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Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground

The Atlantic Beach area of North Carolina has a jewel of a tourist town known as Beaufort. Even Blackbeard, the infamous pirate, recognized the fact. He headquartered his business in Beaufort’s oldest home, known now as the Hammock House.

My family recently visited the picturesque destination and drove through historic neighborhoods with tidy frame dwellings, picket fencing and shuttered windows. Flags fly from porches, live oaks cling to the ground, and boats line the marinas. Fort Macon beckons across the bay, and ice cream shops do the same street side. Daughter No. 2 even spotted a library on wheels parked next to the water. The whole scene reminded me of a Sunday shirt, freshly laundered and starched.

A couple of blocks away from the bustle, we took a shady walk back in time at the town’s historic Old Burying Ground. Town records note the area was “depopulated by the late Indian War and Massacre” in 1711, and unmarked graves from that time are believed to be in the site’s northwest corner plots. That means it was established decades before the United States was even born.

As Trip Advisor attests, the site attracts visitors from all over the map — New York, Arizona, California, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands. The town does a good job of maintaining the cemetery, and we especially enjoyed using a smartphone audio app as a voice guide for our tour. It told the back story at interesting stops like No. 15, where Sarah Gibbs (d. 1792) and Jacob Sheppard (d. 1773) are buried. It seems Jacob was thought to be lost at sea, so Sarah married a Mr. Gibbs. Years later, the shipwrecked Jacob returned. The two husbands struck an agreement: Sarah would remain with Mr. Gibbs as long as he lived, but she would be with Jacob for all eternity. Thus, she’s buried by Jacob’s side.

The app’s legend had us winding through enough wrought iron to satisfy architectural enthusiasts and over enough roots to keep naturalists happy. From what I could tell, though, it’s history hounds that make for the most contented visitors. (My husband struck gold.)  While he enjoyed reading about the deaths of war heroes and such, I was drawn to storytelling epitaphs, like the one at No. 20, the common grave of those who perished in the wreckage of the Crissie Wright (d. 1886). It says the line “cold as the night the Crissie Wright went ashore” is still heard around Beaufort. The sailors who froze to death on that ship, lashed to rigging on that fateful January evening, are buried as they died — together.

Then there’s the tragic tale at stop No. 26. It seems that Nancy Manney French (d. 1886) loved her tutor, Mr. French, but her father did not. The tutor left to seek his fortune and vowed to return for Nancy. He did well, eventually becoming a chief justice in the territory of Arizona. But the Beaufort postmaster was a friend of Nancy’s father, and he intercepted all correspondence between the two lovebirds. Before the postmaster died, he confessed to Nancy what he had done. Meanwhile, Mr. French returned to Beaufort only to find Nancy, whose love had never faltered, suffering from consumption. They married anyway, and weeks later Nancy died.

Many of the graves in Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground are topped by brick to protect them from high water, as evidenced in other historic seaport towns. One burial plot, however, is also topped by stuffed animals and other trinkets — a mound of them — placed by sentimental visitors. No. 24’s tombstone reflects the hard realities of life in previous centuries, when many children never made it to adulthood. The audio app’s listing is simply titled, “Girl in Barrel of Rum.” The info goes as follows: “Here is the grave of a girl buried in a barrel of rum. In the 1700s an English family, including an infant daughter, came to Beaufort. The girl grew up with a desire to see her homeland, and finally persuaded her mother to allow her to make the voyage. Her father promised his wife he would return the girl safely. The girl enjoyed her visit to London but died on the voyage home. She would have been buried at sea, but her father could not bear to break his promise. He purchased a barrel of rum from the captain, placed her body in it, and brought it to Beaufort for burial.”

Yeah, pretty sad. But maybe it’s the sadness that gives the spot an undeniable draw. There’s a quiet dignity in the dirt that makes you slow down and consider your own mortality and that of those you love. You know, the “dust to dust” reality of life.

One thing’s for sure. Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground would make a great Hollywood set. Oh, and if you go, don’t miss the grave of the British soldier who’s buried saluting and standing up.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.