By Nancy Calhoun
Books & More
Beginning genealogists often are surprised at the importance of cemetery research when the subject is introduced in classes at Muskogee Public Library.
“Many of my Beginning Genealogy Class members are unaware of what information is available by simply visiting a cemetery where a family member is buried,” says Jere Harris, member of the Genealogy and Local History Department staff at Muskogee Public Library and instructor for the beginners class held every month.
With Memorial Day coming up in May, it is the perfect time to pay a personal visit to cemeteries where family members are buried. In addition to paying respects, it’s a good opportunity for information gathering. Plus, you may meet a mutual relative while leaving flowers.
The most obvious information may be the information carved on the stone: name, dates, and even places, if there’s any luck. But additional valuable information can lie in paying attention to who is buried in the same row or area and those with the same surnames in other areas of the cemeteries. These can provide a clue to additional kin.
If it’s a well documented cemetery with an office, such as Muskogee’s Greenhill and Memorial Park cemeteries, there may also be burial records. These can give information such as place and cause of death, date of death, age, place of birth, and who made the arrangements and their relationship to the deceased.
My great grandfather’s grave was only marked with a homemade marker, long gone. But thanks to the records at Shawnee’s Fairview Cemetery, it was possible to locate his 1901 grave and mark it with a military marker, which was dedicated April 13, over 110 years after his death.
With the date of death, a search for obituaries, funeral home, death certificate, U.S. Census, and other information can be made. Having the dates of birth and death creates brackets which one then attempts to fill in with other information such as marriage, moves, births and marriages of children, etc.
In-person visits can be the most productive in obtaining information. Staff members at Greenhill and Memorial Park are very helpful and knowledgeable with good records. But many cemeteries do not have offices and staff and sometimes a visit is not possible due to distance and time. The researcher may not even know where to visit. That’s when other resources come in handy.
Many genealogy and historical groups and individuals have produced books which list persons buried in area cemeteries. These are often available from those groups or at libraries. The information is also sometimes listed online on that group’s web site. USGenWeb sites and sites maintained from those organizations are prime examples of where such valuable information can be found. Most counties have a GebWeb site.
Find a Grave is a favorite site for researchers. Volunteers enter information on burials in cemeteries. Some also include genealogical information, obituaries, photographs of the tombstone and even photographs of the individuals. Searches can be made on just surnames, limited by county. Similar sites include Interment.net. A group of dedicated Arkansas volunteers has been photographing tombstones across that state and posting them on its site: www.arkansasgravestones.org.
Muskogee County researchers have been blessed with the efforts of volunteers through the years from the Muskogee County Genealogical Society. Locations and listings for county cemeteries can be found on the Muskogee County Genealogical Society’s website. It will even provide maps so the exact location of the cemetery can be found, a real plus in an area known for small rural cemeteries. Various books have also been produced by the society, produced by such dedicated people as Deone and Walter Penquite and other members.
The listing for Greenhill Cemetery is also under “Muskogee County Cemeteries” on the society site. Library staff member Nancy Lasater abstracted the basic information from the Memorial Park Cemetery records, which are also available on the society’s site. The full entry can be viewed on microfilm in the Genealogy and Local History Department.
Gary and Tina Lester and family spent years in gathering cemetery data for their 10 volumes, which covers four national cemeteries, including Fort Gibson. They recently made these books available again through the efforts of the Braggs History Project. Painstakingly scanned by these dedicated volunteers, they are available for a small fee to cover materials. Information on how to obtain thumb drives with these books can be found on the project’s site: braggshistoryproject. The manuscripts and printed copies are at Muskogee Public Library.
Northeastern Oklahoma cemeteries are the focus of a multivolume set of books entitled “Our People and Where They Rest.” The one volume index is the key to the other 12 books in the set. The Genealogy and Local History Collection at Muskogee Public Library contains numerous cemetery books from Oklahoma and from other states.
Cemeteries and stones deteriorate or, unfortunately, are destroyed and vandalized by uncaring or calloused persons. In this case, earlier listings may prove helpful. Compiling listings of burials was a favorite project of early Daughters of the American Revolution. Many of these efforts still exist and can provide great information. Many are aware of the treasured interviews in the Indian and Pioneer Papers, a WPA project in Oklahoma during the 1930s. But these also contain information on older cemeteries in the state and lists of burials. These are available online and also on microfilm at Muskogee Public Library.
It can be helpful to explore different listings for the same cemetery. For example: listings for Greenhill Cemetery are available on the Muskogee County Genealogical Society. But a CD of those records can be viewed in the Genealogy and Local History Department, plus a four volume set of books compiled by volunteers can also be viewed. Many graves are also on Find a Grave. Information may differ from source to source.
The cemetery may not be the end to your genealogy journey. It is probably just the beginning. Check out the resources at Muskogee Public Library and at other libraries in the Eastern Oklahoma District Library System.
Nancy Calhoun is the assistant librarian at the Muskogee Public Library. You can reach her at (918) 682-6657.