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In honor of Halloween, this column will be dedicated to my dad, and his most favorite hobby of all time – standing in graveyards looking at headstones.
Like many Americans, my dad is interested in genealogy. His storied family ancestry dates back to Oliver Cromwell, the Mayflower, and the Revolutionary War. Dad has dutifully led his family though many historic sites, tracing the gallant, brave acts by Browns long since lost. I’ve personally stood in graveyards across multiple state lines with my dad, looking for the graves of dearly departed family members. The older the grave, the more difficult this is, as years of graveyard wear and tear rub away the names.
Most recently, my dad discovered he was a descendent of John Pemberton, the leader of the famed “Overmountain Men.” This ragtag group from 1700’s era East Tennessee heard tell that the British had threatened to burn all of their farms to the ground. The Overmountain Men understandably objected to this, and charged out of the hills of Tennessee and down into North Carolina. The British soldiers, confronted by a hundred crazed and imposing backwoodsmen, freaked out and met with a shameful defeat at the Battle of King’s Mountain.
In order to pay homage to the group’s bravery, my dad wanted to trace the journey of the Overmountain Men by car. While it would take us a matter of hours, we would follow the route that the men marched along for two painful weeks, from John Pemberton’s farm through the Great Smokey Mountains, and down into North Carolina.
John Pemberton, a wealthy farmer, mustered his brawny troops under the Pemberton Oak near his house. This was the first stop on our local tour. Down narrow dirt roads near Bristol, Tennessee, my dad and I drove hither and yon, looking for an oak. The challenging part was that the oak tree had fallen over in 2002, so we were reduced to looking for a sign, which was much less impressive.
We missed the sign for the other trees, and in frustration moved on to our next site, John Pemberton’s grave.
The grave was in a small cemetery on private property near a tool store. Dad thought it best we scout out the place in advance of trespassing, and make sure we could distinguish which dirt road to which farm behind which tool store.
And my dad has always believed if something is worth doing, then it is worth doing well. In every store, in every gas station, in every restaurant, he asked the employees, “Have you heard of John Pemberton? Have you heard of the Overmountain Men?”
Most of these employees were somewhat sullen teenagers begrudgingly working summer jobs. To say they were wholly unconcerned with John Pemberton and the Overmountain Men would be an understatement.
“Who? No, never heard of him.”
“What? Who’s that?”
“Huh? Like Pemberton Road? That’s right there.”
“Nope. Well, that’s something right there.”
There was, however, one elderly man who owned a gift shop that sold only religious iconography and soapstone animals.
“Ah yeah. That’s behind that tool store. Park, walk up the hill, through the fence, past the farm house, and it’s on your right. Nobody ever goes there.”
We thanked him for the clear instructions, and my dad bristled at Bristol’s lack of reverence for our Revolutionary family members.
We found the tool store in a manner of minutes, and parked in the gravel lot. The building was inauspicious, and the store closed.
We walked around the store through a grassy field, and up a hill. We found a fence, clearly marked “Private Property, Do Not Enter,” and entered.
Up around a farm house, where we were greeted aggressively by a handful of chained dogs, through a second fence, and into a small graveyard.
It was quiet and shaded, with a myriad of faded headstones. Dad and I then began the slow work of looking at each headstone, and attempting to locate the name of the deceased. Most graves were too old, and any inscription had long since worn away. Some, however, were fresh and legible from as recently as the 1960s.
I was just pondering what Dad and I would have to do to qualify to be buried at such a historic site, when I heard the delighted cry of, “Found it!”
I picked my way through some overgrowth to a small stone marking John Pemberton’s remains, next to those of Mrs. Pemberton. We stared reverently for a few moments, and then bolted the fence, said goodbye to the dogs, walked back to the rental car, and began the lengthy drive to North Carolina.
Sarah Brown can be found squatting near graves. If you’re too chicken to join her, Tweet her on Twitter @BrownsClose1, or email her at email@example.com. “Close” is a British term for alley or cul-de-sac.