Adventures in Ancestry
Gause family members seek to identify remains of a long-lost relative and turn up a wealth of history in the meantime.
Interesting nuggets of Brunswick County history are surfacing as Gause descendants dig into their ancestry, restore reverence to family gravesites and seek the remains of William Gause, Jr., a special relative who lost part of a leg in the American Revolutionary War.
The tale of the Gause family lineage unfolds like a history-adventure drama. The family called in the East Carolina University Archaeology Team to find, research and, in some cases, open graves that date to the turn of the eighteenth century. The team has sifted dirt, restored gravesites, found scattered bones and used techniques that range from ground-penetrating radar to cadaver dogs.
“I never intended to get this involved in it, but if I don’t protect them, nobody will,” J.R. Robinson says about his ancestors.
His ancestors are buried in the Gause Cemetery at Seaside in Sunset Beach as well as in the Gause Tomb and Cemetery on Hale Swamp Road in Ocean Isle Beach. After nearly five years of effort and two rounds of excavation at the Sunset Beach cemetery, Robinson hasn’t yet found William Gause, Jr.’s remains, but he’s happy about restoring dignity to his relatives’ final resting places.
Dusting off his family’s past has opened a window into the region’s history and unearthed details of an era few can imagine now. Robinson lives in Plano, Illinois, with his wife, Diane, and has cousins in Rocky Mount and Raleigh who have shared an ancestral curiosity over the years. Challenged for time while raising a family, Robinson didn’t dive in until recent years, even more so after one of his cousins developed blindness.
William Gause, Jr. is Robinson’s four-times great-grandfather who served alongside George Washington in the Revolutionary War. The two exchanged letters and became friends, and Washington’s diaries from his Southern Tour of States include a sentence about having had breakfast at the Gause home, about 4 miles off the former president’s documented tour route.
In the mid-1700s, the Gauses were a prominent family who ran a successful turpentine business and had a plantation. William, Jr. was one of five Gause brothers who fought in the war, and all of them were considered heroes.
Robinson says the Gause family members scattered back then, fearful of what was affecting their children, maybe something like contaminated water. Nobody can be sure what really happened, but life spans were much shorter and more people died then of conditions that are easily cured now.
The Sunset Beach cemetery site, which once sat upon a sprawling plantation, is now a small, old, family plot sandwiched between a major roadway and commercial development. Robinson found the little graveyard in rough shape, damaged, neglected and overgrown. He was inspired to find the owner and obtain the property so he could clear it and restore it.
He says those buried in the Gause Tomb were robbed in the past by thieves who had chiseled into the brick tomb through a venting pipe that became known as the “Robbers Hole.” There have been a variety of problems at the Gause Tomb and Cemetery over the years, including visits from eager paranormal enthusiasts and various trespassers. Security cameras, locked gates and night lighting have since resolved the issues.
The graves have also suffered from extreme neglect, probably because not many people knew they were there and because the exact parameters of the cemetery had never been researched thoroughly. The known part of the cemetery, the tomb, is 17 feet square and now looks neat as a pin with a wrought-iron fence, three flying flags and restored brickwork said to be typical of elite families during the early 1800s.
Robinson says he’s networked with a lot of informed people since starting the project, including the late Calabash historian Anthony Clemmons, who shared his extensive knowledge. Along with his cousin Alan Matthews of Rocky Mount, Robinson contacted and connected with several experts in the East Carolina University anthropology department, starting with Professor Charles Ewen.
“The smartest thing I’ve done is involve Dr. Megan Perry,” Robinson says, especially in light of the knowledge, permitting and authorizations required for any kind of human-remains excavation. Dr. Perry led the teams that did two on-site, in-ground investigations. Robinson says they were amazed during a 2018 dig to open five graves and find a total of seven people, all children except one.
One grave contained three bodies, with one apparently interred at a different time than the other two. In another single grave lay two sets of remains, an adult and a baby. One of the graves was empty because a body had been legitimately moved at some point. The team members unearthed part of a coffin lid, wooden nails, brass parts, a skull with hair and some fabric, as well as a decorative lapel pin and clothes buttons made from animal bone.
Robinson says that ground-scanning technology was performed with spot-on accuracy in finding graves, and he marvels knowing that the dig reveals 200-year-old snippets of history and artifacts, including pieces of several headstones.
In 2017 Dr. Perry’s team excavated three brick burial vaults in the cemetery and found they contained the remains of an adult female age 20 to 34 years old and two adult males ages 35 to 39 and 40 to 49 years old. The Gause ancestors didn’t seem to have diseases but apparently had bad dental health, Robinson says, adding that wealthy families’ teeth of that era typically suffered due to the rich foods and sugary treats they ate.
Since intensifying the genealogical quest about four years ago, Robinson and the family have made new connections, establishing a new connection among many Gause descendants still living in the area. Robinson and Matthews narrated a PBS special about the family tomb research, and Gause family relatives keep in touch via Facebook.
Robinson says it’s been a fun, fulfilling, interesting and educational journey so far, and he plans to keep looking for the remains of William Gause, Jr.
“We will know it’s him if we dig up a grave and one of the lower legs is missing,” he says.