VAN BUREN MYSTERY GRAVE

Fairview Cemetery Mystery GraveFairview Cemetery in Van Buren was laid out, so to speak, around this grave, which predates the 1828 founding of the town.

That plaque on the footstone notes the local legend that this is the grave of one of DeSoto's men, also mentioning that the carving on the headstone might be a masonic symbol. Historians don't think DeSoto came this far up river, so the grave probably doesn't belong to a member of that expedition. That's not the only theory, though. Some say it's an Indian grave, possibly the final resting place of a christianized Cherokee. Then of course whenever you have a stone bearing an enigmatic mark, somebody's bound to bring up the possibility of Vikings, the space-aliens of Arkansas history.

I guess it's unfair to mention an enigmatic mark without showing it to you, so here it is below right. I've digitally enhanced the photo to make the mark show up better. Those two upper points are about six inches apart. The white streaks are bird droppings. The material appears to be hartshorne sandstone. That's just my layman's guess. I've got no credentials in geology. If it is hartshorne sandstone, though, those dark regions are iron deposits, which might help explain irregularities in the carving. The mark is located just below the rounded portion on the western face of the headstone. Enigmatic Mark on Mystery GraveThat's the part facing away from the grave. The grave is oriented with the headstone to the west and the footstone to the east.

Anybody who doesn't see a compass and square in that mark just isn't looking very hard, particularly contrasting the sharpness of the upper points to the squareness of the arms of the opposing figure.

Thing is, if that's a masonic compass and square, it's upside down. What could that mean? The headstone was crudely carved, but with a pretty obvious right side up.

Joe Smith, the guy you talk to if you want to buy a plot at Fairview, gave me the number of Doris West, who had written an article on the cemetery for the Crawford County Historical Society. She told me that there used to be a capstone resting like a table top on the three supporting slabs. Covering a fresh grave with a big slab of rock was sometimes done in frontier days to discourage varmints from digging in the loose dirt and making a gnosh of your late Uncle Bosco. The slab has long ago been removed and possibly used as a headstone for another grave. According to Doris' 1968 article, the footstone was missing as well, so the footstone shown here might not be the original.

She also said that there was a second figure similar to the first near the bottom of the headstone. In addition she said there were facial features (possibly a skull?) crudely etched on the east face of the headstone on the rounded part. In the picture at top you can see a smear the color of Pepto Bismol. It looked to me like somebody had used that pinkish color to paint over some graffiti. The surface looked to me like it might have at some time been mauled or defaced. If there had ever been a face there it is now eroded and indistinct. I didn't notice the additional figures myself and I wasn't looking for them, since I spoke with Ms. West after visiting the site. There was no mention of the second figure or the facial features in her 1968 article.

I wondered out loud about the possibility that it wasn't a grave at all. Maybe everybody just assumes because it looks like one. Could it have once been some kind of masonic altar from before the construction of the lodge? Boston lawyer Albert Pike, an important masonic scholar and prolific writer on masonic subjects, settled here in the 1820's; and when the local F&AM built their hall, they planted it just about a block from here. Could be this is an important spot for them. Could be where the pioneer masons conducted their ceremonies before a lodge was built.

I wasn't the first to have that thought. Doris told me that back in 1925 representatives of the Arkansas History Commission accompanied by a group of masons opened the grave. The Van Buren Press-Argus reported that they found "some well-preserved teeth, indicating a man fully 60 years old, thigh and other bones were found in a splendid state of preservation and some hand-wrought nails." The paper stated that Dallas Herndon of the History Commission intended to write up a more detailed report.

So I contacted Russell at the Arkansas History Commission, because that's the guy to ask if you want to get right to something. He said he'd never heard of that report, but he was acquainted with the mystery stone and seemed very interested to learn that Herndon had excavated the site. Stay tuned.

I don't know the state of forensics in 1925, so I don't know how they figured that the teeth came from a man aged 60 years. I called up the Arkansas Archaeological Survey at Toltec Mounds State Park and asked them if it were unusual that a few bones and teeth were found well-preserved, yet the rest of the skeleton was entirely gone. I was told that this was typical. Some bones, particularly the long bones and teeth are considerably more resistant to decay than, say, ribs. I also wondered why they wouldn't have somebody on hand with some kind of archaeology qualifications on hand at the exhumation. I guess that in 1925 the science of archaeology was pretty primitive, and the History Commission guys were likely about as qualified as anybody nearby was likely to be. The iron nails surely indicate a coffin. The west-east orientation of the grave would have been a given for a European settler, maybe even for a christian Indian convert.

So what about the disk shape topping the stone? Kelly at Ocker Monuments didn't know if it was traditional Spanish or a recurring motif in Scandanavian monuments or what; but obviously somebody went to a lot of trouble with primitive tools to make this shape when they could have left it rounded like the end of an ironing board, a shape I think more universally associated with frontier headstones.

Let's ask the neighbors!Mystery Grave and the Thompson Plot Just to the right of the Mystery Grave lies the Thompson family. These are some of the oldest marked stones in Fairview, and notice that each of them has a semicircular motif hewn into the top center of the stone. It looks like the mystery stone fits many patterns typical of other nineteenth century frontier graves.

On to the persistent Viking hypothesis. "Fjurvn Possum Smiter Meets His End Out West." I guess I shouldn't be so snide about the possibility. This stone is, after all, only forty miles from Heavener, OK, home of the Heavener Runestone and Scandanavian runestone advocate and author Gloria Farley. It's also directly upriver from Paris, the site of another Arkansas runestone, as well as location 202, a cave with marks resembling those found on the Powhattan runestone south of Pocahontas.

Here's my objection to the Scandanavian hypothesis. When DeSoto came upriver, he brought with him European diseases which decimated the native populations. They had no natural resistance because their ancestors had never been exposed to European diseases. If large numbers of Vikings plied these waters twelve generations previous, as runestone advocates would have us believe, cholera and smallpox would not have been a new experience for the Osage.

Doris said that back in the '70's, Gloria Farley (of Heavener Runestone fame) made a cast of the stone and sent it to the American Epigraphic Society for analysis and that the A.E.S. had declared it to be a genuine Scandanavian runestone. I'm tempted to pat out some mud pies and set them in the back yard next to the bird feeder for a couple of hours just to see if I can get the A.E.S. to translate the grackle tracks.

Weakening the Viking explorer case is the fact that runestone enthusiasts don't seem to be all that discriminating when it comes to New World runic evidence. In order to increase the raw mass of evidence they include stones like this one, which plainly has prosaic origins. A serious scholar reviewing the collected evidence wouldn't take the case very seriously if four out of five runestones are this easily explained away.

If anybody wants to get serious about the age of this grave and spend a couple of bucks, and if the Arkansas Historical Society still has those teeth and bones in a shoebox somewhere surely they can be carbon dated. It should be no great problem to distinguish an eleventh century Norsk bone from a sixteenth century Spanish bone or a nineteenth century Anglo bone.

Fairview Cemetery is at the top of Cane Hill Road just a stone's throw from the historic downtown district of Van Buren.

RTJ--11/1/99

Sources:

Earngey, Bill; Arkansas Roadsides, East Mountain Press (w/August House), p. 86.

Smith, Joe; Interviewed 10/25/99; He sells plots at Fairview Cemetery.

Van Buren Press-Argus, "Century Old Grave Opened By History Commission Thursday," Friday, September 25, 1925; p. 3.

West, Doris; Interviewed 10/25/99; She wrote the article noted below.

West, Doris; "A Walk Through a Historical Cemetery"; Heritage (Crawford County Historical Journal), October 1968, p. 2.

"Kelly," a stonecutter and engraver at Ocker Monument Company in Van Buren; Interviewed 10/20/99.


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