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March 31, 2013

Roberts Cemetery links 1800s Vigo County to today

Bowen Roberts’ reports of Terre Haute spurred families to move to area

TERRE HAUTE — In the 1820s, when Bowen Roberts, a free black man from North Carolina, arrived on horseback in west-central Indiana a few miles east of Terre Haute, the American republic was still in its infancy.

John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, was leaving office, to be followed by Andrew Jackson after a bitter election battle. Slavery still existed in the South and legal racial discrimination of all sorts still existed in the North and would only intensify in later decades.

Roberts was a scout sent north by other free black people living in North Carolina to find a new place for them to live. His travels took him through the Lost Creek area of eastern Vigo County. When he returned to North Carolina, he gave a glowing report about what he had seen there.

“Fat hogs are roaming the forest with knives and forks sticking in their backs,” Roberts is widely reported to have told folks back in North Carolina.

“What he meant was, this was a good place to live,” explained Dorothy Ross, who has lived amid the expansive farmlands of Lost Creek Township for most of the past eight decades.

Based on Bowen Roberts’ scouting report, six free black families moved north to Indiana. They were the Anderson, Archer, Chavis, Roberts, Stewart and Trevan families. After arriving, they farmed the land and created a thriving community with churches and schools.

Much of the original Lost Creek settlement is gone now, but one of its oldest relics still exists – the Roberts Cemetery, a little-known five-acre graveyard north of Old Fort Harrison Avenue a couple of miles north-west of Seelyville.

A beautiful setting

“It’s probably the nicest [historic] cemetery in the township,” said Rick Long, Lost Creek Trustee. The peaceful cemetery sits far from any roads on a gently sloping piece of ground amid tall trees and, most strikingly, overlooking a picturesque, manmade lake.

Roberts Cemetery was established in 1832, according to a sign at its gated entrance. However, there are graves in the cemetery older than that, said Ross, who can see the graveyard from the kitchen window of her farmhouse less than a mile away.

Findagrave.com, a history and genealogy website, lists more than 400 interments in Roberts Cemetery. Among the first was a Thomas Stewart, whose date of death was 1830, according to the website. Other early burials included Nathaniel Weathers, 1833, Mary Jo Roberts, 1842, and Elizabeth Stewart, who died in 1848, according to the website.

Elizabeth Stewart’s 1848 grave marker still stands in the cemetery, one of the oldest remaining.

A history of the cemetery written in 1999 in celebration of the 75th anniversary of nearby Stewart Lawn Cemetery, states original settlers Kinchen and Nancy Roberts came to Lost Creek in 1832 and buried their oldest son, Bannister, a victim of “grim reapers disease,” on part of their farmland that same year. That same piece of land later became the Roberts Cemetery and would continue to be the final resting place for black Lost Creek settlers for generations to come. The Kinchen Roberts’ grave marker, about five feet tall, still stands in the lower part of the cemetery near the lake.

Like looking at gold

Today, Roberts Cemetery, which is surrounded by private property, is owned by the Roberts Cemetery Association and is maintained by a group of volunteers from the nearby Lost Creek Missionary Baptist Church, whose small congregation is made up of descendants of the original black settlers.

When old cemeteries are abandoned, it falls to the Township Trustee to maintain them, said Lost Creek’s Long. But the Roberts Cemetery has not been abandoned and most of the maintenance is paid for by the association. There are about 10 abandoned cemeteries in Lost Creek, Long said.

The full beauty of Roberts Cemetery is most visible in the fall, Ross said. The mature trees create beautiful colors amid the historic tombstones.

“You should see it in the fall,” agreed Molly Wadsworth, a life-long resident of Lost Creek who lives near the cemetery. “It’s just like looking at gold.”

In many places inside the cemetery, there are no grave markers at all, but Ross said the burial ground is full. The markers have just deteriorated or been lost over the years.

“My grandmother is out here somewhere, but I don’t know where,” said Ross looking out over the cemetery on a recent cool but sunny spring day. Before the cemetery was fenced, farm animals and wild animals would sometimes damage the grave markers, she said.

Staying in touch with the past

Over the generations, most of the black families that settled in Lost Creek have moved away. Younger people moved to cities and farms were sold off. But the number of people with family roots in the settlement is large and impressive. And many have not forgotten the former homestead.

“It’s beautiful back there,” said Linda Harris, now of Indianapolis, whose parents lived in Lost Creek all their lives. Harris is part of the small group of volunteers trying to care for and preserve the history of Roberts Cemetery. She remembers her mom taking her through the cemetery, looking at the old graves, when she was a child.

“She always went to put flowers on the graves,” Harris said of her mother, Cleta Harris.

Most of the burials in Roberts Cemetery took place in the last quarter of the 19th century, according to findagrave.com. The last burial took place there in 1941.

Dawn Ross, a systems analyst in Atlanta for Macy’s, is also working from afar to preserve the old burial ground and the history of Lost Creek. Her late father, James Elroy Ross, better known as “Buster,” grew up in Lost Creek and had a encyclopedic memory for the families in the settlement and how they were related to each other, she said.

“We hated it when we were kids,” Ross said of being taken out to old cemeteries after church by her dad. But that was how family histories were passed down in those days, she said.

“Not everybody had headstones, but my father knew everybody” and where they were buried in the cemetery, she said.

Dawn Ross, now in her 50s, is working hard to preserve the stories of the people buried in Roberts Cemetery and also the Stewart and Stewart Lawn cemeteries in Lost Creek. “The younger generations are not hearing these stories,” she said of the pioneer past of some of Indiana’s earliest black settlers. “I think it really should be preserved.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com

 

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