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By John Oliver, President, Historical Society

Our topic this month is cemeteries and, in particular, the history of the Hartsville Cemetery.

One statement I made last week is “There are a lot of cemeteries in Trousdale County”!

Which leads one to ask, “Why is that?”

In past times, different cultures adopted different methods of disposing of the deceased – a few of which are too gruesome to write about in a family newspaper!

European traditions put the dead into cemeteries attached to the community church. Every church had a small graveyard. If the graveyard got full, the dead were dug up and the bones placed in the church basement, and the grave used again.

Submitted photo
This is the oldest photograph the Historical Society has of the Hartsville Cemetery off of River Street in town. The low stone or concrete walls mark off so-called ‘family lots.’

Since most early American settlers came from Europe, we tend to follow their example.

But that tradition fell apart on the American frontier where churches were few and far between. Because this was also before the process of embalming (or preserving the body by draining bodily fluids and replacing them with preservatives) it was necessary to bury people before the body began to – how do we say it nicely – smell!

The solution was to bury the family member close to the family home.

That is why in the rural areas of our county, and all across the state, we have so many small family cemeteries.

Those first graves were probably not marked by tombstones. Which is why we can’t always locate the grave of someone’s great-great-granny.

As civilization progressed, tombstones could be gotten in the nearest town and small cemeteries began to have stones.

Keep in mind, poor people rarely got tombstones.

Also, most of our African-American ancestors were slaves and were buried on the edges of the closest white cemetery and usually with only a large rock to mark the spot.

Separate cemeteries for our black residents wouldn’t come until after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the town of Hartsville, we have no cemeteries associated with any churches. People in town were forced to find a place in the countryside to deposit their old Uncle Clyde. Which brings us to the old Hart family burying grounds and the beginnings of the Hartsville Cemetery.

James Hart purchased a very large tract of land from Charles Donoho in 1797. This tract lay on the west side of Little Goose Creek. By that time, there were several cabins on the Donoho property on the east side of the creek, and the small settlement went by the name “Damascus.”  But Hart thought that the land he had bought was a better site and began to lay off lots and develop a town.

It is accepted local history that to encourage people to settle on his side of the creek, James Hart gave land for a Union church (a church shared by several congregations), for a school and for a cemetery. He also gave lots to some of his fellow settlers.

People did move to his side of the creek and by 1807, Hartsville, Tennessee, had its own post office. In 1817, it was recognized by the state of Tennessee as a town.

So did James Hart have his own family cemetery and did he share the site with others? Probably not!

It is true that the Hart family home stood at the crest of the hill on River Street, close to where the Hartsville Cemetery is today. And it is true that the Hart family was using that site to bury their dead by 1800.

The earliest graves in the Hartsville Cemetery belong to members of the Hart family. But we find very few other family names interred there until the land was handed over to a group of Hartsville businessmen, who organized the “Hartsville Cemetery.”

That wasn’t until 1881!

However, there was one exception.

Following the Battle of Hartsville in 1862, the Union Army needed to bury its dead. They didn’t need to look very far to find a suitable site!

The road from town to the site of the battle led right past the Hart family home and the Hart burying grounds.

The occupying army may have asked permission, or they may not have, but one thing is for certain. Yankees were buried in the Hart family cemetery and would remain there until removed in 1911!