Cemeteries dating back to the Civil War and earlier often have incomplete records and markers that have been moved or gone missing. In the case of slave cemeteries it is not uncommon for the locations of such cemeteries to be established based on oral history and the presence of a very few stones and/or depressions. In these cases it is often very important for the communities that these sites be confirmed as burial sites, particularly if the community includes family members of the people likely buried there. In this study, we conducted ground penetrating radar surveys of five different cemetaries: Belle Grove Plantation Cemetery, a suspected slave cemetery according to oral history and the presence of several small, unshaped, unmarked stones; Bowman family cemetery, a historical cemetery dating back to the early 19th century; Hite family cemetery, a historical cemetary dating back to the late 18th century and including the burial of Dolly Madison Hite, the sister of President James Madison; Corhaven Cemetery, a slave cemetery where a number of depressions and fairly clear head and foot stones corraborated the oral history of the site, but overgrown; and Newtown Cemetery, a modern cemetery in Harrisonburg where one section was purchased by freed slaves near the end of the Civil War, but records were not maintained until the 1880s.
We used a GSSI 400 MHz Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) system to conduct the surveys, collecting data along lines with 0.5 m spacing perpendicular to the direction in which the burials were expected to be oriented. The data was processed using Radan 7 software, and by correlating the GPR cross-sections with the surficial evidence, we were able to determine the locations of a number of burials with varying degrees of certainty. We were able to give confirmation that the sites at Belle Grove and Corhaven were indeed burial sites; both of these sites are now open to the public. We confirmed a number of burials and detected some others at Bowman. We did not have much success at Hite cemetery: we were able to confirm a couple of burials that were suspected, but the ubiquitous presence of gopher and flood damage made certainty elusive. The work at Newtown is ongoing.
The results of this work have had a moving impact on local communities, and will continue to serve to inform similar studies conducted in the future.