The tombstone is in the Pioneer Cemetery on Wilmer Avenue, across from Lunken Airport in Columbia Tusculum. It marks the grave of a man who was a soldier in the American Revolution, a militia man in the Ohio Indian wars and, in his later years, a Baptist minister. He died in December 1842, aged 81 years, three months and 25 days.
A few hundred yards south is another pioneer cemetery. Here lies William Brown, a sergeant in the American Revolution and the first American soldier to be awarded a Purple Heart.
But unlike Hezekiah Stites, William Brown's grave is lost under weeds and rubble and cannot be found. “There are no gravestones visible,” wrote Enquirer reporter Edwin Henderson about the site in 1922, And today, any surviving gravestones are shattered fragments scattered through the undergrowth.
Old cemeteries preserve history. The Cincinnati Historical Society has lists of names on tombstones in these and other early cemeteries, recorded in the early years of the century. Some, like Pioneer Cemetery, remain. Others are gone forever.
In looking for historical significance, “it's important to know where people are buried,” says genealogist Nancy Foster of Sharonville. “And you need to see who is buried around them because families are often buried in groups.
“The lists (historic records) are important,” she says, “but you have to go to the cemeteries and see for yourself.”
Genealogists rub chalk over headstones to bring out the lettering and photograph them to preserve the information.
“Sometimes you have to poke in the ground with a stick to find a fallen headstone and dig it out,” Ms. Foster says. “The fallen ones are often easier to read than the standing ones, because the lettering has not weathered as badly.”
People have searched for William Brown's grave, but it has not been found.
“It's probably lost,” Ms. Foster says. “Many of the early graves didn't have any markers at all. Some had wooden markers that rotted away.”
Oldest in Miami Purchase
The Pioneer Cemetery on Wilmer Avenue, the old Turkey Bottom Road, is one of the region's most important historic sites. It is officially the Columbia Baptist Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the Miami Purchase (the land between the Little and Great Miami rivers), dating to 1790.
The first settlers to arrive in this area, led by Benjamin Stites, landed near the spot in November 1788. Many of them are buried here, including Benjamin's brother, Hezekiah, the first to scout the land, and Rachel Kibby, Benjamin's daughter, the first non-Indian child to set foot on land here. She led an adventurous life, following her husband Ephraim Kibby as he joined Daniel Boone moving west. She died in 1864 at age 84 and was one of the last people buried in the old cemetery.
The Pioneer Cemetery is well maintained by the Cincinnati Park Board. The grass is regularly mowed. The headstones have been repaired and a garden of early American flowers has been planted near the entrance.
The forgotten cemetery is the Columbia Presbyterian Cemetery, which dates to 1795. It is in fact two cemeteries, having been combined with the Fulton Mechanics Cemetery, where the people who lived in the village of Fulton were buried. (Most of Cincinnati's steamboat building yards were located in Fulton, the area between Columbia Avenue (Columbia Parkway) and the Ohio River, along Fulton Avenue (now Eastern Avenue) extending about three miles east from downtown. The name survived as the neighborhood designation into the 1950s.)
The burials in the two cemeteries date from the 1790s to the 1860s. The churches they served moved away from Columbia in the early years of the 19th century, driven to higher ground by Ohio River floods.
Both the Baptists and the Presbyterians built churches on the Duck Creek, near Edwards Road in Norwood. The Presbyterians moved again to Pleasant Ridge, while the Baptists started the Hyde Park Baptist Church, which has the oldest continuous congregation in the Northwest Territory. An entry in the minutes of the Duck Creek Baptist Church in 1828 reads that the members passed a resolution “to attend to the Baptist burial ground at Columbia.”
In the 1830s, the Little Miami Railroad cut a path through the two cemeteries. Millionaire Nicholas Longworth purchased all the surrounding land for vineyards, making the graveyards almost inaccessible.
But when one of the first settlers died, he or she was often buried in one of the old cemeteries at Turkey Bottom. During the Civil War in the 1860s, many Union soldiers were buried in the Baptist cemetery.
Century of stories
Stories of vandalism and neglect at these two cemeteries have appeared frequently in Cincinnati newspapers since the early days of this century. Efforts to preserve them date back more than a century.
The first effort to preserve the Pioneer (Baptist) Cemetery came in 1888, when a column from the demolished Post Office building was erected on the site, its base engraved with the names of the first pioneers. The column still stands, but a statue of a pioneer, intended to stand atop the column, was never made.
The cemetery was again the focus of attention in 1923 when 4,000 people attended the dedication of a new grave marker for Maj. Benjamin Stites. But by 1936, the Enquirer was reporting that both the Baptist and Presbyterian graveyards were “in frightful condition, weedy, neglected and forgotten.”
The Cincinnati Park Board took over the Baptist Cemetery from the Cincinnati Baptist Church Union in 1937, but the neglect continued until 1961. That year vandals overturned and broke many of the tombstones, throwing them down the hill.
City officials ruled that neglected graves were not the city's problem, so the Enquirer chartered buses to take school children to the cemetery to clean up the debris. The Park Board then stepped in and renovated the cemetery, and has maintained it since.
Pile of broken rubble
The Presbyterian cemetery was cleared and maintained in 1917, when the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a granite arch there tocommemorate the graves of the pioneers. But within five years, it was overgrown again. The arch was still standing in 1987, when it was photographed for an Enquirer article. Today it is nothing but a pile of broken rubble, scattered with the gravestones, tires and beer cans.
The Pioneer Cemetery has a well paved parking area, but the Presbyterian-Fulton Cemetery can only be reached by walking south along the railroad track from Airport Road and fighting a mass of bramble bushes. Squeezed between the elevated railroad track and a flood control levee, the cemetery is a sunken hollow that becomes water-logged during heavy rains.
“I don't advise anyone to visit these cemeteries alone,” Ms. Foster says. With all the undergrowth and fallen trees, “it's easy to fall and twist an ankle. You might even fall into a collapsed grave and not be able to get out.”
Newspaper records show that the cemetery's condition has been investigated by public and private organizations many times throughout the century, but the inaccessible location has discouraged efforts of restoration.
“Sometimes a group will take on an old cemetery. Boy Scout troops often do that, but that cemetery is so much off the beaten track that it's not likely to happen there,” Ms. Foster says.
But at least it's still there. “So many old cemeteries are paved over and lost forever.”
A cemetery can bring history to life. A teacher can talk about soldiers and pioneers in a classroom, but when students visit the Pioneer Cemetery, they get the feel of history.
This is the grave of Hezekiah Stites. He was a Minute Man in the American Revolution. Here is Rachel Kibby. She knew Daniel Boone.
But where is Sgt. William Brown, the first man to be awarded a Purple Heart? Gen. George Washington gave him the medal for leading a dangerous assault of a kind called “forlorn hope,” because few were expected to survive. Tradition says that Martha Washington made the ribbon for his medal.
His grave is now lost in the weeds.