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Sleuthing through the Past: John Hobgood and Eulis A. Willis Document Brunswick County’s Historic Grave Sites

Long-neglected burial sites of the men and women who populated Brunswick County in generations past are being rediscovered. Many of the interred were poor. Many were black. They were laid to rest on former farms and plantations that have been reclaimed by nature as Brunswick County’s landscape has changed and evolved.

Northern Brunswick County is one area that continues to yield new grave-site finds. Modern-day sleuths John Hobgood, a specialist with Brunswick County’s Geographic Information System (GIS) Department, and Eulis A. Willis, Mayor of Navassa, seek out these burial sites, relying on tools like old maps, deeds, land surveys, aerial photography, cadaver dogs
and the recollections of longtime county residents to offer clues about the locations of cemeteries or abandoned family plots.

Hobgood and Willis are dedicated to the work.

“It’s rewarding,” says Hobgood. “It gets interesting when you find one that looks like it’s totally forgotten. They’re just left to nature and you’re out in the middle of nowhere and
there are beautiful monuments sitting there.”

The GIS Department collects information about a specific geographic area, including known cemeteries, on digital maps that are posted on the county’s website. The data is useful in establishing accurate property boundaries and road right of ways, determining soil type, type of land use and for topographic and zoning purposes.

One of Hobgood’s duties with the GIS Department is venturing out in the field and locating burial sites that contain human remains from as far back as the late 1700s. He photographs each location, an ongoing work in progress. As of late 2008, he had compiled a list of 395 known burial sites throughout Brunswick County.
Photographs of some of the burial sites are posted online.

Some finds are 25 yards off the road, while others may be miles back in the woods. Hobgood has come upon
the remnants of entire cemeteries, and lonely spots containing one or two timeworn graves.

“There are cemeteries being added all the time,” he says. “Something that may have been three acres, there
are five headstones visible or there were wooden markers. Stone markers can get turned over and pine straw
gets piled up for 20 years. I’ve seen [overgrown] ones from the ’60s and ’70s. It’s amazing.”

The work can be challenging. Encounters with snakes, mosquitoes, ticks and other pests are not uncommon.

“I’ve been on my hands and knees crawling through thickets trying to find a Confederate soldier’s monument that is broken in half or just piles of seashells,” Hobgood says.

Hobgood is relatively new to researching the locations of long-abandoned grave sites. Willis, who has a deep interest in local history and is the author of the book Navassa – The Town and Its People 1735-1991, has been at it since 1982. He’s particularly interested in the history of black residents of the Navassa area and has accumulated a wealth of
information through his research.

“A lot of those cemeteries came from old plantations and some family cemeteries,” Willis says. “Prior to [the town] annexing Phoenix, I was just looking at Navassa proper, but I’m branching out.”

In his book, Willis lists five antebellum plantations in the Navassa area in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War: The Bluffs, Fair Oaks, Hall Place, Cobham and Dogwood Neck. Some 260 slaves lived on the plantations. Many are buried on the land.

His technique is to go through property records, deeds, tax records and old census data to link a weathered tombstone to a particular person or landowner.

“You can go back on your searches and you can trace back who it is, or you can get a parcel identifier and identify it from a physical location,” Willis says. “Then you can go back and see who the landowner is. Normally, in that deed you can research property all the way from modern days back to the antebellum days.”

Willis became interested in the work after taking a local history class at Cape Fear Community College in the early 1980s.

“The idea of researching African-American history was a little bit difficult for us because of the lack of official documentation of things,” Willis says. “A lot of ex-slaves couldn’t read or write. Some guy might have 200 or 300 acres and he signed his name with an x. I pride myself on being an African-American historian. African-American
history is so much entwined with the local history.”

Willis has been aware for some time of the Cedar Hill Cemetery, located near Cedar Hill Road. It contains about 50 graves, 13 of which are marked. The last recorded burial there was in 1963.

“That was an old plantation cemetery,” he says. “Back in the mid-1980s we documented as many tombstones as we could. We went back [recently] and quite a few were gone.”

In colonial times and into the twentieth century, many communities and rice plantations were situated along the Cape Fear River and its tributaries.

“The primary mode of transportation was the Cape Fear River,” Willis says. “There were five or six plantation sites in what is now called Navassa. Each of these plantation sites had their own little burial ground.”

One local burial site Willis has been researching is called the Waters Cemetery, which is near the intersection of Cedar Hill and Mt.Misery roads in Phoenix. Hobgood found the site on an old map and informed Willis.

“We went looking and we found it,” Willis recalls. “We went and asked some local folks and they told us there had not been a burial there in at least 50 years.”

Providing assistance in the search were dogs from the Brunswick Search and Rescue Team. The volunteer team, headed up by Christy Judah, regularly assists in looking for old grave sites.

“She’s been very helpful to our department,” Hobgood says. “And it’s good training for the dogs.”

Both Hobgood and Willis said older residents often provide valuable information about cemeteries and burial sites, but their recollections may differ as to specific locations. That’s why both said it’s important to find and log grave sites into the GIS database as development continues to change the face of Brunswick County.

 

“It just goes on and on, and we make sure it evolves with technology. This process of converting paper [information] into digital form has been a job,” Hobgood says.

The Brunswick County Planning Department uses the GIS system to make developers aware of known cemeteries or grave sites, Hobgood says. “If there’s a clear field and no one knows something is there, that’s when the North Carolina General Statues come in,” he says. Desecrating, plowing up or covering graves is a felony offense under state law.

Hobgood sometimes gets information about a cemetery already on the GIS map, but he welcomes all public input. “We’re open to hearing people’s locations,” he says. “I don’t care if they repeat it. It’s worth it to us.”

Other amateur historians like David Covington also help out with information. Covington, a biology instructor at Cape Fear Community College and a Leland resident, says Navassa is a “gold mine” of history. Covington, who is currently researching how Mt. Misery Road got its name, takes an active interest in the work of Willis and Hobgood.

Many African-Americans in the post-Civil War era and well into the 1900s could not afford headstones for their loved ones. Willis has found sites memorialized only by shells or bits of glass. Sharing and trading knowledge with others helps him ensure sites are documented with Brunswick County.

“I’m trying to put together the cemetery culture,” Willis says. “The thing I would probably get the most joy out of is if I can identify something to the point where a developer won’t come along and desecrate a cemetery.”

If you know of cemetery or grave-site location in Brunswick County, contact John Hobgood in the Brunswick County GIS Department at (910) 253-2390.

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