Two Late Nineteenth-Century Cemeteries in Northwest Arkansas: A Study in Contrasts

Article excerpt

CEMETERIES REPRESENT FAR MORE than handy disposal areas for the dead. Instead, they both reflect and actively express profound aspects of religiosity and spirituality. As components of local communities, these sites affirm historical, kinship, and social ties between and among the living and dead. The treatment accorded individuals during mortuary ritual, including burial, brings to the fore their roles in the community, including socioeconomic status. This may be reflected in the specific location of burial, size and style of headstone, choice of coffin and hardware, clothing, and other personal items.1

Beginning in 2002, expansion of Lake Fort Smith by the City of Fort Smith, Arkansas, inundated the Becky Wright and Eddy Cemeteries. These two small Euroamerican burial grounds, dating to the late nineteenth century, were located on terraces to the north of the existing shoreline on land owned by the city. Because the cemeteries were considered potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, in fall 2001 the Arkansas Archeological Survey, under terms of a contract with Burns & McDonnell, Inc., excavated the Becky Wright and Eddy Cemeteries to remove the interred human remains, associated coffin hardware, and personal items. The authors have published a comprehensive monograph on the cemeteries, which contains detailed descriptions of the individual graves, mortuary hardware, and personal items, and a lengthy historical overview.2 Many footnotes below reference this volume, rather than the extensive primary sources cited therein.

The Becky Wright and Eddy Cemeteries were situated about a quarter mile apart on terraces above the 2001 shore of Lake Fort Smith (Figure 1). Located within the Boston Mountains, Lake Fort Smith occupies a valley approximately one mile north of Mountainburg, in Mountain Township, Crawford County, Arkansas. This lake and Lake Shepherd Springs, to the northeast, cover the course of a prominent stream, Frog Bayou, which flows southward to the Arkansas River and from which the local unincorporated community took its name.3 Between approximately 1870 and 1900, these small burial grounds served the needs of a small community scattered along Frog Bayou in the vicinity of Chester. Many of the individuals buried in the two cemeteries undoubtedly knew one another, at least on a superficial level.

The Eddy Cemetery has been associated with the Samuel Eddy family. The tract of land was never designated formally as a cemetery. Excavation and geophysical imaging located sixteen interments, of which eleven were represented by preserved skeletal remains. The nearby Becky Wright Cemetery is located northeast of the Eddy Cemetery within a two-acre tract of land that was deeded to the Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1854 for use as a campground.4 No church records pertaining to the tract have been located, but its use as a cemetery apparently began some time later, as the earliest grave marked with a commercial stone dates to 1873. The cemetery takes its name from the adjacent Becky Wright School, which burned in 1911. Archaeological excavations, which included all likely grave locations and several geophysical anomalies, located ten interments, including seven individuals represented by preserved skeletal remains. Although a few commercial tombstones were present at each cemetery, most graves were marked only with fieldstones, and introduced yucca plants were still growing at the Becky Wright Cemetery.

Cultural geographer D. Gregory Jeane recognized commonalities between many rural southern cemeteries and used these hallmarks as the defining criteria for what he called the Upland South cemetery type. Upland South cemeteries typically are small and located on elevated surfaces, such as hilltops. Most graves are marked with stones-not commercial products but crudely dressed or unmodified native fieldstones. Introduced vegetation, such as cedar and yucca, often is present. …

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