Re-Discovering History: The Mass Grave from the Cholera Epidemic of 1873

One of our favorite parts of working in the history field is the fact that we are always learning something new. Sometimes that means learning when we got it wrong. Over the past few seasons, cemetery volunteer extraordinaire Gordon Edwards has been using GPR technology in the Old Jonesborough Cemetery. His most recent partnership was with Dr. Robert Jones, owner of the DeVault Tavern and the Tilted Tavern Animal Sanctuary. GPR can tell you a lot about what’s underground. One of the things Gordon has been hunting for is the long whispered about mass grave from the cholera epidemic of 1873. Around 35 of Jonesborough’s residents perished between mid-July through mid-August of that summer. We know where some of them are buried, but we do not know where a lot of them are buried. The Herald & Tribune did a remarkable job of covering the epidemic, but they never mentioned a mass grave, or really any kind of final resting place for the victims.

Snippet from a 1969 newspaper article that mentions the location of the mass grave.

Honestly, the Heritage Alliance was inclined to say it was just rumor, a myth. In fact, we even included it in our “mythbusting” tour as potentially busted. However, a few tidbits through time kept Gordon searching. There were some remarks from other papers in the 20th century that there was a mass grave near the “bend” or “trench” of the cemetery. That hunch led him to clear a section of the cemetery right along the back slope. His hunch paid off and the GPR lit up that area in March of this year. There may by up to 15-20 people buried in the grave.

To access Dr. Jones’ full report on the grave, click here.

The question remains if the mass grave was integrated. That’s a good question, but also a complex question. Cholera does not discriminate. When the Rocky Hill cemetery, now commonly referred to as the Old Jonesborough Cemetery, was expanded in the 1840s, the back section was reserved for the burials of “strangers and colored people.” In 1890, the Colored Peoples Cemetery Society established College Hill Cemetery as the burial grounds for the Black community. It is possible that the mass grave was segregated based on these other examples of segregation in the cemetery. That brings up another question, would there be a separate mass grave for the members of the Black community who perished in the 1873 epidemic? That is another possibility, but we unfortunately do not have any hints to go off of for another mass grave.

On the other hand, the grave might have been integrated because people were dying so quickly and there was so much fear surrounding cholera and its level of contagion. We suspect this is why the Herald & Tribune never said anything about the mass grave. It was remembered privately, a piece of mourning that was kept to Jonesborough and the people who had lived through it.

Currently, stakes mark the area, and we recently placed a temporary marker at the location. The Heritage Alliance will work with the Town of Jonesborough on a permanent memorial.

Once the location was re-discovered, we were able to compare it against a photo in our archives from an early 1900s funeral at the Lampson plot. There is a fence in the back of that photo, a fence whose position matches that of the mass grave. We believe it marked off the grave but it was lost to time and then nature as the woods crept up the hill.

We will never be 100% sure, not without excavation, but we have enough evidence to feel 99% sure, and we do not advocate for excavation. It is time to remember the dead and let them continue to rest. This year marks 150 years since that epidemic. I fully believe the spirits send us messages from time to time. We are honored and sobered to have re-discovered this piece of Jonesborough’s history.

To read all about the cholera epidemic as recorded in the 1873 Herald & Tribune, click here.