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Cazenovia, Fenner, and Nelson Cemetery Project
Daniel H. Weiskotten
October 21, 1998
(links modified 11/3/1999 many now on my RootsWeb page)
See also:
Names by which the Cazenovia, Fenner, Nelson cemeteries have been known over the years (and those used by Dan Weiskotten).
Data on the CFN cemeteries, sources of old lists, and other names by which they are known, and links to my transcripts (organized under DHW's names).
A brief overview of the fun that I have had with this data.
A spin-off project examining the tombstone carvers of Central New York.
More material will be added to this list as the opportunity arises
 
Re-transcriptions of the Tombstones
Introduction

        As an historian working with records in the central New York township of Cazenovia and the neighboring towns of Fenner and Nelson, I often refer to sets of information that have been compiled by others for historical evidence.  I did not start out my researching career as a believer in the old adage that "if you want it done right then do it yourself," but I, like many historians, have experienced far too many unreliable sets of data that were compiled by others and I no longer can accept them for their purported value.  I am aware that my own works will have their critics when they are used, but I have feel that by building from and beyond the work of others, and checking and validating my own work as I go, I will achieve a greater degree of accuracy in what I compile and pass on to future generations.
        Historians, and genealogists in particular, constantly rely on census enumerations, property records, and tombstone transcriptions when tracing their family tree, and thus many local historians, in an attempt to satisfy the needs of researchers have compiled massive lists of these records and more so that the basic leg-work of research is made easier.  The quality of these compilations vary greatly and is dependant upon the abilities of the compiler or their reasons for compiling.
        In the case of the tombstone transcriptions for my hometown of Cazenovia, where I served as Town Historian between 1982 and 1987 (and I still do a great deal of research), I was frustrated to no end by the existing transcript lists.  Any good local historian is foremost familiar with the local burying places which contain hordes of information on the early inhabitants of the community.  My interests in historical archaeology fostered a different perspective of Cazenovia's cemeteries than those of the average genealogist, whose efforts to find a long lost ancestor might locally consist of a search for a few names and dates.  The transcription lists compiled by earlier historians provided the names and dates that the genealogist needed, and indeed, it was solely with the genealogist in mind that the lists were compiled, but history is so much mire than genealogy.  I had explored many of the cemeteries in and about Cazenovia as a child and when I first started working with the transcription lists and visiting cemeteries for research purposes I was appalled by a variety of problems presented by the available lists.  The tabulation of shortcomings (from a modern historian's perspective) is lengthy.  Vague cemetery names led to confusion of cemeteries, poor or lacking description of location (a favorite improvidence of genealogists) necessitated countless hours of searching the country side and local historical societies and archives to find them, names that appeared in more than one cemetery list necessitated visiting and scouring several cemeteries to find which one was right, several cemeteries that were listed as being in Cazenovia were actually in the Town of Smithfield many miles away ... this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
        Not one of the previous compilers had ever looked at the cemeteries as anything but a place to find dead relatives - no one ever asked questions of the cemetery history, how they came into being, how they served the community, and how they fell into disuse.  Most importantly, no one ever asked how all of the cemeteries in the region were related and how they were different.  Perhaps that is a job that had to wait for the computer age where manipulation of huge amounts of data make such question addressable if not answerable.
        Beyond the factors that made the cemeteries difficult to find, there were the omnipresent errors in the lists that made them dangerous to use in the search for your ancestors.  Imagine the poor genealogist who is searching for Cornelia A. Beckwith, daughter of James and Rhoda Beckwith, who died September 21, 1835, at the age of 16 years: she will never be found on the old lists as she is recorded by three separate compilers as Rhoda Becher, died 1855, (one of the compilers did have her death date correct).  Or perhaps the case of Marcia Bramer, wife of David Bramer, who died June 2, 1831, age 37 years (which data is confirmed by church records) who is recorded by Gallup (1951) as Marcia Bradley, wife of David Bradley, died June 24, 1837, age 37 years; and Peters (1960) has Hardita Granter, wife of David Granter, died January 26, 1833, age 37 years - only her first name, her husband's first name, and her age agree!
        Now imagine the poor historical demographer who wants to use this terrific data base to study popularity of names, seasonality of death, age of death, or family relationships.  The lists have so many errors, which are dangerous enough on an individual level, but render the data base useless for any study of history and demographics.
        Many errors in the old transcription lists are minor and obviously the result of eroded and fractured stones or even moss and lichen, but the thousands of errors on the Cazenovia, Fenner, and Nelson transcription lists were nothing but human error on the part of the transcribers.  Many errors might be forgiven considering the scope of the projects, including the occasional transposition of numerals in the year of death or wife's names that were left off, but there were often dozens of such errors for each list.  In my first few field checks of the old lists I found that nearly the majority of the entries had errors which made them useless to genealogists and demographers.  In the Ballou Cemetery in Fenner 24 of the 26 headstones had errors in their transcription, the Tog Hill cemetery in Nelson was found to have errors on 6 of the 13 transcriptions, and in Cazenovia's Union Cemetery 61 out of 107 stones that are still in the cemetery had errors in the old transcripts.  These three random examples are just the tip of that part of the iceberg.
        Although passage of time and the occasional malicious farmer or curiosity-seekers can be the blamed on removing stones from our cemeteries, I cannot explain in any way, except malfunction on the part of the transcribers, the finding of additional historic stones in the long abandoned cemeteries.  Yes, some very few stones were buried under a hundred years of soil formation (only one completely), but 200 additional 19th century stones and partial evidence (initialed footstones, fragmentary head stones) for 35 more (not counting the well over 100 unmarked graves) were found in my surveys.  This gain is almost off set by the 230 stones that are no longer to be found.  For an example of some of the incredulous errors made by earlier transcribers I found a list of the Wilson Cemetery, in Fenner, which has no Wilsons listed even though they are the first stones that you see when you enter the cemetery!  Other lists, compiled by the same team, had a family buried in two different cemeteries that were several miles apart!
        For many of the cemeteries I imagined a scenario of the earlier compiler driving by the cemetery, parking on the road side, using a pair of broken binoculars to read the transcriptions, repeating the information to a hearing-impaired partner who used a crayon to write the information down on a sheet of burlap, and then when finished they rushed home, gave the data to another person who had never seen the cemetery and had them type it up on an old rusting typewriter which was missing several keys ("but you can imagine that a 7 is a 4 without those extra lines").  Yes, this is a bit outrageous, but that is definitely the way I felt while in the field looking at the very same stones that they had seen.

The Tombstone Transcriptions

        The old lists that I looked at are referenced here, but they are by no means all of them.  They are widely disseminated, were created by several compilers, were made over many different decades, and until recently were not collected in a single place for easy examination.  In the late 1980s, building from the set compiled by Roberta Hendrix, I collected all of the known Cazenovia, Fenner, and Nelson lists and filed them at the Cazenovia Public Library.  This set was copied and sent to Lorenzo State Historic Site, which combined all of the entries into one large data base for easy access to this valuable data set - valuable that is if you know its shortcomings (as noted above).
        No one compiler made a full transcription of every cemetery in their respective regions of interest.  The original lists are scattered far and wide and several compilers may have made different lists of the same cemetery.  Very few lists are identified by compiler or the date compiled, but various internal evidence, such as typeface or format, or outside corroboration will give clues to the compilers.  Mary Ann Meyer and two other women (Meyer et al.) compiled several volumes of Madison County transcriptions, but had copied most of their information verbatim from older lists and thus a large portion of their collection consists of unmodified copies of the earlier lists.  Copies of the original lists can be found at the Cazenovia Public Library, Madison County Historical Society, the files of local historians, Freyer Museum in Stockbridge, Oneida Historical Society, Onondaga Historical Association, Onondaga County Public Library, and Syracuse University.  Other lists may exist in other repositories, but they have not been examined in my research.
        Most prolific of the compilers were Clezzie M. Gallup, a school teacher from Perryville, who compiled lists for Fenner and Cazenovia cemeteries and subsequently published abbreviated versions of them (name and date of death only) in the Cazenovia Republican on September 30, 1948 and September 16, 1951, respectively.  At the same time Owen Evans was compiling transcripts of the cemeteries of Nelson which were published (with name and date only) in the Cazenovia Republican on September 8, 1949.  It appears that the Gallup and Evans transcripts make up the bulk of the compilation by Meyer et al..  Many of these list have recently been posted on the internet by Douglas J. Ingalls.
        Older lists were compiled several persons who transcribed the stones for small cemeteries that were scattered across the region.  The earliest of these transcribers was Mrs. Thomas Emhoff of Cazenovia who visited a few cemeteries in Cazenovia in 1898 (her notebook is still to be found at the Cazenovia Public library).  At about the same time William M. Beauchamp (c.1900) was interested in Onondaga County's early settlers and he tended to record only the pre-1850 stones in each cemetery.  A few decades later, at an uncertain date as he never dated his works, was that imperfect historian, William Tuttle, who spent his life tracing Madison County residents made a compiled list of several cemeteries.  The local DAR chapters also transcribed many Madison County cemeteries, several of which were in the three towns (they are terrible lists).  Various genealogists, including Robert V. Moyer, Leon M. Peters, and Jean Parisou and Mary Kennedy made lists of individual cemeteries that had not been covered by earlier compilers.
        In the late 1950s a trio of women, primarily Mary Ann Meyer, with the assistance of Joyce Scott and Carol Field (here referred to as Meyer et al.), began collecting the existing lists from all corners of the county so they could combine them together in one large work.  Because of the massive volume of information they gathered together, it was to them impossible to make a personal inspection and verification of each cemetery list that they found.  For a few of the cemeteries they did make field inspections and made corrections to the older lists, but my personal experience with their "corrections" is that they are far from being useful modifications.  By 1960 they were able to produce a volume on the cemeteries of Fenner and Nelson, and in subsequent years the cemeteries of several other Madison County towns was completed.  The Cazenovia material that they collected seems to have been compiled eventually, but perhaps not by Meyer et al..  In any event, no set of the Meyer. et al. collection was found in any Cazenovia Repository, and many of the scattered lists of yore were collected together in the 1970s by then Cazenovia Town Historian Robert Loyster Hendrix.  Mrs Hendrix used the lists for her vast genealogical researches and naturally found that many of the old lists were rife with errors and that some cemeteries had not been transcribed at all.  Thus, Mrs. Hendrix set out to gather the missing data and make corrections to that which was already circulating.  Her lists are excellent and generally without error.  Though she recorded only a handful of Cazenovia's cemeteries she did manage to filled gaps in the existing set of transcripts.
        In the late 1980s, when I succeeded Mrs. Hendrix as Town Historian, and after many years of struggling with the old scattered and error-ridden listings, I set out to gather together all of the data that was available on Cazenovia cemeteries - not just the tombstone transcriptions, but the histories of each cemetery as well.  The project soon spread to include the cemeteries of the neighboring and historically related towns of Fenner and Nelson.

The Cazenovia, Fenner, and Nelson Cemetery Project

        The title that I have used to describe my project of recording the cemeteries in Cazenovia, Fenner, and Nelson is a bit misleading.  Describing it as a "Project" implies a well organized effort by a team of researchers who have taken on the task of recording and preserving the cemeteries for the future.  It is nothing of the sort.  I have conducted this project alone and over many years and on a zero dollar budget.  I started out with a few simple goals (correct the existing lists) and have ended up with goals that may be unachievable (demographic studies of health and mortality, seasonality of disease, spatial dynamics of rural cemeteries, familial relationships within cemeteries, neighborhood and consanguineous cohesion as reflected in spatial clustering in adjacent cemeteries ... click here for a quick sample).  No matter what the goal has been it has involved the recording of the information on thousands of tombstones in scores of cemeteries.  Thousands of miles of local roads have been traversed (many more than once!), weeks have been spent in cemeteries crawling through brush and poison ivy writing and mapping, and thousands of hours have been spent entering the transcriptions and measurements into the computer.  The project, which blinked to life in my childhood but was started in earnest in 1994, is far from complete in 1998.  The easy part was gathering the data, the hard part is to find out what it all means.
        In 1993 I had finished my graduate studies and returned to Cazenovia.  In that first summer, during off hours I wandered the wooded grounds of Cazenovia's Evergreen Cemetery and made a long overdue transcript of the more than 5,000 names that are found there (this has yet to be typed and entered into the main data base [a year or two later the cemetery tombstones were again transcribed by the staff of Lorenzo]).  In the summer of 1994 I found myself unemployed, over- educated, and stuck in Cazenovia.  I had long wanted to tackle the job of straightening out the cemetery transcript mess, and I finally had the chance. I had long ago resigned from my post as Town Historian, but my continuing research forced me to face using the old error-filled lists or go into the cemeteries and check the tombstones myself.  With great zeal I gladly tackled the job of tracking down, visiting, and recording all the tombstones in all but several of the largest cemeteries in the three towns of Cazenovia, Fenner, and Nelson.  By the end of 1994 I had visited and recorded over 60 cemeteries in the three towns.
        As an archaeologist as well as an historian, I was not so much interested in the transcriptions (which is too often the sole interest of the genealogist) as I was in the spatial aspects of the cemeteries and how the collective information of their burials and other tid-bits of history told the stories of how the cemeteries evolved, who was buried there, how the cemeteries reflected the tastes and beliefs of the people that created them, and how the collective information could be used to study cemeteries in other communities.  The demographic and spatial patterns of the cemetery on an individual basis as well as a town-wide and even broader region was what I found far more interesting.  I have gathered data that will help to understand why the cemeteries grew up or were placed where they are, family and neighborhood dynamics, methods of burial, number of unmarked (and thus unknown) graves, popularity of names, and health and mortality in the 19th century.  Beyond this, I have looked at other cemeteries that don't have tombstones (some of which have had the bodies removed) and are found only as a brief quip in the historical record or have been found serendipitously during construction and farming activities.  My research has also lead me to collect data from church records, municipal death records, census lists of deaths, and genealogies and history texts in search of others who have died or otherwise might be buried in the thousands of unmarked graves that are scattered across the three townships.
        While my lists were not meant as data sets for genealogists that is a natural outcome of my efforts.  As the work has progressed I have sent copies of my data sets to the Cazenovia Public Library and Lorenzo State Historic Site, and have used it for numerous research projects over the past few years.  In the final stages of the transcription project I will be sending my new and improved transcripts to all of the facilities that are know to hold the old lists so that they can be replaced and removed from circulation.  Other facilities that serve the public who might be searching for their western Madison County ancestors will also get copies.

Methodology

        Because many of the cemeteries had been examined and have had transcriptions made of their tombstones, it was necessary to first collect all the know lists and search historical sources, property records, maps, and family histories to locate cemeteries that may have been missed.  All but two of the cemeteries with headstones in the towns of Cazenovia, Fenner, and Nelson, had existing lists of some sort.  One of these, Evergreen Cemetery in Cazenovia Village, is the largest of all the cemeteries in the three towns and has nearly 5,900 burials, but does have sexton's records which sufficed searcher's needs.  The Inman Cemetery in Fenner, on the other hand, has a mere 25 burials and had been overlooked by everyone.
        Particularly absent from the old lists, because they were generated from tombstone data, were the old cemeteries that had lost their stones, from which the bodies (or at least the headstones) had been removed long ago, or that were the scattered and unmarked spots where our earliest settlers were interred.  While there may be scores of such places with unmarked graves, a few of them have survived in the written record for us to trace.  In one case a local contractor unexpectedly found bones and coffin parts where no cemetery was known, in another a cemetery is identified as the burial place of an escaped slave, and several stories relate to cemeteries from which the bodies had been removed.  While such plots don't provide additional data to our transcription list or to the demographic data base, they are a vital part of the cemetery "collection" of the region and need to be understood in the same ways that the marked cemeteries are.  Partly because of my Cazenovia focus, but also because Cazenovia is much better documented historically than Fenner and Nelson, there are 11 known cemeteries with no existing stones in Cazenovia and only 1 in Nelson and none in Fenner.
        To make the new lists of the cemetery transcriptions I first typed the old lists into a computer word processing program and then printed them out so I could use this copy in the field.  At the cemetery I laid out manageable sections with string so that I was sure to adequately cover every inch (including tangles of brush and poison ivy) and not miss any parts.  In recording what was on the stones I systematically checked each stone against the old lists, noted any differences in what I read and what was on the old lists, and then confirmed everything before moving on to the next stone.  By checking off each stone as I read it I was also able to keep track of which stones I had found and thus had a tally of the stones that had not been found.  Buried stones were fully dug out and exposed (often washed or pulled up and read under acute sunlight) and places where headstones were obviously missing were probed with a metal probe which resulted in finding several new stones.  At the end of the survey I scoured the cemetery in an attempt to find the stones that I had not checked off (I did not use this checking routine for several of the first cemeteries I examined, but I am confident that my work had few errors).  By following these procedures I was assured of correct readings while I was still in the field and was able to make immediate investigation of any differences that were noted.  In several cases, where the carving on the stone was so eroded as to be illegible in ordinary daylight I returned to cemetery at night with a flashlight to shadow the faint carving and thus make a transcription that was as correct as possible.  Various rubbing techniques were also employed to highlight the lettering.  In only one situation did I have to damage the illegible stone in order to find out what it said (better than not ever knowing, I guess).  A number of stones had been damaged or repaired since the old lists had been compiled and it was impossible to read the entire text - in these cases such portions of the text that were obscured, buried, covered with patches of concrete, or otherwise obliterated were carried over from the old list but noted as being obscured at the time of my work.
        In addition to recording the headstones with names and dates, I also made note of sunken areas which indicated settled grave shafts, fieldstone markers which marked the location of unnamed but crudely marked graves, bases of stones that were broken off or otherwise missing, and foot stones for which, by comparing the initials, I could not find any matching head stones.  The result of this is a data set that contains a large number of burials for which there is no data except for their mere existence.  Some of these unnamed graves are among family clusters and use of church or family records might one day identify those that are interred there.
        In order to more readily tease information from the cemeteries I found it an interesting and very worthwhile task to make maps of the smaller burial grounds.  Evergreen, Union, and the Nelson Rural cemeteries (perhaps also New Woodstock, Perryville, and Welsh Church) have maps which show the plots, owners, landscape features, etc., but the smaller farm and neighborhood cemeteries did not.  While my examinations has found that all of the cemeteries in the three towns were well planned from the beginning, with measured rows, lots, and boundaries, this deliberate planning is not always so plainly evident when just walking over the grounds.  Had it not been for a detailed mapping project at the Payne Cemetery I would never have found that the parcel is actually several times larger than is indicated by the cleared area and that there were 49 unnamed graves marked only by rough field stones.
        In closing, it is necessary to talk about the other values of this recording project aside from the matter of using the data in its simplest form.  Besides genealogical information, the cemeteries of Cazenovia, Fenner, and Nelson contain vast amounts of unwritten history that can tell us about the belief systems and attitudes of the people that created these cemeteries.  The dead are just buried there, but the living created the cemeteries based on their needs and notions.  It is not well understood why cemeteries are located where they are, why some people have family members buried in one cemetery while the next generation is buried in another, why some cemeteries fell out of use while others continued and grew, or why some burying grounds went unmolested after their abandonment while others were obliterated ages ago.  The cemeteries will also provide a data base that can be used in conjunction with other records of death, such as church, municipal, family and census records which recorded deaths in the community for given segments of the population or at given times, or in the death notices that regularly appeared in the local newspapers.  This "Data Base of Death" can be used to analyze changes in mortality rates through time, seasonality of diseases and death, ages of death, mortality differences between the sexes and age groups, expected life spans, and causes of death.  The combined data bases of cemetery and death records will also help identify, perhaps not by place, but by event, the individuals that reside in the many unmarked graves across the landscape.  I believe that the historian's job should be to describe and identify the people of the past and to discover what their life was like.  This project is succeeding marvelously with that goal.
 

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