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A Study of Five Historic Cemeteries

at Choke Canyon reservoir,

Live Oak and McMullen Counties, Texas

by Anne A. Fox


Center for Archaeological Research

The University of Texas at San Antonio

Choke Canyon Series: Volume 9



Yarbrough Bend Cemetery

The Yarbrough Bend Cememtery was located on the Edna Henry Ranch, on a comparatively, level terrace overgrown by mesquite, yucca, cactus, and low brushy species, south of the Frio River in the approximate center of the Yarbrough Bend settlement.  It was accidentally disturbed during brush clearing by Joseph Coughran of Tilden in the mid-1950s (Everett 1981:44).  Since there was little local knowledge of the cemetery at the time, Coughran was surprised to discover that he had dislodged two gravestones in the dense brush, those of John and Frances Yarbrough.  He picked up the scattered fragments of Mrs. Yarbrough's stone and, restoring the original shape as best he could, laid them on the surface near where her husband's stone had fallen (J. A. Coughran, Jr. personal communication).


Everett, D. 1981 - Historiccal Resources of the Choke Canyon Reservoir Area in McMullen and Live Oak Counties, Texas.  Center for Archaeological Research, The University of Texas at San Antonio, Choke Canyon Series 2.


The property owner since that time denied access to the area.  But a determined approach by a Yarbrough descendant, Gladys Ritter, was successful in gaining entrance to the site in 1964.  She observed the Yarbrough stones and, in addition, recorded one stone marked "infant Daughter of Joseph Walker and Amanda Yarbrough" and another, "Sorrow Zevish (probably Zavish) died July 2, 1874."  She noted eight additional grave markers whose inscriptions were illegible (Everett 1981:44), for a total of 11 stones.

In 1966, the McMullen County Historical Survey Committee examined the cemetery, found the Yabrough and Walker markers, and noted that eight additional "rocks" bore initials (Zavisch 1982).  Various family members have suggested that the following may also be buried in this cemetery: William C. Walker, Sarah Winters, Amanda Harrison, and a member of the Williams family (MCHBC n.d. : 444; Everett 1981:44).

The landowner resumed denying permission to enter this section of Yarbrough Bend until 1981, when a survey team from the Center for Archaeological Research under the direction of Erwin Roemer (1981:86) made the first archaeological survey of the property.  Roemer's observations were similar to those of the McMullen County Historical Survey Committee, except that they found no trace of engraved stones other than those of the two Yarbroughs.  A drawing of the Yarbrough Stones from Roemer's report is included here (Fig. 10), as a matter of record.

Roemer, E., Jr. - The 1979 Archaeological Survey of Portions of the Choke Canyn Resevoir in Live Oak and McMullen Counties, Texas.  Center for Archaeological Research, The University of Texas at San Antonio, Choke Canyon Series 4.

The circumstances of the fouding and settlement of the Yarbrough Bend community have been related above.  A brief history of the Yarbrough family is now in order, since this is primarily their family cemetery.

John Swanson Yarbrough and his two eldest sons arrived in Texas in 1832 and all served in the Army of the Republic of Texas.  One of his sons, John Swanson Yarbrough, Jr., was killed in the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836 (MCHBC n.d. :439).   (Renee's  Note: John Swanson Yarbrough, Jr. married 22 April 1841 to Mary Rose Rounds, disproving that he was killed in the Battle of San Jacinto.  It is also noted in the Joseph Randolf Yarbrough Family Bible that John Yarbrough died 9 Feb. 1849.)  In 1845 or 1846, Yarbrough married Mrs. Frances Coker Moore Tope, a widow 36 years his junior.  It was the third marriage for each, combining two families of small children.  They had a daughter, Amanda, born in 1846 Crockett, Houston County (ibid.).  The family moved to Yarbrough Bend in 1858.  Amanda later married Joseph Walker, one of the Yarbrough's neighbors (MCHBC n.d. :446).

John Yarbrough was shot to death in an argument with a horse trader in 1862 at the age of 88.  His wife, Frances, continued to operate the farm and served the community as midwife and nurse until her death in 1868 (ibid. : 444).

Before the work of exhumation began, the Yarbrough Bend Cemetery was an area thickly overgrown with brush and trees, on a level terrace about 300 m south of the river.  A tangle of barbed wire and rotted fence posts at one side suggested that at some time the cemetery had been surrounded by a wire fence.  According to local history (MCHBC n. d. : 444), it once ws enclosed by a low stone wall.  No trace of such a wall is visible today.

On September 20, 1982, archaeologists Hall, Fox, Wesolowsky, Ireland, and Etchieson, joined by Bobbie Ferguson from the Amarillo, Texas, office of the USBR, went to the site of the cemetery and began clearing brush from the area.  Yarbrough descendants Gladys Ritter and Carmen Pierce were also present.  A search was made for indications of graves in the vicinity of the two broken Yarbrough stones and a number of white cut-stone foot markers set into the ground.  The latter measured 5 to 1 cm in section, and had been broken off ca. 10 to 15 cm inches above the ground surface.  Fragments lying about the projection above the ground was approximately 25 to 30 cm.  The stone from which the footstones were made appears to be the same as that of the plinths and the markers--a fine-grained , light tan stone, easily sccratched with a knife.  It appears to be the same material from which the Taylor and Morris gravestones were made of.

plinth - A block serving as a base for a statue or gravestone.

The mortician, Pat Hurley, arrived, viewed the thick underbrush, and returned to Pleasanton to obtain heavier equipment.  Meanwhile, the archaeologist scraped out a shallow trench approximately two meters to the west of the line of footstones, to locate the bases of headstones that were broken off by the chaining operation in the mid 1950s.  Two stone plinths, nearly identical in design to those found at the Taylor-Morris grave, were found in the trench.  They were of a whiter, more durable stone than that of the gravestones of the Yarbroughs.  There was also an unshaped slab of sandstone set on edge, which protruded slightly above the surface (see fig. 11, Grave 6 ).  Careful examination of the slots in the plinths and the broken tongues on the Yarbrough gravestones confirmed that the grave farthest south should be that of Frances Yarbrough and the remaining plinth should mark John Yarbrough's grave.  Evidently his stone had been merely knocked over during the chaining, and it faced the foot of the grave.  The trenching and general surface examination also revealed a small, jumbled rectangular pile of roughly shaped sandstone between the graves of the Yarbroughs.  this was marked at the east end by a squared sandstone slab set upright in the east wall of the pile (Fig. 12, b ).  The mortar among the stones was typical 19th-century lime and sand mortar of a light gray color, containing bits of charcoal, ash, and chunks of lime.  It appeared that this might be the grave of the Walker infant mentioned by the McMullen County Historical Survey Committee as it was considerably smaller than the Yarbrough graves.

The remainder of the day was spent recording and photographing the cemetery as it had so far been revealed.  No evidence (cairns or the like ) of additional graves were found in the area.  A site map was begun, using an alidade and plane table.

The following day a Caterpillar bulldozer was used to clear a large area completely surrounding the known graves (Fig. 13), removing 30 to 37 cm of topsoil in order to find any additional grave pits.  This earthmoving activity was carefully monitored by the archaeologists who worked closely with the morticians and equipment operator.  The natual soil was a dark, chocolate brown loam, and it had been observed in the trenching the day before that the outlines of mottled tan and brown grave pits showed up plainly.  Two additional pits were found at the north end of the original row.  Although more than 700 m were cleared and scraped, no further pit outlines were found.  A full day was required to do this clearing, scraping, and surface examination.

A number of additional family and community members were present on the site during this and the following days' work.  We appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the Yarbrough family and to explain and demonstrate our involvement in the project.

On September 22, the archaeologists and the mortician and his workers arrived at the site, and excavations were begun.  The graves were numbered in the order which they were removed, since the total number and exact loccation of the graves were not known.  A Bobcat was used to excavate each grave pit until evidence of the coffin in the form of wood fragments and /or nails was encoutered.  The archaeologists then uncovered and recorded the burials.  The process of excavation, recording, and removal of the six graves took two days.

Grave 1.     From the evidence of the matching plinth and gravestone, this was expected to be the grave of Frances Yarbrough (spelled "Francis" on the stone) who died in 1868 at the age of 55.  The outlines of the grave pit were plainly visible just under the surface.  It appeared that the grave may have been capped with a layer of light tan clay.  At ca. 1.05 m the first coffin nails and wood fragments were found, and  archaeologist took over the excavation.  The coffin was hexagonal.

The only pathology noted was a gross cancellous thickening of the diploŽ of the craniel vault and to a lesser extent the innominate.  A lamdoidal fragment was 1.4 cm thick ( the total thickness of the vault ).  The inner and outer tables (see Appendix III: Glossary ) were apparently normal, leaving some 12 mm for the diploŽ.  A sagittal section was ca. 1.0 cm thick, again with the bulk of the enlargement confined to the diploŽ.  The innominate displayed an abnormal amount of cancellous bone, but the amount was difficult to quantify because of the normal contours of the innominate.  The symptoms are tipical of skeletal responses to various forms of chronic anemia.  None of the other bones appeared pathological.

diploŽ - Spongy bone tissue between the inner and outer table (layers) of the cranium.

innominate - The lateral part of the pelvic girdle, composed of three bones (ilium, ischium, and pubis) which are fused in the adult.

lamdoidal - A particular suture near the back of the skull.

sagittal - A particular suture on the top of the skull.

Grave 2.     From the dimensions of the pit ouline, we anticipated that Grave 2 was approximately one meter.  The skeleton was complete and in god condition, Tiny green fragments of a straight pin approximately three centimeters long were found beneath the skull.  A deer scapula lay over the chest area, but was separated from the burial by three or four centimeters of earth.  It was not possible to determine whether this bone was intentionally included in the grave.  The deciduous dentition was erupted and functional, and the 1st permanent molar was still below the gum line although about to erupt.  The age at the time of death was assessed at five years, and the sex could not be evaluated.  No evidence of the cause of death was observed on the skeleton.

deciduous dentition - Baby teeth.

Grave 3.      The location of the plinth and the fallen stone identified Grave 3 as that of John S. Yarbrough, who died in 1862 at the age of 88.  First indications of the coffin, again hexagonal, wer found at ca. 1.2 m below the surface.  The skeleton was in good condition and complete with the hands crossed over the abdomen.  A sherd of blue-banded earthenware was found in the grave fill but no other artifacts were observed.  All epiphyses were fused but the skull was too fragmented to permit an observation of synostosis.  The skeleton was evaluated as that of a male over 55 years of age.  No lower teeth were present at death.  The same thickening of the cranial vault was present as in Burial 1.

epiphyses - The articular end of a bone.

synostosis - Gradual maturing ossification of sutures.

Grave 4.      The stones of the crypt of Grave 4 were removed, revealing the pit outline.  At ca. 1.2 m below the surface, nails and wood fragments of a hexagonal coffin were found.  Rather than an infant as expected from the size of the crypt, the skeleton was evaluated to be that of an 11 year old child.  None of the epiphyses of the long bones were fused, but they were present, and ossification of the epiphyses was advanced.  The decidous dentition was erupted and functional.  The 1st permanet molar was erupted and functional, and the crown of the 2nd permanent molar was calcified but had not erupted above the gum line.

ossification - Hardening into a bony substance.

The bones were in good condition and complete, the arms crossed at the waist.  A blue-banded earthenware sherd was found in the grave fill.  No other artifacts were included in the burial.  No evidence of pathology or cause of death was found.

Grave 5.      The pit outline of Grave 5 was smaller than those of the adults, suggesting that it was another child.  At ca. 1.05 m the first signs of the hexagonal coffin were found.  The long bones were intact and in good condition.  Although fragmented, the skull appeared to be complete.  The left arm lay across the lower abdomen, the other extended a long the side.  No artifacts were found in the grave.

The skeleton was assessed to be that of an eight year old child.  The decidous dentition was erupted and functional, the 1st permanent molar was erupted and functional and the 2nd perment molar was still within its crypt.  Also, none of the epiphyses were fused although all centers of ossification in the major long bones seemed to be present.  The individual was too immature fo an evaluation of sex.

Grave 6.      Grave 6 was marked at either end by a small slab of sandstone set on edge into the ground.  No other identification was present.  The first nails of the hexagonal coffin were reached at ca. 1.05 m.  The remains, those of an adult, were in sound condition and complete.  The hands were laid across the stomach.  There were no artifacts included in the grave.

There was some thickening of the craniall vault, and the teeth were already well on the way to the condition seen in Burials 1 and 3 because of severe attrition and decay.

Judging from the brow ridges, configuration of the mastoids, gracile nature of the long bones, shape of the mandible, and shape of the greater sciatic notches, the individual was a female.  All epiphses, including those of the medial ends of the clavicles, were completely fused.  Three 3rd molars were erupted and functional.  A complete lack of joint involvement and light dental attrition suggest an age of late 30s to mid 40s.  Pathological thickening of the innominate were noted.

mastoids - A bone prominence located behind the ear.

long bones - Bones of the arm and leg such as the femur, humerus, and radius, each of whicch consist of a shaft (diaphysis) and two articular ends (epipyses).

mandible - Lower jaw.

sciatic notches - A feature of the innominate very helpful in assessing sex.

clavicles - Collar bone.

innominate - The lateral part of the pelvic girdle, composed of three bones (ilium, ischium, and pubis) which are fused in the adult.

Despite continual examination of the area throughout the time that work was in progress, no further graves were discovered.  The discrepancy between the number of graves anticipated and the number which were actually present was difficult to explain.  We were beginning to wonder if the missing burials might be in another cemetery in the Yarbrough Bend area, and our informants mistking one cemetery for another.


We found six graves in the Yarbroug Bend Cemetery.  Of these, two were identified as those of Mr. and Mrs. John S. Yarbrough.  The child buried between them could well be one of the Joseph Walker children, but was found not to be a still-born infant as reputed (MCHBC n. d. : 447).  We have been unable to identify the five (Grave 2) and eight (Grave 5) year old children.

It seems possible that the woman (Grave 6) might have been Amanda Harrison, since she is supposed to be buried in this cemetery.  It does seem peculiar, however, when her small son is known to have been buried in the Byrne Cemetery.  The skeleton was of the proper age, since Mrs. Harrison has been reprted to have died in the 1880s which would have made her in her 40s at the time of death (United States Department of the Interior, Office of the Census 1870).

Where are the others who were supposedly buried in this cemtery?  The only answer seems to be that confusion has set in over the years between the various small family cemeteries in the valley.  Where markers either never existed, have been removed, or have disintergrated if they were made of wood, all we have is family tradition to guide us.

Special care was taken to search for the stones marked with illegible inscriptions reported to be there.  While a number of shaft-shaped foot markers of whitish tan, soft stone and a head and foot marker of fieldstone were found, they bore no markings.

Although the individuals were buried over a span of 10 years or more, there wer a number of similarities in the burial practices used.  The coffins were of identical design, each apparently tailored to the size of the deceased..  No indications of clothing or personal belongings were found in any of the burials, with the possible exception of the deer scapula above Burial 2.  Given the frontier existence of these people and the probable lack of store-bought amenities, it seems possible that this deer bone might have been, or formed part of, a favored toy of a five year old child, and could conceivably been laid on top of the coffin at burial.  No other animal bones or bone fragments of clothing, and the presence of a straight pin in Grave 2 suggest that these people may have been buried in shrouds.

No explanation has so far been found for the presence of sherds of 19th-century ceramics in Graves 3 and 4.  Roemer (1981:86), during his survey, noted the presence of "a few earthenware sherds" in the general area.  No sturctural remains have been found in the immediate vicinity, and there has been no evidence in any of the cemeteries in this genearal area for the custom occasionally observed elsewhere in the United States of placing broken ceramic vessels on the grave (Jordan 1982:17, 21).

The arrangement of the graves suggest that this is strictly a family cemetery.  Indeed, it may well be that the original name given it was the Yarbrough Cemetery and that the name Yarbrough Bend Cemetery developed more recently, after the death of the last people who would be aware of the original name.  The presence of a child's burial between the Yarbroughs would seem to indicate that a formal arrangement of the husband and wife side by side was not considered of primary importance.

The light differencces in their design suggest that the markers for John and Frances Yarbrough were commissioned and installed at different times, probably in each case not long after they wre buried.  The material and general design are similar to those of the Morris and Taylor stones from 41 MC 6, a circumstance that indicates a common source and artisian , perhaps within the community or nearby.  A local type of stone which is similar in appearance is now pulverized to be used for road surfacing (Eddie Reeves, personal communication).

These next paragraphs were taken from Observations at the end of the book.  I only used the paragraphs that contained information about the Yarbrough Bend Cemetery.


The Yarbrough and Byrne Cemeteries would appear to be examples of a survival into the last half of the 19th century of the tradition of the family cemetery.  Since Yarbrough Bend was, for the most part, one large extended family, burials seem to have been made in one or the other cemetery indiscriminately, although it appears that the Byrne Cemetery was more often used, and by a wider group of people.  It may be that the Yarbrough Cemetery was limited primarily to Yarbroughs and their closest relatives, and it may have been used for a much shorter time period.  At the same time that these small plots were being used, there developed in the town of Tilden (Dog Town) two public cemeteries.  One was the Boot Hill Cemetery.  This was primarily used, as were other such cemeteries in Texas, for strangers and gunfighters, most of whom met violent deaths, or for temporary burial of citizens who were later moved to family plots elsewhere.  The other, Hill Top Cemetery, contains the graves of local citizens, many of them related in numerous ways to the origianal Yarbrough Bend settlers.  Here one finds markers and crypts, arranged in family plots, giving the impression of the Byrne Cemetery only on a much larger scale.  Thus we see an example of the continuation of an older custom in the form of small family cemeteries at the same time that the newer concept of a town cemtery was also being initiated.  Along with this conservatism in choice and design of cemetery sites, perhaps we can also note the survival of other traditions concerning death and burial.



Analysis of 20 wood samples taken from coffins in the Yarbrough Bend and Byrne Cemeteries indicates that all were of pine.  The exact species could not be determined, but it was possible to narrow the possibilities to long leaf, loblolly, or short leaf pine.  These are all southern species found in eastern Texas and throughout the southeastern pine forsts.  This was something of a surprise, since it was anticipated that local woods were used in coffin making.  Historicaal research soon revealed, however, that lumber was being imported into South Texas through the port of St.. Mary's on Copano Bay from the time of its founding in the 1850s.  Captain Frederick Augustine piloted an ocean schooner loaded with "Florida long leaf lumber" over the bar and to St. Mary's in 1868.  Lumber had also been imported into Indianola for a number of years prior to the founding of Yarbrough Bend.  In October 1850, seven vessels were running regularly from Mobile and Pensacola carrying only lumber.  From Indianola lumber was hauled inland by teamsters.

Grave Inclusions in Yarbrough Bend

To judge from the number of graves that contained buttons, it appears that it was customary in Yarbrough bend to bury people in their clothing.  There were, however, a significant number of graves which had no such indication.  Many of these burials have evidence of straight pins, which may have been used to secure or tailor a shroud or winding sheet.  This was especially obvious in the Yarbrough Cemetery, where no evidence of clothing was found.  We could find no particular reason for this difference.

Summary and Conclusions

When the Yarbrough Bend families moved to Tilden and a different way of life in town, their customs undoubtedly gradually changed, and the burial in the old cemeteries ceased, except for an occasional, more conservative family or individual who consciously chose the old, traditional locale.

We feel that this was a most useful and worthwile project.  In the process of completing it, we not only compiled much information which will be useful to other archaeologists who are faced with a similar project, we also acquired a great deal of information about Yarbrough Bend families.  The latter information is directly applicable to interpretation of the historic house sites in the Choke Canyon Resevoir (Fox n.d. ).

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John Swanson Yarbrough Archives

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This page was last updated on December 21, 2001