Thursday, July 25, 2024

Concealed gravestones could be tip of iceberg on unlawfully clear-cut Pender County land

A gravestone marking the burial site of the great-grandfather of a Pender County resident was recently tarnished, said Michael Garrison. Developers cleared many acres before obtaining approvals, drawing close to multiple graves. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

PENDER COUNTY— Scattered in woods nearby the Highway 17 corridor, a collection of gravestones — remnants of a plantation society helmed by a 19th century peanut mogul — came under threat recently when developers began clearing the land without yet obtaining permits from the county. 

Steve Edens crafted a Facebook post on Monday addressing it.

Contractors had arrived at the 86-acre parcel adjacent to his, he wrote, and earth-moving machines progressed in the direction of camouflaged gravestones that exist on the builder’s property. Edens rehabilitates cemeteries in his nook of Pender County, and posts on social media about the genealogical history of the area. 

After calling county officials to warn them about the graves, Edens was told, since approvals for the development were still pending, the land should not have been disturbed in the first place. According to his Facebook post, the county official with whom he spoke was unaware of cemeteries on the property. 

Pender County officials posted a press release the next day, confirming developers began work preemptively and were out of line.

“One cemetery on-site had been previously documented by the County, but planning staff was alerted to another that was not,” planning and community development director Travis Henley said in the release. 

The cemetery considered “documented” is marked on the Pender County Geographic Information System website, known to contain the remains of at least one slave, and squarely within the boundaries of developer’s property.

Further, a survey of the land completed in 1907 notes the presence of a cemetery. 

According to property records, Edens Lane, LLC purchased the land for $2.025 million last November. The company is tied to D. Logan, owner and president of Logan Developers Inc. Logan and employees of his company did not respond to requests for comment.

Dozens of acres of Edens Lane, LLC’s property have been razed to bare earth. 

The cemetery in question is at the end of Oriole Drive, behind a residential neighborhood. Weathered conch shells rest on the ground next to headstones and the undergrowth. Denoting burial sites with sea shells was often a route taken by slaves and those without the ability to pay for a name-bearing marker. 

Michael Garrison has a family member buried at the end of Oriole Drive. A low-lying headstone displaying the name “Robert Fuller” is cleanly fractured in its resting place on the ground. Orange plastic forms a perimeter around Fuller’s headstone and the small collection of shells elsewhere in the vicinity. 

“Now, I haven’t been out there since this last episode, but when I first saw it on Facebook, I see my great-grandfather’s headstone cracked in half,” Garrison said. “Last time I was there with my dad, it was in perfect condition.” 

The headstone was crafted by an older relative of Garrison at a training school in Rocky Point. It was attended by Black students who, at the time, were not permitted in Topsail schools, Garrison said. 

Garrison estimated the last bodies were buried in the area around 1950. He added that large machinery entered the area years ago, which caused previous disruption to the graves. 

“Most people thought those graves were abandoned and forgotten about,” Garrison said. “They wasn’t. The only thing, they were always on somebody else’s land.”

‘The situation is rapidly evolving’

Although Edens Lane, LLC has not yet obtained land-clearing approvals, work has commenced. The county issued a stop work order and calls the situation “rapidly evolving.” State authorities came into play, when grave sites recently were discovered on the site. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

On Wednesday the planning and community development department issued a “final notice of violation and stop work order” on the subject site, according to another press release. 

County officials said they discovered additional grave sites. 

“Pender County’s planning staff engaged local historians as well as partners at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, North Carolina Department of Cultural and Natural Resources, and the US Army Corps of Engineers to further verify compliance with all applicable historical and environmental rules, including but not limited to all rules regarding cemeteries,” according to the original press release. 

In an email, Henley wrote to Port City Daily the planning department is not the gatekeeper of cemeteries. 

“I cannot speculate as to permissions the developer had to disturb or otherwise impact the cemetery,” he wrote. “I also cannot speculate as to their intentions in this regard or make a determination if the developer has or has not disturbed the gravesites in this location.” 

Henley added the developer acknowledged the presence of a tombstone in project applications — in the area where Garrison’s great-grandfather is buried.

However, Henley wrote that the Office of State Archaeology was “unaware of the presence of any cemeteries in this location.” 

“Coordination with that office is ongoing at this time,” he wrote. “The situation is rapidly evolving and will continue to be that way.”

Melissa Timo, the historic cemetery specialist for the Office of State Archaeology, said sites are protected by N.C. General Statute 65. Upon discovery of a cemetery, the options are either to avoid disturbance or relocation.

“It’s always nice to leave people in place if you can, to leave them where their families put them,” Timo said. “The avoidance of a cemetery is important. It’s easier to get around these sort of inadvertent discoveries, if these cemeteries have been recorded at the state level.” 

Timo added that local sheriff’s offices often play the foremost enforcement role. 

“I would always encourage people to immediately call the sheriff’s office if they notice something happening with a resource like the cemetery,” she said. “Because they’re the ones who have the teeth in this situation, so if it does happen, reach out to the sheriff’s office.” 

A spokesperson for the Pender County Sheriff’s Office at first said he was not aware of the cemetery discovery. He added that, to his knowledge, the office is not currently engaged in the situation. 

“Cemeteries are non-renewable recourses,” Timo said. “There will never be another one exactly like that again.” 

The peanut farmer

The son of Nicholas and Ann Nixon, whose graves are pictured above, pioneered peanut farming in North Carolina and owned over 100 slaves, according to historical accounts. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

More gravestones exist on the property of Edens Lane, LLC, just a brief trek from those acknowledged by the developers. 

It is the grave of Nicholas Nixon (1763-1843) and his wife Ann Nixon (1779-1818). Their son, Nicholas Nichols Nixon (1800-1868), built an empire of thousands of acres north of Hampstead, where he cultivated “the Wilmington Peanut.” 

The elder Nixons’ graves were added to in 2014. 

According to historical accounts, the younger Nixon is credited with transforming peanut farming — just as the Trask family, another wealthy Wilmington family with roots dating back to the antebellum period, receives credit for imaginative lettuce cultivation.  

“He brought the plants up to a level of economic importance by his adoption of scientific advances,” wrote Ed Turberg in his 1997 book, “Historic and Architectural Resources of Pender County.” 

In Alfred Moore Waddell’s “A History of New Hanover County and the Lower Cape Fear Region,” the author writes that Nixon’s peanut crop netted him more than $20,000 in 1860. Such a return would be worth around half a million dollars today when calculating inflation. 

Turberg also wrote that Nixon owned 136 slaves. Records compiled by Cape Fear Community College show members of the Nixon family bought and sold humans throughout the early-to-mid 19th century. 

The younger Nixon is buried at Oakdale Cemetery. Around 1820, when Nixon’s father was approaching 60 and his mother had been dead for a few years, a home called “Belvidere” was built north of Hampstead as Nixon’s base of operations. It was approximately one-and-a-half miles from the spot where his parents would later be buried, on land now owned by Edens Lane, LLC. 

According to Turberg, the building was moved in the 1980s “to make room for the development of a residential subdivision and golf course, which retains the name Belvedere Plantation.”

Residents living in the neighborhood assume many of the family’s slaves are buried in unmarked graves spread across Nixon’s former empire. While sea shells mark the spot of what are likely burial sites on the swath of land now being disturbed, many more could have stayed undiscovered. 

“Some of the houses in the area are sitting on graves,” Garrison said. “The county needs to own up because that cemetery was registered.”

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