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Tombstone Inscription Books: A Valuable Source of Information on African Americans

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Juliet Culliver Crutchfield, Ed.D. - Click for larger view. Juliet's Genealogical Gems
Tombstone Inscription Books: A Valuable Source of Information on African Americans
 by Juliet Culliver Crutchfield, Ed.D.

Early information on the death of an African American ancestor may be particularly difficult to obtain. Tombstone inscriptions may represent the only informational source that can be found on the death of an African American when  (1) family Bibles; (2) church, probate, mortality schedule, and military records; (3) obituaries; and (4) death certificates can not be found.  African American cemetery inscription records are valuable, as comprehensive registration of deaths began late in the United States.

A priceless source that helped extend my research is a book entitled Drew County, Arkansas Cemetery Records. [1]This book is a product of the Drew County Association for Family and Community Education, formerly known as the Drew County Extension Homemakers.  Other Arkansas counties have produced similar books.  A quick Internet search of the Library of Congress Catalogue for comparable books in Arkansas compiled by other Extension Homemakers resulted in books found for Arkansas, Bradley, Cleveland, Dallas, Drew, Grant, Lawrence, Lincoln, and Ouachita counties.  The Library of Congress online catalogue can be accessed at

The Drew County Association for Family and Community Education surveyed county cemeteries and recorded information found on headstones. Volunteers familiar with local surnames copied the inscriptions. In addition, people who knew that family members were buried in certain cemeteries with no markers supplied data. In such instances, the deceased and their information was included in the book. Funeral home records then were used to check some of the burials.

The Drew County, Arkansas Cemetery Records book provides an every name index, directions, brief historical descriptions, and orientation maps to the cemeteries. Township, range, and section numbers further identify the location of the cemeteries. Such precise property descriptions allow the researcher to obtain topographic maps and study the area before visiting it. Topographic maps are produced by the United States Geological Survey and by private publishers. They can be purchased at National Park and U.S. Forest Service visitor centers, backpack and mountaineering shops, and sporting goods stores that sell outdoor equipment.  Topographic maps show contour and elevation of terrain along with bodies of water, trails, roads, boundaries, buildings, and other details.

A search of the index of Drew County, Arkansas Cemetery Records provided me quickly with burial information for Mount Pleasant African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery, the burial place of many of my ancestors. The cemetery is segregated into Black and White areas. I learned that Andrew Cavaness donated ten acres of land for the church and cemetery around 1852. A Black family with the surname Cavaness knew both my ancestors and living relatives from the county. This family helped me locate valuable information in local cemeteries, churches, and the Drew County Historical Museum.   It is interesting to note that the White Cavaness family has a significant presence in the community. In brief, Garvin Cavaness constructed the building that houses the Drew County Historical Museum in 1907 and Wesley M. Cavaness was the clerk of the county and probate courts at the time of my visit.

Because tombstones can yield more than death information, I was able to verify other facts for many of my ancestors. At Mount Pleasant, I found family members buried in clusters and these groups represented several generations and surnames.  I found complete death and birth dates, nicknames, a funeral home reference, and military information. The nicknames were accompanied by given names, thereby helping to distinguish and further identify individuals. The military data included state, branch, regiment, and rank. The discovery of ancestors buried in an African Methodist Episcopal Church graveyard reconfirmed religious affiliation.

Encouraged by my discovery, I examined headstones in a nearby cemetery. Unfortunately, I did not find tombstones for ancestors that I believed buried in that cemetery. Perhaps the purchase of a tombstone was too expensive.  However, searching cemeteries where you believe your ancestors are buried is never futile, because sometimes years after a burial, family members may erect a marker to honor a loved one.

The use of published works does require caution, as transposition errors can be made easily. However, in spite of possible limitations, printed indexes can save hours of research time and provide clues to unknown buried family members.  Furthermore, when tombstones have been damaged or destroyed by vandals or the ravages of time, transcribed information is the only information left. Even when death certificates, obituaries, or church registers are located, a good genealogists will make use of cemetery transcription information as corroborating evidence. Because early and pre-twentieth century death records are frequently unavailable, cemetery inscriptions may serve as an important alternative source of vital record information.

[1] Drew County Association for Family and Community Education, Drew County, Arkansas Cemetery Records. Monticello, Arkansas.  1994.

Copyright ©2000 by Juliet Culliver Crutchfield, Ed.D.   Reprints require approval by the author.


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