Sunday, January 8, 2017

Visiting the Cooper-Thomas Cemetery, Burke County, GA

**This looks like a long post, but it's full of pictures!**

Last July, my mother, sister and I traveled to Georgia to meet up with her siblings and extended maternal family at the Cooper-Cummings Family Reunion. While there were lots of nice moments at the reunion, some of which are pictured here, the highlight for me was absolutely getting to visit the family cemetery on our final day in Georgia.

Driving toward the cemetery, in Burke County, Georgia.

 A little over a year ago, I wrote a very excited blog post detailing my discovery of my maternal great-great-grandmother Scoatney Scott Cooper’s will. Written in 1924, the will describes how she would like her land – yes, her land – divided amongst her children, and it’s such an amazing record to have been left behind by a woman who was likely born in the early years of the Civil War. It is on this land that the Cooper-Thomas Cemetery rests.

Driving to the land from any of the surrounding cities requires traveling down ever-smaller highways and roads, until you leave paving behind altogether and kick up red dust as you drive down narrow dirt lanes.



The cemetery, and family land, are in Burke County, Georgia, near the unincorporated town of Gough. The land on which the Coopers lived (and on which some still spend their time) was simply Coopertown. Before they and their children moved up to Washington, DC, my maternal great-grandparents Noah and Nancy (Thomas) Cooper lived on this land, alongside Noah’s siblings like Julia, Daniel, and Andrew.

Noah Cooper and Wife Nancy (Thomas) Cooper
Watching the trees and fields go past as we drove, stepping out of the car into the dirt lane next to the cemetery, seeing the old buildings in Gough as we left – it felt like a trip not only through space but also time; I’ve always lived and worked in cities. 

This wooden shack sits on land that was owned by my great-grandfather Noah's brother Daniel.

The shack on Daniel's land.

Imagining the darkness at night, the sense of community but also of danger for African Americans clustered together in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction – I wonder what life was like for Scoatney, her husband July, and their kin on this land. What did they see and experience?*

The cemetery itself is fairly small. It’s surrounded on three sides by trees and brush, bordered on the other by a dirt lane, across which is a field. There were 44 burials that we could count, and perhaps more that have been grown over. 

Two views of the Cooper-Thomas Cemetery, and of the Cooper/Thomas descendants exploring it.

Not every grave appeared to be marked, and some that were were barely legible. Still, we tried our best to get down as much as we could about each grave and while my mother and sister took photos of each headstone or marker, I worked on a diagram of burials for future reference.

The three earliest headstones that remained at all legible were those in the upper right hand of the diagram above, numbers 5, 6, and 7:

Dedicated to the Memory of Jane P. Thomas...departed this life June 21, 1853

Bodner A. Thomas...Died Aug. 10, 1835

Dedicated to the Memory of William Thomas...June 15, 1853
The remaining numbered ones we noted as follows:
  • 1: toppled headstone of Jackson Keepler, died June 1909, aged 55. (Note: FindAGrave says this is the headstone for Jackson's wife, Emily Keepler, but there is no associated picture. My image shows only Jackson's name, but the grave marker is partially buried in the dirt.)
  • 2: small stone (footstone?), no marks
  • 3: small stone (footstone?), no marks
  • 4: illegible gravestone
  • 8: small stone (footstone?), no marks
  • 9: small stone (footstone?), no marks
Most of the (legible) headstones are from deaths in the mid-late 20th century, but the cemetery is still active, with burials as recent as 2014. 

I don't know how everyone in the cemetery is related to me - many of the names are unfamiliar. But there are a few I recognized right off the bat: my great-great grandmother Scoatney Cooper, her daughters Mandana Sheely and Julia Cooper Davis, Julia's husband John Hildery Davis, and my great-grandfather's brother Andrew Cooper, on whose land the cemetery rests. There are others where I need to do some sleuthing, interviewing my living relatives (including Julia and John Davis' children!), and checking the historical record.

In any case, just being on the land where my ancestors lived, worked, played and died was a magical - almost unreal - experience. That tangible connection to the people who came before - the dirt, the tombstones, the landscape itself - I can't put into words was it meant to be able to be there. So many people don't know where their people are, or where they came from. My people - for at least 2 generations - were right there.

*Julia’s son (and Scoatney’s grandson) France Davis – who we chatted with at the reunion - writes about Coopertown and his childhood in his book, France Davis: An American Story Told. His brother Clarence drew us a map to help us find the cemetery!

1 comment:

  1. I love cemeteries like this. I love when family are buried together - very comforting.