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Land Conservancies Uncovering NC History, Literally

The Mainspring Conservation Trust is working with private land owners and members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee to preserve land where many tribe members are buried. (Mainspring Conservation Trust)
May 9, 2017

MURPHY, N.C. – North Carolina has hundreds of historic graveyards - many of them on private property. Buried in them are puzzle pieces of history the state's land conservancies are working to preserve.

One example is the Welch Cemetery in Cherokee County, where the Mainspring Conservation Trust is working to clear the land for a proper evaluation of the graves on the site, some dating back to the 19th century.

T.J. Holland, the spokesman for the Dept. of Cultural Resources with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, says this particular location is significant to his tribe.

"These folks that really laid the foundation for the Eastern Band to be here today, we have to know where they rest and to be able to honor that and honor their contributions, because if it weren't for these folks doing what they did, there would not be an Eastern Band today," he explains.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Cultural Resources Office is working to build a documentation library to catalog members of their tribe buried in parts of the state. Other land trusts such as the Blue Ridge Conservancy are working to preserve other aspects of human history found in the state.

The Blue Ridge Conservancy is preserving Valle Crucis in western North Carolina. The town is the first rural historic district in the state, and interim executive director, Eric Hiegl, says his organization is working with community members to maintain the area's agricultural connections along the Watauga River and preserve the Native American artifacts frequently found.

"There's been a lot of a community effort out there to keep the Valle Crucis 'feel' as it always has been," he says. "That, in turn, has brought a lot of visitors and tourists to the area to come and enjoy that older, more traditional look and use of the land."

Back at the Welch Graveyard, Brett Riggs, Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies at Western Carolina University, is using the latest technology to scan the land to identify unmarked graves.

"We'll see where those match up to known graves, compare those in order to determine the distribution and location of graves across this hilltop," says Riggs.

State law protects gravesites around the state, and maintains a list of all abandoned public cemeteries.

Stephanie Carson/Shaine Smith, Public News Service - NC