Saturday, March 12, 2011

Aerial Photography & Rural Cemeteries

We all know the unsurpassed usefulness of Google Earth for scrutinizing unfamiliar topography (including historical images), but back in 2002, our family needed older rural images to help in cemetery research. Several cousins from around the country and Canada got together to stage a cemetery intervention or attempted rescue in Bracken County Kentucky. After years of debating and combining genealogical research, a few of the cousins had found remnants of our Brandenburg/Hughbanks family cemetery at the top of a very steep hill near Foster. Due to the remote area of the cemetery, and the unfriendly stance of the current landowner, some of our research involved aerial photography.

Before I give a small report about the Brandenburg Cemetery, let me explore the use of aerial photography for cemetery research. At present, most states have quadrant coverage of current aerial photographs available for free online. Many of these sites are linked to current topographical maps and other studies posted by statewide government agencies. As a general rule, most of these maps and aerial photographs are fairly recent - usually within 10-15 years old depending on the agency posting the information.
However, when many of the older rural cemeteries were begun, they were done so during a time when the areas were much more agrarian. In most cases the land had been cleared for farming and well maintained in that manner for generations. It has only been within the past 30+/- years that these former fields have been abandoned, allowing the regrowth to obscure former markers. Having driven many backroads, I can tell you that a small stand of large clumped trees near a field or in the middle of a field is a strong indication of either a cemetery or sink hole. Sometimes the only clue to go on is the types of trees in the clump to hint at the purpose, until, hopefully, walking closer to the site can offer a view of fence or stone remnants. But what about the cemeteries we can't see from the road, or are not accessible even though we've heard about the possibility of its existence from the locals?
1965 aerial view of Foster and the Kennon Road area prior to the AA Highway construction.
This is when we turned to the older aerial photos available through local state storehouses. In this case we went to the Geology Library (now the Science Library) at the University of Kentucky to peruse through the older photos taken in the 1960s (some counties have photos as far back as the 1930s). In the Northern Kentucky area, farming was still the main occupation on these steep yet rounded hills. Therefore, the aerial photos from this timeframe gave us just enough visual information to see former households, assent routes, and in this case, former topography indicators prior to a state highway construction. These photos are original and in paper form just sitting in giant drawers. The staff had scanning equipment available to scan and send the photos to yourself at no charge.

For our case, they made all the difference. Due to the construction of the AA Highway, the original road had been cut in two, leaving the gradual incline cut off in one direction, and very far away in the other direction. About 20 years after the production of the 1960s photos, someone had purchased the gradual incline side, built a new house and assent in the form of a driveway, but would not allow their new driveway to be used as the egress to the cemetery. In essence, the cemetery had been cut off from any plausible access route. We all hiked straight up a dangerous quarter mile incline to get to the cemetery of our ancestors. Kentucky law states that landowners have to allow family to visit cemeteries, but any law surrounding how they allow access is vague, and since the driveway was new, they basically said, "no - find another way up there". Ironically, when we were up there, they called the local judge to try to have us arrested for trespassing, and the judge was allowed to use the driveway for access. Good times. BTW, the judge could not touch us as he informed the landowner of the law. He was just up there making sure we were family and not troublemakers.

The cemetery was also registered that day by the Kentucky Historical Society as a pioneer cemetery since at least one person buried there was born in the state prior to 1800 (James Hughbanks). We had a great time, even inviting a local preacher to conduct a small re-dedication ceremony, but the cemetery itself was beyond our means to save. The landowner had also parked a 1950s rusted out Chevy in the middle of our cemetery and refused to move it....which meant some of the stones could still be underneath. We found some of the main stones, but many were missing - some were "rediscovered" locally at a hunting club who had used them as stepping stones! We did the best we could....cleaned out brush, placed wooden markers there for later replacement, but funding was never found to properly restore this pioneer site. There is a Findagrave entry with photos of all the stones we found.
The moral of the story is: older aerial photos can be wonderful tools for not only locating cemeteries, but homesteads, access routes, tributaries and other distinguishable markers that could not be seen under current levels of brush. Thanks to cousin Katheryn Maddox Haddad for getting the cousins started on this adventure - we at least got it cleaned up a bit and documented for future generations!


Michelle Goodrum said...

Thank you for a fascinating and very educational post.

NKJLK said...

We have a similar situation with no access to a Friends burial ground as noted in our GAR marker post on our RIP page. The old road is now a driveway to a new home. To make matters worse a good samaritan deed done for a scout to get his Eagle badge, by cleaning up this old cemetery, resulted in the broken and fallen headstones being carted off with other debris! Quakers didn't believe in a display after death and so many didn't have stone markers so these broken and most likely unreadable old stones didn't resemble what they actually were.Lost and gone forever!

Joy Neighbors said...

Hello and congratulations Cheri! I have selected your blog to receive the “One Lovely Blog” award! Please stop by my blog for more details. Thanks! Joy


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