Published on 6/2/2009
Written by Tommy Howard
* Colonial Dames transcribe inscriptions from 209 cemeteries, including blacks and whites
By Tommy Howard
Painstaking attention to detail has led to recording of 22,109 tombstone inscriptions from all over Georgetown County.
The Colonial Dames of America began this effort in 2001, and have gathered information on burials in 209 cemeteries from Murrells Inlet to Oceda, Georgetown, Andrews, Pee Dee to Sampit and Santee and points in between.
Even with so much work already done, the Dames, their husbands and friends know there's much more to be done. And they're asking for help to make sure the records are right.
About 100 people helped by visiting all 22,109 tombstones. Their field work has taken the ladies and the men through briars and brambles, up on hills and down in lower places. About 20 Dames were joined by friends and family to do the work.
Marty Alfonsi, who has helped the ladies get their information into a database on the Rootsweb site of Ancestry.com, said he has an image of elegant ladies gathered in a parlor of one of the plantation homes around Georgetown.
And, sometimes, that image is true.
But, he noted, these same ladies have donned work shirts and blue jeans, stuffed their feet into boots and gone hunting grave markers in well-known cemeteries and those that are all but forgotten.
The official name of the group is "The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in South Carolina, Georgetown Committee."
Liz Forrester said "We just call ourselves the Dames."
She and her husband, Jim Forrester, M.D., have been project leaders for this effort. And it, in turn, is a continuation of a project begun more than 25 years ago.
Back then, the Colonial Dames gathered information on about 30 cemeteries with some 7,000 names. At that time, around 1980 or so, the cemeteries included were all white.
Now, Liz Forrester said, the all-volunteer group of members has surveyed more than 60 black cemeteries along with the white cemeteries.
There are just a few cemeteries they know about that are not yet included in the database.
Jim Forrester, a retired surgeon, has helped his wife a lot as they did field surveys, using a GPS device to get latitude and longitude readings so anyone can find the cemeteries.
The coordinates are displayed on many of the cemetery pages online. It's a quick click of the mouse to go to a map to show where the cemetery is located.
He jokingly told about a particular entry he recorded in the earliest days of using that electronic tool. A woman called him, saying she had found the Web site, saw that an ancestor of hers was included, but said he might just want to check the GPS data.
It showed the cemetery was several miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.
Of course, that information has been corrected and he has gone back to each cemetery and coordinated with Google Earth, MapQuest or other Web-based aerial surveys to make sure as best he can that the GPS data is correct.
There's a long list of people who have helped with this project.
Barbara Moore has done some of the field survey work herself in the Kent Section of the county, near Six-Mile Crossing between Georgetown and Andrews. "I found some of my family members were in Oak Grove and Bethel cemeteries," she said.
But, mostly, she has spent untold hours transcribing field notes into a database on a computer.
That work she's done has then been passed on to Marty Alfonsi, and he works with the data to get it into the format that Ancestry.com uses on its Web site.
That's a great service, he said, and anyone can visit the "Georgetown County Cemeteries" Web page for free.
Cemeteries are listed alphabetically, and within each of the cemeteries the names of people buried there are in alphabetical order.
Some cemeteries are known by more than one name, so that can present a problem. In the future, though, it may be possible to include variations on the name of a cemetery.
Available information for each person in the listings includes first and last names, dates of birth and death, and notes, such as wife or husband, veteran and other information as listed on the thousands of tombstones.
Since some of the markers date back as far as the 1790s, some of the lettering is worn and faded over the past couple of centuries.
Nonetheless, the information on all those markers is available for free to anyone.
For each cemetery, the names of the people who did the field surveys are listed.
By sometime in 2010, Liz Forrester said, the Colonial Dames expect to have the information put together in book form. There will be a cost for that book, once it's printed, but the online database will remain accessible to anyone with a computer.
Just as a reminder, all branches of the Georgetown County Library System have computers available for free public use.
Check it out
The four members of the project committee who met with the Georgetown Times are anxious for more people to know about the online information.
They want people to use it, and if they find errors or find that a cemetery isn't included in the database, they want to know about it.
Any corrections needed can be done electronically so that when the book is printed it will be as accurate as possible.
Contact information is at the end of this article.
Alfonsi said the Colonial Dames would like to bring the database to a local server. If that's done, the group would be able to include more information that doesn't fit the guidelines and available space through Rootsweb and Ancestry.com.
That's a great tool, he said, but because it has so much data from all over the country there are limits. If the information is made available through a local computer server, he explained, the project could include more information, photographs, some general maps and more.
"I would like to have a 'dynamic' Web site," he said. "People could do searches and update information."
There would still be a Web master, though, who would review any updates before that information is posted in such a database.
Another element the Dames would like to include in the book to be published and online in a future version would be a brief history of each cemetery.
Liz Forrester would like to get that information from people now so it can be compiled.
With all the years of slogging through overgrown cemeteries, gathering names and even being able to find some of the abandoned or neglected cemeteries, it's been a real challenge.
"If one person tried to do all this by himself, he would go crazy," Jim Forrester said with a smile.
As it is, with about 100 people involved, the load hasn't been overwhelming.
"It's kind of like being a detective," Liz Forrester said. "We've had to ferret out information. It's been a wild goose chase, sometimes," she said.
"I would love to see someone come out to take over adopting some of these cemeteries, and cleaning them up," she continued.
"We've encountered a lot of brush and undergrowth. It's like you've found a golden egg when you finally find the gravestones," she said.
"And, a lot of red bugs."
She said she hasn't really been all that worried about snakes, having grown up around them all her life.
Barbara Moore said she didn't find a golden egg, but one occasion was like an Easter Egg hunt.
"I found a piece of metal in a large azalea bush," she recalled. As she reached into the bush to see what the metal was, she found the grave of one of her ancestors.
Some of the tombstones have told cryptic or short stories of young teenagers killed in an accident. Some have given the reason for death, such as a car accident. On occasion, the field surveyors have found there may have been two or three people killed in an accident and buried near one another.
As she and others have done their field surveys, Moore said, she would sometimes be worried that people would wonder why she was walking through a graveyard.
When Sarah Lumpkin and one or two friends were trying to find the Johnson Cemetery, a man -- weaving as he walked -- came over and asked what the women were doing.
They told him they wanted to find that cemetery.
"I'll tell you where it is if you can find me a drink," he said while not too steady on his feet.
Why do it?
When asked why they have done all this hard work, the committee members all said they didn't see it that way.
"Our organization is devoted to preservation and education," Liz Forrester said. "We saw a need for recording those cemeteries. This is the continuation of a project that was started 28 years ago."
That earlier book was done in conjunction with the Georgetown County Historical Association, she said. Among those involved at that time were William Young, who was then superintendent of schools, Bud Black and others.
"It needed updating," she said.
The Colonial Dames has another project, collecting oral histories. While the projects are complementary, they are separate efforts.
As the project was restarted in 2001, the Colonial Dames learned of several other efforts underway to gather information. One person would mention something to another, and eventually connections were made.
"You're lucky you got the right combination of people," Alfonsi said.
"It takes a special person to go out into the field wearing boots and dealing with snakes." Then, he continued, the information has to be transcribed into a database and put on the Web site.
One of the earlier cemeteries surveyed is at Prince George, Winyah, Episcopal Church in Georgetown. It's large enough that the survey took place over several days.
Some of the old markers were worn and faded, so the field surveyors would make rubbings and mark the tombstones with chalk. When they would return, they figured, they would be able to tell which markers had already been recorded.
When they came back, all the markings were gone, Liz Forrester said.
Somehow the rector didn't know about the survey work.
"He had the sexton clean off the markers. He said, 'We've had vandalism.'"
"We are doing this as a service to the community," Liz Forrester said. "People can search for their ancestors."
She noted that many of the old cemeteries were called "slave" cemeteries, but burials have continued even now in some of them.
One of the questions the group hopes to answer soon, is whether a "columbarium" should be listed as a cemetery. That's a structure of vaults for holding urns that contain the ashes of those who were cremated.
The Colonial Dames encourage people to visit the Web site, explore it and offer suggestions.
If "glitches" are found in the data, they want to know. Also, people with information about the history of cemeteries are encouraged to share that with the Dames.
* Web address
* Call Liz Forrester at (843) 546-9804
* Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
* Another link of interest:
Linkpendium Georgetown County
Genealogy and Family History
What a wonderful community service the Colonial Dames have rendered in transcribing these 22,000 gravestones and placing that information on Rootsweb. Many thanks and blessings to everyone who worked to make this a reality! Toni Carrier Lowcountry Africana www.lowcountryafricana.net
Posted by Toni Carrier on 6/4/2009