Free Ground in Oakwood Cemetery
Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Jefferson, Texas is the resting place of many famous (and infamous) Texans: David Culberson, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1875 to 1897; John Burke, General Robert E. Lee’s “favorite spy”; Confederate Colonel Richard P. Crump; the notorious Texas outlaw Cullen Baker; “Diamond” Bessie Moore, whose murder led to one of the most celebrated trials of the late 1800s; and many, many more.
At the back of the cemetery, however, is an area that basically looks empty and undisturbed, as if no one has ever been buried there. It is not marked and there is no explanation. This is the area of Oakwood that is known as the “Free Ground.”
The “Free Ground” section at the rear of the cemetery, just east of Vine Street, was used by the citizens of Jefferson over the early years of the cemetery.
Looking across the back of the cemetery, most people assume that this is an unused section. Actually, though, there are over two thousand unmarked graves here, documented only in the records filed in Jefferson’s City Hall. Members of the Marion County Historical Commission have spent many hours combing through these records in an attempt to gain recognition for the people who were interred there.
This seemingly “empty” section was once the part of the cemetery where people who did not have family plots were buried. Those interred there include slaves, freedmen, the poor and indigent, and others who could not afford a personal plot in the main cemetery.
Graves in the Free Ground were marked with iron ore rocks, glass bottles, iron posts, and in rare cases, concrete stones. One Marion County Historical Commission member, Marcia Thomas, remembers walking though the Free Ground as a child and seeing graves outlined in pieces of colored, broken glass.
In the 1950s, the contractor who was responsible for mowing the cemetery was apparently frustrated with having to mow around all of the makeshift grave markers, so he bulldozed the Free Ground section of Oakwood, pushing the majority of the markers into a corner of the cemetery to make the Free Ground area easier to upkeep. While this was convenient for the contractor, any indication of the people buried there was effectively erased from existence. Only thirteen markers – those that were permanent headstones – were left standing.
Remnants of the Free Ground Markers
The earliest documentation of Jefferson indicates that burials were made in a public graveyard between Camp, Houston and Cypress streets along the Big Cypress Bayou.
The Cemetery Records of Marion County, Texas, by DeWare and Payne, states, “In 1846, Allen Urquhart, the donor of a public burial tract for Jefferson, substituted a ‘larger and more beautiful site’ to which prior burials were then moved.” It is unknown how many graves at the old site were moved to present-day Oakwood. Burials apparently commenced at the new location; the oldest headstone in the cemetery standing today is that of Rev. Benjamin Foscue who died of cholera on January 1, 1850.
In 1871, the city began keeping records for the Free Ground burials, although it was probably in use before, since burials began in Oakwood in the 1850s. The City Hall records provide names, along with date and cause of death. Burials include black and white citizens, and many families are buried there, about half of them children. Diseases took a toll on people: there is a lot of consumption (tuberculosis), flux, and pneumonia. A lot of women died in childbirth; records show that when the woman died, her child would often follow. There are also a number of deaths from drowning.
There are many stories of the people buried there. Mr. James Gill made coffins for the city to use in Free Ground burials, and he and his wife are buried there themselves.
Hamp Walker, a well-known band leader in the late 1800s in Jefferson is buried there. His band was called “Hamp Walker’s Colored Band,” and it is said that a party in Jefferson wasn’t really a party unless they were playing there.
Several members of the Figures family were buried in the Free Ground; they came from Tennessee as slaves with Bartholomew Figures, who was a Marion County plantation owner. Descendants of the Figures family are still in the area today.