Calhoun, Tenn., cemetery tombstones have a story to tell

Calhoun, Tenn., cemetery tombstones have a story to tell

April 17th, 2012 by Randall Higgins in News

An American flag adorns the grave of Sarah Elizabeth Ross, a 2-year-old niece of Cherokee Chief John Ross. She was buried at Calhoun Cemerety in Calhoun, Tenn.

Photo by Randall Higgins/Times Free Press.

Joe Bryan, vice president of the Charleston/Calhoun/Hiwassee Historical Society, told members during a cemetery visit Sunday how the cemetery in Calhoun, surrounding the current First Baptist Church, began in 1819, the year the Cherokees ceded the land to the United States. Travelers still needed an American passport to cross the Hiwassee River into what is now Bradley County because they were leaving the country.

Photo by Randall Higgins/Times Free Press.

CALHOUN, Tenn. -- Their grave markers read like an American history book with some of the pages missing.

A 2-year-old niece of Cherokee Chief John Ross is buried in the Calhoun Cemetery. And it's the final resting place of Gideon Morgan, a man who fought with Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe Bend against the Creek Indians in Alabama.

From the War of 1812 against the British to the Mexican War, from both sides of the Civil War and both World Wars to today, veterans from America's conflicts are buried here.

On Sunday, the Charleston/Calhoun/Hiwassee Historical Society held its monthly meeting in the cemetery, surrounded by the memories of pioneers born in 1776 and those who died just days ago.

In 1939, the federal Works Progress Administration found 159 unmarked graves, and there are believed to be more. But it's hard to tell because some markers have been blurred by weather or disappeared below the ground because of their weight.

With a little help from technology, some words on some of the fading stone pages are being preserved on the Internet.

There's hope that someday each grave will have global positioning satellite coordinates to guide those seeking their ancestors, said Joe Bryan, the society's vice president.

Known graves have been recorded, along with the information on them, Bryan said, so searchers can find their ancestors.

"What's the best that could be done? Some day we could put in the GPS coordinates. A lot of cemeteries are doing that," Bryan said. "You can GPS the coordinates of the cemetery now."

Most cemeteries' coordinates can be found on the Internet. Some cemeteries in Tennessee, including the national cemeteries, also can provide GPS coordinates.

Preserving the cemetery and the information on its markers ties in with what the society is doing now, said President Faye Callaway.

"Every marker tells a story," Callaway said.

"If you know the history of any building or location, tell somebody" because history is fragile and easily lost, said Shirley Lawrence, Cherokee history expert.

In 1819, the Cherokee ceded their land north of the Hiwassee River to the United States. South of the river, Bradley and Polk counties and others would remain outside the United States for another 20 years.

Surveyors are in the process of re-establishing the lines of the Ocoee District -- which runs south of the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers to Georgia, along the Georgia state line and east to South Carolina and includes Calhoun, Tenn. The land once was part of the Cherokee Nation.

On the American side, a Methodist church and a cemetery were organized the same year and the town of Calhoun was started.

In the 1970s, a group of people formed the Calhoun Cemetery Association to raise money and rescue it from the weeds. Interest earned from that money pays for mowing.

"You know what interest rates are like now," Bryan said. "It no longer pays for itself, but we are hesitant to dip into those [certificates of deposit]. We do get some contributions occasionally."

Meanwhile, another group is preserving McMinn County history, too. With a state grant, the Cemeteries of Athens Preservation Association was formed and has a new guide called "Civil War Veterans at Rest." The guide is available in Athens at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum.

Contact staff writer Randall Higgins at rhiggins@timesfreepress.com or 423-314-1029.