Dancing Skeleton

Yesterday was Halloween and today is the first day of the two-day Mexican holiday known as El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) so I’d thought this post would be appropriate.

Greenbelt, Maryland has a history of being the first town that was planned by the federal government during the Great Depression and it was especially a pet project of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s. It was located close to Washington, DC yet its housing was modestly priced so that federal employees busy with implementing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program can live there. The town, which opened its doors to the first family who moved there in 1937, is very rich in history and one can easily spend a few hours doing research about the town, starting with the town’s Wikipedia page.

But let’s go further back to about 150-200 years before Greenbelt was even built. Back then the area was very rural and it was dotted mainly with plantations whose owners raised crops and livestock while also having slaves (which was legal at the time) who did much of the backbreaking work. Frequently a dead family member or slave would be buried on the plantation itself in a special section that was reserved just for burials. A family member got a gravestone with the name, birthdate, date of death, and the person’s age. A slave got a more simple marker that tended to wither away as time went on.

Most of the old plantations located in what is now Greenbelt, Maryland have long since been demolished. Of the plantation graveyards, only three still remain. Last year I came across this article in the local newspaper, The Greenbelt News Review, about these three remaining graveyards which don’t get many visitors. (The newspaper itself is available online only as a .PDF document. The article starts on page 12 of the document and it ends on page 13.)

The Walkers is one such family whose plantation no longer exist. Today a business park (which includes a Cadillac dealership) stands on the very spot where the Walker plantation once stood. If one were to turn on Walker Drive (named after the original family) from Route 193, the first thing one would find is T.G.I. Fridays (whose official address is 6460 Capitol Drive).

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About 10-20 feet away from the front doors of T.G.I. Fridays is this marker that shows the former location of the Walker family plantation, known as Toaping Castle. Here is what the marker had to say about this area:

TOAPING CASTLE
(Circa 1750)

On this site, Isaac, Charles, and Nathan Walker erected a large white oak log house, named for their ancestral stronghold in Scotland which the three brothers had fled after the failure of attempts to unseat George I, King of England, as ruler of Scotland. Isaac permanently settled here and obtained land grants for 188 acres. He and his three sons served in the Revolutionary War. The graves of Isaac and his son Nathan are north of here.

Toaping Castle was the birthplace of Samuel Hamilton Walker (Feb. 24, 1817-Oct. 9, 1847), Lt. Colonel of the Texas Rangers and Captain of the U.S. Cavalry. He left home at age 19 to fight Indians and later he became a leader and hero of the Rangers. His suggested changes to Samuel Colt’s revolver resulted in Colt’s success as an arms manufacturer. 1000 Colt-Walker pistols–the first, heaviest, and longest revolvers ever issued to American forces–were purchased for the Texas Rangers during the Mexican War. Walker was killed in that war at the Battle of Hua Mantla, Mexico.

The family cemetery is all that remains of the Toaping Castle estate.

Prince George’s County Historical Society
(Marker erected by the City of Greenbelt Bicentennial Committee, 1976)

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Finding the marker was easy compared to finding the graves. I kept on looking everywhere in that business park to no avail. Ultimately I had to look online using my smartphone where I found this blog post that shows how to get to the cemetery.

Basically you have to make your way to 7855 Walker Drive, where the Harris logo is prominent on top of the building. (Harris is a government contractor. My ex-husband, who was working on the GOES-R project at his job at NASA before he left me in 2011, had to frequently deal with Harris employees as part of his work.) Once you get there, you’ll have to drive around to the back of the building. Park at the far end of the parking lot as far back from the building as possible, just like in the photo below.

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Next to the back of the parking lot is a picnic area located underneath a few trees.

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Next to the picnic area is a log trail. Follow that log trail up the hill and through the woods.

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At the end of the log trail is a fenced-in area with a couple of patriotic ribbons posted at the entrance.

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Inside of the enclosed area are two gravestones. (Apparently there used to be more gravestones but they have withered away with time, according to that Greenbelt News Review article I read last year.)

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The plaque on the taller gravestone, which was placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) reads:

REVOLUTIONARY SOLDIERS

ISAAC WALKER
1721-1807
NATHAN WALKER
1756-1842

PLACED BY
PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY CHAPTER D.A.R.

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A small American flag is posted at the larger gravestone. This flag’s design is based on the one that was used during the American Revolutionary War.

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The smaller gravestone is dedicated only to Isaac Walker and it reads:

ISAAC WALKER
1ST LT. MD MILITIA
REVOLUTIONARY WAR
1721-1807

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The second of the three cemeteries, Hamilton Cemetery, is relatively easier to find. You’ll have to go to the historic district of Greenbelt (which the locals dub “Old Greenbelt”) to the offices of Greenbelt Homes, Inc. (or GHI, for short, whose address is at 1 Hamilton Place), a nonprofit cooperative that took over managing of the original Greenbelt townhouses after the federal government decided to get out of the planned development business in the 1950’s.

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At the far end of GHI’s parking lot you’ll see a waking path along with a sign pointing the way to the Hamilton Cemetery.

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It’s a short walk through the woods, where you can admire the foliage and see the local wild animals (mainly birds and squirrels).

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The path leads up to the community gardens, which is reserved for those who live in GHI homes.

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Follow the curved path past the community gardens and you’ll see that it ends right at this locked case sign.

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The graves are located behind the sign but the gravestones are behind the locked case because they have deteriorated so badly over time. According to that Greenbelt News Review article, not much is known about the Hamilton family other than that they owned property around the time of the American Revolution and one of the Hamilton women had married into the aforementioned Walker family and moved to Toaping Castle. One of the last owners of that property, Samuel Hamilton, was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. Samuel’s father, Andrew Hamilton (1752-1823), was a justice of the peace whose gravestone is currently among the preserved ones.

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The headstone in the next photo reads:

In memory of
ELIZABETH,
Wife of
Col. Samuel Hamilton
who died
[illegible] 18[illegible]
in the 47th year
of her age.

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This next headstone has deteriorated too much to be legible.

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In the next photo the top fragment of the headstone reads:

In memory of
JANE,
Daughter of
Col. Samuel and
Elizabeth Hamilton

The bottom fragment of the headstone reads:

In memory of
ELIZABETH U.
Second wife of
Col. Samuel Hamilton

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The headstone in the next photograph reads:

In memory of
JANE
Wife of
Andrew Hamilton
who died
Feb. 28, 1824,
in the 77th year
of her age.

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The headstone in the next photograph reads:

In memory of
ANDREW HAMILTON
who died
Sept. 21st, 1823,
in the 70th year
of his age.

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The third and final cemetery, Turner Cemetery, is probably the most well-known of these forgotten graveyards and is also the easiest one to find. Basically you’ll travel on Kenilworth Avenue (Maryland Route 201) then turn on to Ivy Lane into a business park. Turner Cemetery is located across the street from the Old Line Bank and an office building. Park in one of the parking lots across the street and cross Ivy Lane in order to enter the cemetery.

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Turner Cemetery is named after the Turner family, who also established a plantation in the area. The one remaining gravestone is preserved behind glass in order to preserve it alongside a sign explaining that gravestone.

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Here is what the sign in the next photo says:

THE ORIGINS OF THE GREENBELT CEMETERY

On the 2,623 acres of land purchased in 1935 where President Roosevelt’s first planned green town was to be constructed, three old family cemeteries were known to exist. These cemeteries belonged to the Hamilton, Turner and Walker families. Remains from other burials and family cemeteries were uncovered when the land was cleared for construction, and were relocated to the most accessible cemetery, that of the Turner Family. When a construction worker died whose family was unknown, he was buried here and so were a few residents during Greenbelt’s early years of existence. These are the origins of the Greenbelt Cemetery.

The Turners came to this site in 1759, when Shadrick Turner purchased a 125 acre farm known as “Wild Cat”. Most of it lay to the east of this cemetery. Shadrick Turner later acquired additional farms, but he and his wife, Sarah, always lived on Wild Cat where they raised nine children. At the time of the 1776 census, they ranged from 1 year to 25 years. Shadrick Turner was a devout Methodist. He and Bishop Francis Asbury are honored today as the principal founders of the First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville, one of the oldest Methodist churches in America. Bishop Asbury and various circuit riders always stayed with the Turners when they were in this area.

Regarding the Turner Cemetery, the bible of Sarah Turner recorded 12 deaths, beginning with Shadrick on October 2, 1799 and ending with Thomas Parker Turner on September 26, 1855, who died at age 45. His is the only legible headstone remaining, and is located next to this document. Native stones mark gravesite in this cemetery. These graves likely hold members of the Turner family or their enslaved persons. The Turners occupied the farm until 1935 when it was sold to the Federal Government. The cemetery was deeded to the City of Greenbelt in 1941.

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The gravestone in the next photo says:

To
the memory of
THOMAS P. TURNER
who departed this life
September 25th 1855
aged 45 years.

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Unlike the other two graveyards, Turner Cemetery provides benches and even trashcans for people to sit and stay awhile.

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Aside from the older Turner family, the majority of the graves consist of local Greenbelt residents who died in recent years. The only grave whose name I recognize is one for Eli Crupain. Eli was a very elderly gentleman when I met him through the local Prince George’s County chapter of the Pledge of Resistance (one of many activist groups who protested the Reagan Administration’s Cold War-era interventionist policy in Central America). He was someone whom the locals would consider a member of “the Old Left.” As a young man in the 1930’s (at the height of the Great Depression) he was involved in the labor movement. He became concerned about the possible worldwide spread of fascism when he learned about the civil war that was going on in Spain. He told me that he had wanted to join the handful of American men who were going to Spain to fight against the fascists as members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade but his mother talked him out of it. Eli got his chance to fight the fascists after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, when he joined the military and fought in World War II. Eli did a lot of things in his long life, both as a professional and as a volunteer. I highly recommend reading his 2004 obituary that was published in The Greenbelt New Review (which is available only as a .pdf document—Eli’s obituary can be found on page 4). The other gravestone located above Eli’s grave in the next photograph belongs to his wife, Paula, whom I never met because she died before I met Eli.

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Here some of the other graves from the 20th and 21st centuries. All of these graves have simple flat headstones that lie in the ground. Some of them have flowers and other items left at the graves by family and/or friends.

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I found two headstones that had photos of the deceased. They were for a married couple named Lillie Z. Goldberg and Lawrence L. Goldberg.

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That Greenbelt News Review article mentions at least two other possible forgotten graveyards that may have existed once. Their existence can no longer be proven because there are no headstones or markers. (It’s possible that they may have either completely deteriorated due to exposure to the elements or were accidentally destroyed during construction or they were simply stolen.)

There was a time when the United States of America was primarily an agrarian society with small farms and larger plantations dotting the landscape everywhere. That agrarian focus was permanently shifted by both the American Civil War and the Industrial Revolution. Before 1831 there were no cemeteries. Many of these farms and plantations traditionally left certain spots for burying beloved family members and slaves. (For people who weren’t landowners, churches also provided graveyards where one can bury their recently departed loved ones.) With most of the farms and plantations having long ago been turned into housing developments, shopping malls, major highways, and airports, it wouldn’t be too outrageous to wonder how many of these buildings, runways, and streets were built over former graveyards from the first 100-200 years of the existence of the U.S. (starting from the days when it was first settled by white Europeans).

Of course that’s not to mention how many of these buildings, runways, and streets were built over the graves of people who belonged to the various Native American tribes who were there long before Christopher Columbus “discovered” America.

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