Friday, February 25, 2011

The Watts Graveyard at Oaklands, part 1


We have just sustaind a heavy affliction. Our little son Edward died last night of that dreadful disease the croup. He had had a cold for several days but it was only on Thursday night we apprehended any serious attack and all our efforts were afterwards fruitless. We have the consolation of having used all our efforts aided by all the medical skill we could command. The blow is a very dreadful one. He was most dear to us, how dear we ourselves did not know until he was gone from us. He was in beauty, temper, and sprightliness all that fond parents could desire. My wife is borne down by the shock and I am but little better. It seems like a hideous dream that he who but a few days ago was in full life and health, the delight of our little circle should now be laid before us as still and cold as the clay which will shortly cover him.”

            Those are the words of Edward Watts senior, writing on November 11, 1827 from Oaklands, to his father-in-law, General James Breckinridge at Grove Hill. He asked Gen. Breckinridge to have a gravestone carved at Grove Hill, with the inscription:

“To the memory of Edward the son of Edward and Elizabeth Watts who was born on the [blank space] day of September 1825 and died on the 10th day of November, 1827”

The exact date of the child’s birth was apparently never supplied, and remains unknown. This heart-rending note is among the Watts Letters at the Historical Society of Western Virginia, and can be viewed online in the Virtual Collection as #2007.32.008.
            Little Edward was the first member of the Watts family to die at Oaklands and the first person to be buried in the family cemetery. All told, twenty-six burials took place at Oaklands, including Edward senior and his wife, seven of their ten children, six grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, six husbands or wives of descendants, and a few more distant relatives or family friends. The last burials took place in 1953 and 1963.


The blogger’s mother, sister, daughter, and niece, beside the headstones of Elizabeth (Watts) Preston, d. 1843 (on the left), and of Edward Watts, d. 1827, in the old Oaklands graveyard, 1976

            In 1977 the cemetery was decommissioned and the grave markers moved to Fairview Cemetery in Roanoke, Virginia, where most of the photos on this page were taken. The land around Oaklands was about to be chopped up for an interstate highway, residential developments, and commercial buildings. The graveyard had fallen into disuse and was difficult to maintain. A table monument to John Allen Watts, erected in 1904, had already become so dilapidated by 1953 that it was replaced with a single stone. Two remaining table monuments commemorating Letitia (Watts) and her husband Francis Sorrel, and a few others, were too deteriorated to be moved in 1977, and were replaced at Fairview by simple uniform flat stones.


The blogger’s niece and son on the table monument to Letitia (Watts) Sorrel, with a corner of Francis Sorrel's monument visible at the right, in the old Oaklands graveyard, 1976

            After little Edward, the next three deaths at Oaklands were also children of Edward and Elizabeth (Breckinridge) Watts: Elizabeth Breckinridge (Watts) Preston, whose body was brought back to Oaklands for burial after her death on 21 Feb 1843 in Abingdon, Virginia, only months after her marriage to Thomas Lewis Preston; then James Breckinridge Watts, who died 20 Aug 1846 at Red Sulphur Springs, Virginia (now West Virginia), probably of tuberculosis, after an exhausting effort to set up a law practice in New York City; and finally Henrietta Carter Watts, last born of the ten children, who died 12 Nov 1848, not yet twelve years old. Here are their gravestones, with the inscriptions:

Edward / son of / Edward & Elizabeth / Watts / Born Sept. 1825 / Died Nov. 1827 / They shall all  bloom in fields of light / Transplanted by my care / And saints upon their garments white / These sacred blossoms wear.


In memory of / Elizabeth Breckinridge / Preston / daughter of / Edward & Elizabeth Watts / wife of / Thomas Lewis Preston / Died / Feb. 21, 1843 / Aged / 21 years / He giveth his beloved sleep.


In memory of / James Breckenridge / son of / Edward & Elizabeth Watts / Died / Aug. 20, 1846 / Aged / 34 years / God's finger touched him / and he slept.


Henrietta Carter / daughter of / Edward & Elizabeth Watts / Born May 1837 / Died Nov. 12, 1848 / She is not dead,--the child of our affection,-- / But gone unto that school / Where she no longer needs our poor protection, / And Christ himself doth rule.

            There is an anomaly about these markers, which was not immediately apparent to me.  The inscription on Edward’s stone is from a poem by Longfellow, “The Reaper and the Flowers”, not published until 1839 in Voices of the Night, twelve years after the little boy’s death. Moreover, Edward’s stone is very similar to Henrietta’s, and she did not die until 1848, twenty-one years after Edward. The inscription on her stone is from another poem by Longfellow, “Resignation”, published in The Seaside and the Fireside in 1849. The shape of the stones, the floral motifs at the top, the style of the lettering, and the wording of the inscriptions suggest that the two stones were carved at the same time to make a pair, and it cannot have been earlier than 1849.
            The stones for Elizabeth and James are also very similar to each other. The rounded tops (not shown in the photo of Elizabeth’s inscription, but visible in the first photo above), the clasped hands motif  at the top, the pattern of the inscription, the wording of the text, and the style of the lettering are the same on both. The final phrase in Elizabeth’s inscription is from Psalm 127, and offers no clue as to the date of the monument; but James’s comes from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”, published in 1849, three years after James’s death.
            Furthermore, these four stones have some similarities among themselves not found in others, such as the rounded tops and the images. These resemblances are not striking enough to lead to the conclusion that all four were carved at the same time by the same hand, but they suggest that all four followed a common style and were probably roughly contemporary. Because two of the four, one of each pair, must have been carved in 1849 or later, it is probable that the graveyard was reorganized and the original stones replaced in the 1850s, although no documents have yet been found to confirm that hypothesis.
            The remaining gravestones will be included in my next posts.

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