Mary's Grave on Wilkinson County Cemetery Site
Mary's Grave after 20 years.
Below photograph of Gilbratar Mine is courtesy of Algernon Cannon. The view is to the west toward Washington County.
Patricia A. Collins Copyright 1986
All rights reserved.Reprinted with permission of the author.
a lonely wooded hillside in central Georgia sits and old broken tombstone,
the last remnant of a memorial to a woman known only as "Mary."
The time-worn epitaph reads: Mary, died June 25, 1862, Age 27. The mystery of who she was, how she died and came to rest in such a isolated spot reaches out from the past.
"We refer to that hill as Mary's grave, " said Boyd Dennard, Superintendent of Englehard Minerals & Chemicals' Gilbraltar Mine. "We go around it, back and forth everyday, but nobody knows much about it," he said.
The lone hillside located off Highway 112 in Wilkinson County sits in the middle of a kaolin mining operation. The terrain surrounding that hill has dramatically chanted over the past ten years.
Before mining began, the abundantly timbered red clay hills dropped down into a rich hardwood forest in the swamps of the Oconee River Valley. Three years ago approximately 8,000 acres of that adjoining swampland were donated to the University of Georgia for an experimental forest and the Beaver Dam Wildlife Preserve.
"We are required by law to maintain the gravesite and an access road to it," Dennard said. The State of Georgia passed legislation in 1919 concerning regulations of burial sites and the mandatory maintenance of death records. Since Mary's death predated that legislation, the solution to the mystery seem questionable.
Records indicated that the land was bought from Georgia Kraft, who had acquired it from Greer Land & Timber Company. "Apparently they purchased it from a private land owner," said Ben Benoit of the Englehard Corporation.
The key to the mystery lay in finding the private land owner so that records could be trace back to the owner at the time of Mary's death.
Although Wilkinson County was formed by legislative act in 1803, a permanent courthouse was not built until after 1818. The earliest records on file there date back to 1820.
"There have been three fires at the courthouse since it was built, " noted the present Clerk of Probate Court, Ellen Daniels. "The first fire occurred in 1828, another in 1854, and then back in 1924." "Luckily on a small portion of the documents of marriages and a few birth records were destroyed," she added.
The year of Mary's birth would obviously have been 1835, so the possibility of her birth records being lost loomed large.
A search through cumbersome historic volumes of deeds, aged marriage and birth records, census reports and old cemetery rosters proved fruitless. Without her last name, the beautifully scrolled pages of leather-bound ledgers yielded no clues to Mary's identity.
The small town of Irwinton, the county seat, buzzed with the mystery. Typically, word spread fast about the search. Local rural residents whose homes were located within a few miles of the gravesite, provided the first connection.
Lynette and Charles Mixon came up with a name to trace the land ownership by - Smith. The site of Mary's burial was on the old Smith family homeplace.
"We've heard tales that she was a slave, " revealed Mixon. Information that Smith family descendants still lived in the area refuelled another quest.
Back in the vaults of the courthouse, the name Daniel Newman Smith (1818-1867) emerged as the landowner. One of his great grandsons still lived in the county nearby.
A visit with Joe Smith started to unravel the mystery. The elderly man confirmed that Mary was indeed a slave and that she had raised his grandfather after the death of his mother when he was an infant.
Granddaddy called her "Aunt Mary," Smith said. "He always said she took good care of him and his brother and sister until she died. She was like a mother to all of them, " the relative wistfully recalled.
"I never knew her last name. If my granddaddy told me, I don't remember, " he added. "Sometimes, you know, slaves would take the name of their masters, but I don't recall if he said her last name."
Mack Gray Smith (1853 - 1933) was the grandfather of whom he spoke. "He was about nine years old when she died. They buried her there and he kept up her grave until his death. I cleaned off the spot many times in my younger years," the retired miner added.
Mary's tombstone had weathered the years basically unharmed until the mining started. A bulldozer broke the stone and overturned the slab. When it was set upright again, it faced the wrong direction.
"My granddaddy's father built that stone himself out of chimney rock (limestone), " said Smith. The inscription etched on it is barely readable after 125 years.
"She was sent to the Smith home at the tender age of 18 by the Spence family. Granddaddy eventually married Rosa Spence, my grandmother. He told me stories about Mary, but I don't recall how or why she died a such young age, " Smith stated.
Historian Victor Davidson wrote about a smallpox epidemic that struck in Wilkinson County in 1862, the year of Mary's death. In his words, "It imposed a hardship upon the people already overburdened by the Civil War"
Another historic account by Joe Maddox told of the shortage of food and medical supplies because of the war effort. That account told also of the loyalty of slaves in support of the Confederacy.
Joe Smith spoke of that loyalty, "Slaves didn't fare bad back then, not like some people think. People were might good to them and they were loyal, just like your family's loyal," he said.
Indeed, what else could inspire such devotion from a young boy to his "Aunt Mary?" What else could have aroused the memories of motherly love from someone other than his own parent but love and loyalty despite the scar of slavery on Georgia's history?
Although the mystery of Mary wasn't completely solved, her story may be a lesson from the past - that love transcended the barriers of race, creed, and time. Her tombstone is a monument to that love.
Patricia A. Collins Copyright 1986
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Website copyright Eileen Babb McAdams 2006 - 2007