Secrets emerge from graves

Every cemetery has its secrets.

But the one Lenoir-Rhyne University professor Mark Hager and about 20 of his oral history students have been investigating this summer almost overflows with them.

It's no secret that the parents of early American explorer Daniel Boone – Squire and Sarah – are buried in Joppa Cemetery, off U.S. 601 in Mocksville. A state historic marker has pointed that out for decades.

The Boone connection definitely sets Joppa apart. But Hager's students, all of whom plan to teach in N.C. public schools, are expanding the cemetery's historical profile.

They're probing into other names on weathered gravestones, compiling a snapshot of an important pioneer community in the Forks of the Yadkin.

Knowing more about this small burial ground can help us better understand the dynamics of change that's swept the Carolinas over the years, and continues today.

Traveling the Great Wagon Road in the mid-1700s, thousands of settlers from Pennsylvania and Virginia passed through the area between the Yadkin and South Yadkin rivers. Some, like the Boones, stayed on. Joppa Presbyterian Church became a landmark – a place young Daniel Boone knew well.

The little church at the Forks of the Yadkin is long gone. And development now surrounds the cemetery, which is maintained by volunteers.

Hager said there's a list of the people buried there, but there is little information about who they were. In June, his students began searching records in libraries and courthouses in Davie and Rowan counties, looking for anything they could find about the names on Joppa's tombstones.

Fascinating fragments turned up. They learned a man named P.F. Meroney was Thomas Jefferson's nephew and Thomas and Rufus Brown were heirs to the Brown and Brown tobacco fortune – a forerunner of R.J. Reynolds. There's a relative of Hinton Rowan Helper, a Southern critic of slavery and author of “The Impending Crisis of the South.”

Soldiers from the Revolutionary and Civil wars share space under the oaks and cedars.

The main goal of Hager's project is gathering enough information to get the cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places – thus expanding its protection.

But there's more.

Hager hopes the new research also will raise awareness and help more people appreciate the significance of an old burying ground along a busy highway.

Daniel Boone fanatic

I met Hager at Joppa one afternoon when the heat hung heavy and cicadas whined in trees.

“No-see-'ums” nipped at my bare arms as we walked by the Boones' original tombstones, protected from the elements and vandals by a modern brick encasement. Traditional lore has it Daniel Boone carved the inscriptions and that two of his brothers are buried nearby in unmarked graves. I noticed a bouquet of wilted roses atop the brick monument.

Visitors come here from all over the country. It's the jumping-off place for a young settler who left home to become an American icon.

Hager discovered Joppa as a child. He grew up in Goldsboro, but traveled U.S. 601 with his parents on trips to visit relatives in Western North Carolina.

By the time he first saw the highway marker, Hager was already a Daniel Boone fanatic.

In third grade, he and a school librarian got into an argument over whether Hager was old enough to check out a Boone biography from the fourth-grade reading section. He won the argument, wrote a book report, and never lost interest in Boone.

In 2005, working outside St. Louis at Cahokia, the largest Indian burial mound in North America, Hager made a side trip to Boone's last home, the Missouri cabin where the legendary pioneer died in 1820.

The Boone connection continued to wrap tighter around Hager's imagination.

As director of the Forks of the Yadkin and Davie County Historical Museum, Hager was concerned about a proposed road from a development that could threaten Joppa. He asked state archaeologists for advice about how to protect the cemetery.

Searching public records

He came up with a plan to find out something about everybody buried in the cemetery and wanted to get his students involved.

No tests in this class, he told them; but you may have to sweat a little.

Marie Barnes, head of the Cemetery Committee of the N.C. Department of Archives and History, spoke to the class about how to document a graveyard.

Then students went to work – not at Joppa at first, but in the public records. Weeks later, when they finally made it to the cemetery, it was no strange place to them. They already knew a lot about the people buried there.

Many names belonged to Great Wagon Road travelers who'd stopped at the Forks of the Yadkin in the 1750s waiting for high water to recede, and instead of moving on settled there. The nearest town was Salisbury, about 30 miles away; the next closest was Winchester, Va.

Searching the records gave students clear pictures of life in the wilderness. Families ravaged by disease. High infant mortality. Women dying in childbirth.

Kierry Christmas of Granite Falls found one couple who had seven children – six of whom died before their first birthday. The seventh died at age 11.

A native of San Bernardino, Calif., Christmas moved to North Carolina in 1997, knowing little about the area's past. At 35, she enrolled in college to study elementary education.

Exploring Joppa's history has been a “deep experience,” said Christmas, who hopes to use what she's learned to research her own family's background.

Making it personal

Joppa is a quiet place.

Big trees filter out much of the highway noise. You feel lost in another world.

Standing by the Boones' graves, I looked across a nearby shopping center parking lot and half-expected to see Daniel himself striding across the pavement.

If I had seen him, Hager told me, Boone wouldn't have been a towering legend toting a giant musket; he would have been just an average guy with an average gun. Like most of those buried around me in Joppa – average people who, in their own ways, did extraordinary things in the wilderness.

Hager's students are still looking into the names on Joppa's stones. They also want to learn about slaves buried nearby in unmarked graves.

An archaeological phase begins in the fall, and they'll dig for relics that may add to the story.

For the researchers, Joppa has become almost like a family cemetery. Their family.

Hager and his students are providing a valuable service to the people of North Carolina. The new material unearthed from public records and the cemetery will be available in new forms at local libraries and Lenoir-Rhyne University. It will be accessible for others doing research in the future.

The Joppa project takes history to another level – by making it personal.