences between the cemeteries.

Introduction

Cemeteries are not simply areas set aside for disposal of the dead. Rather, they are a specific type of socially bounded space that reflect and actively express many of a community's basic beliefs and values. Cemeteries are central to community life and to the continuity of families within communities, perhaps especially in rural areas. As noted by Warner (1959:286), "The cemetery is a symbolic meeting place for the dead and the living" where historical, kinship, and social ties are affirmed and maintained. The treatment accorded individuals during mortuary ritual, including physical burial, varies as it publicly brings to the fore their roles in the community, including socioeconomic status, as survivors seek to mediate the death experience in appropriate ways. Differences between individuals may be reflected symbolically by specific location of the grave, size and style of headstone, choice of a coffin style and hardware, clothing and other personal items, and a host of other variables (Beck 1995; Bell 1994; Chapman et al. 1981; Grauer 1995; Meyer 1989; Saunders and Herring 1995; Sullivan and Mainfort 2010).

During the planning process prior to expansion of the Lake Fort Smith reservoir by the City of Fort Smith, Arkansas, it was recognized that raising the water level would inundate the Becky Wright and Eddy cemeteries, two small nineteenth-century Euroamerican burial grounds located on terraces north of the existing shoreline on land owned by the city (Figure 1). The cemeteries were considered potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and in fall 2001 the Arkansas Archeological Survey excavated the Becky Wright and Eddy cemeteries to remove the interred human remains, associated coffin hardware, and personal items. Detailed descriptions of the individual graves, their contents, and a historical overview appear in our comprehensive monograph in the cemeteries (Mainfort and Davidson 2006; see also Davidson and Mainfort 2008). As discussed below, our focus here is on contrasts between the two cemeteries, including, but not limited to, objects of material culture.

These small cemeteries were located about a quarter of a mile apart within the Boston Mountains, approximately 3 km east of Chester, in Mountain Township, Crawford County, Arkansas. The existing reservoir and Lake Shepherd Springs, to the northeast, were created by damming Frog Bayou, a prominent stream that flows southward to the Arkansas River. The local unincorporated community took its name, conferred informally, from this stream (Bunton 1994). Between about 1870 and 1900, the Becky Wright and Eddy cemeteries were among the graveyards that served the needs of this small community. The individuals interred in the two cemeteries were neighbors, and many undoubtedly knew one another, at least on a superficial level.

Davidson (2006:201-207) has published an extensive discussion of chronology, including starting and ending dates, which we will summarize briefly here (see also Davidson 1999). The Eddy Cemetery did not exist prior to Samuel Eddy's purchase of the land in November 1873, and the first interments did not take place until some years later - quite possibly 1882, to which the two earliest marked graves date. Coffin hardware and personal objects suggest that the Eddy Cemetery ceased to be used in the mid- to late 189Os, an inference supported by the fact that the last members of the Eddy moved out of the area during this period (see Lloyd and Mainfort 2006:68-75). …

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