Over the past two centuries the practice of the burial of deceased human beings has changed considerably. Graveside rites, undertaking procedures, mourning customs and the marking of graves today bear little resemblance to those prior to 1800. This article will focus primarily on the evolutionary stages of the marking of graves in the region of Randolph County, West Virginia.
The earliest cemeteries in Randolph County are those of the aboriginal Americans who resided in the area prior to the settlement by people of European descent. Often referred to as "Indian mounds" these burial sites were evidently used by entire tribes rather than immediate families and thus would be more accurately classified as public rather than private. In Randolph County, as well as most other areas, these mounds were located on relatively flat lands near major streams or bodies of water. They were most likely near or within the aboriginal community itself. Other than the visibility of the mound itself, known markings of graves were not visible from the surface and thus were religious in nature or implied a belief in possession after death of various ornaments, tools or weapons buried on or near the deceased. In 1963 an archeological group excavated what was believed to have been an aboriginal grave site near the mouth of Elkwater. Other mounds are scattered throughout the county. The limited number of these sites as well as the low number of burials in each implies that the people who built the mounds may have disposed of the bodies of the dead in other manners also, possibly including burial in European style graves which they would have been directly or indirectly exposed to since the fifteenth century or even earlier. Markings of these probably would not have survived and thus identification of these sites may never be possible.
Known European settlements in the Randolph County region date back to the 1750s and the early graves of these people were in many respects comparable to those of the aboriginal population. In fact there are a number of indications that the early European settlers buried their dead in or near aboriginal burial sites. Several of these early cemeteries have "Indian mounds" in them. Prior to the mid-1750s camradery to this extent between the aboriginal and European populations was widespread in this region.
The earliest documentable "graveyard" in Randolph County is located on the west side of the Tygart Valley River about 400 yards northwest of the present mouth of Chenoweth Creek. It is referred to in the minutes of the Land Commissioners who met in the Tygart Valley in March of 1780. It is located on a bluff above the flood plain and was in 1780 only a few yards from the river (which has since changed course) and within what at that time was known as the Kittle Settlement. No towns or villages as we would describe them today were located in the region at that time so the modern usage of the word public would not have applied to the cemetery but since it evidently was used by the entire settlement, it would not have properly been defined as "private" either. It appears that in 1780 each of the settlements in the region may have had one of these "semi-public" grave yards. A similar purpose would have been served by the grave yards adjacent to early churches in the valley as they began to get organized after 1800. The first cemetery that was "public" in modern terms in the Randolph County area would have been at Beverly after the town lots were developed and occupied about 1795. Families not wishing to bury their dead in town or at a church established cemeteries on their own land.
The earliest documentable "private family cemetery" in the Randolph County region dates back to 22 August 1801. That is the date carved into an uncut ordinary rock that marks the grave of a person with the initials "C. K." who was buried in the cemetery about 100 yards west of the railroad and just southeast of the old intersection known as Sullivan's Crossing. The stone evidently marks the grave of Catherine Bickle, the first wife of George Kittle. Some sources suggest that her mother-in-law, Christina Kittle is buried there. Regardless, this is the earliest date on an original marker that has been found in the Randolph County area. A number of people are known to have died in the region prior to that date but most have no markers at all, have markers with dates that have been put in much more recent times, or have ordinary stone markers without any dates or names carved in them.
Some people claim that the Beverly Cemetery is the oldest public cemetery west of the Allegheny Mountains with graves dating back to 1768. While it is quite probably the earliest public cemetery in the Randolph county region, the towns of Clarksburg and Morgantown would have had public cemeteries at least ten or fifteen years earlier, not to mention other more distant early settlements west of the Alleghenies at Redstone, Pittsburgh, and on out into the Mississippi Valley. Since the cemetery is located on land owned by James Westfall prior to 1789, the graves of his family members may have been located there as early as 1772 when lt is believed he occupied the site. But no documentation has been found for graves there as early as 1768.
The earliest documentable burial in the Randolph County region was that of Robert Foyle and his family probably in the spring of 1754 shortly after the Court assigned an administrator to the estate in Augusta County. The costs of administration included 12 pounds sterling for "burying the dead". That cost included gathering information about the estate and bringing the inventory to Staunton. The family had been killed in November of 1753 according to an early map of the valley prepared by Thomas Jefferson on which it shows the actual site to be on the west side of the Tygart Valley River opposite the mouth of what is today known as Files Creek. Since nearly six months elapsed before the burial little more than bleached bones would have remained when those sent by the court reached the site. There is no reason to believe claim by same sources that the Westfalls buried the remains in the early 1770s. The location of the graves of the Files family was probably not marked and may never be found but it would have been in the vicinity of present town of Beverly.
Based on the population of the Randolph County region identified by the boundary of the county when it was formed in 1787, an estimated 500 people of European descent were probably buried there, within that boundary, prior to 1800. But since dates and names were not carved on the markers and no records have survived identifying who is buried in the earliest known cemeteries, statements about those 500 graves can only be based on speculation made only slightly more credible by educated guesses. Same examples of what are believed to be pre-1800 cemeteries are the one just northwest of Mountain State Memorial Gardens, the one about 300 yards northwest of the mouth of Gum Run on Leading Creek, the "White" cemetery opposite the site of Hadden's Mill an Becky's Creek and the 1780 cemetery mentioned by the land commissioners. Most of the stones used for markers have distinctive shapes as if there had been some effort to cut them accordingly. The effort put into selecting and preparing a marker was probably in proportion to the extent people wanted to remember the person with the more undesirable decedents getting no stone at all.
After 1800 the custom of putting dates and initials on the stone markers first appears in the Randolph County region. Pre-1800 examples may have been a reality but none have been found. Only about a dozen carved markers have been found in the region for the 1800-1820 period.
Marking grave stones became more popular during the 1820 to 1850 period. During the 1820s stones began to appear that had been marked by skilled local craftsman who carefully shaped the stones and used stencils to carve complete dates, full names and even slogans on the stones. Graveyards during this period began to be established in areas further away from the main tributaries and usually on points of hills 100 or 200 feet above valleys in a location that has a good view. During the 1830s and 1840s one of the more important grave stone craftsmen in Randolph County was Hamilton Skidmore.
During the early 1850s the marking of graves became more commercialized in the area. Early examples were of a soft white stone that was very vulnerable to weathering. But by the 1860s some of the most elaborate stones were of high quality and effected very little by the elements. The most important companies were located in Wheeling and Buckhannon.
After the Civil War grave markers for all but the wealthy were of less and less quality, a trend that continued into the Twentieth Century. Many of the stones are illegible today. The proportion of people with no markers at all seems to have increased during this period. People began locating cemeteries on mountain tops, on high ridges and in locations not well suited for grave yards that today are all but inaccessible.
After 1900 the use of public cemeteries quickly increased with a comparable decline in the use of family cemeteries. As undertaking establishments became more organized, primarily as a result of government regulation, the quality of markers and the number of people who got them began to increase.
More recently, as people became more aware of the difficulty in providing perpetual care for cemeteries with traditional markers, the use of ground level stones became more popular.
The Allegheny Regional Family History Society