Old Burying Ground

National Register of Historic Places - 1972

Physical Appearance
Norcom Plot - Patch Company, Boston 1865
1970 Photo by Tony P. Wrenn
Introduction to Porchscapes
1972 Nomination File Photograph
1972 Nomination File Photograph
Contemporary Photograph

The Old Burying Ground, where Beaufort’s citizens have been buried for well over two centuries, is, even for the quiet town of Beaufort, an unusually peaceful, shady place where a sense of the past is especially strong.

The cemetery is located in the block between Ann, Craven and Broad streets and measures at its greatest expanse 440 feet by 266 feet. It is roughly in the shape of a rectangle with an L-shaped extension to the north and a central square projection to the south. Three churches border the cemetery. It is surrounded by a concrete wall, which has recessed panels between posts topped by simple spheres. The burying ground is shaded throughout by many gnarled old trees, notable among which are live oaks whose branches are covered by resurrection ferns, which revive after each rain. Instead of the usual smooth grassy expanse, the ground is covered with fallen leaves, among which grow ivy and other vines. A profusion of azaleas and naturalized daffodils bloom in the spring.

The cemetery is rather crowded with markers, which follow a variety of designs, including table stones, obelisks and official military markers. The best known is that of Otway Burns, a naval hero in the War of 1812. His grave is marked by a large box-like stone, in the top of which is embedded the canon from his privateer Snap Dragon.

Many of the older graves have simple vertical cypress slabs—of some seventeen designs in all, each with a weathered, lichen-spotted texture. Another common grave treatment is the construction, in front of a stone marker, of a sort of grave cover of brick, usually about two feet in height, which protects the grave from being washed out in the sandy soil. Some are rounded and some are of a gabled configuration, but all run approximately the length of the coffin beneath—whether a tall man or a small child—providing a vivid and somber reminder of those who lie buried. These occur singly, but more frequently are lined up in family groups.

Many of the family plots are surrounded by handsome wrought and cast-iron fences. Probably the most outstanding is that enclosing the Norwood [Norcom] plot, which was manufactured by S. Patch of Boston in 1865. Round arches adorned with volutes support the narrow railing. Spiral posts with elaborate finials flank the gate, which features entwined scrolls, flowers and leaf motifs.

Many of the stones, varying from simple ones to elaborate monuments with urns, figures
Samuel Leffers 1736-1822
Contemporary Photo
and crosses, are signed, providing a museum of the stonecutter’s art during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The markers’ marks evidence Beaufort’s orientation to the sea and to relatively distant coastal cities rather than to inland North Carolina, for the stones come from such places as Boston, Charleston, Brooklyn and Baltimore. From North Carolina only the port city of Wilmington is represented.

There are some 200 stones from the pre-Civil War era, approximately forty-five from the war period, and about 150 from 1865 to 1900, and a few twentieth-century markers.

Statement of Significance

Thomas Plot - Contemporary Photo
1901 Unveiling at Tomb of Otway Burns
Photo in 1905 book by 
grandson Walter Francis Burns
In June 1724, the trustees of the town of Beaufort deeded to the “wardens of the Parish of St. Johns and the rest of the Vestrymen,” lot 91, Old Town. This acquisition of land for the Anglican church—and presumably for a cemetery as well—is the earliest definite date indicating the use of the present burying ground for that purpose. Since the lot was a public one, and the site of the courthouse where the church had been meeting, it is likely that burials may have occurred there earlier. Although the earliest legible date of death on a tombstone is 1756, many of the older markers have no dates or their inscriptions are so weathered as to be illegible. There are also many unmarked graves.

The cemetery was enlarged in 1731, when Nathaniel Taylor, “by and with the consent of Richd Rustull, senr, and Joseph Bell, Esqr, Commissioners,” gave all of lot 81, Old Town (adjacent to lot 91), to the inhabitants of the town for a burying ground. Burials were probably confined to these two lots until 1820, when the Methodists acquired lot 101, Old Town, and erected a church on part of the lot. The cemetery was enlarged again when the Baptists acquired part of lot 72 in 1851, and when the Methodists bought part of lot 71 in 1853 for a new church. In each case the part of the lot not occupied by the church building added to the area of the burial ground. Both Methodist structures still stand, and a new brick church occupies the site of the original Baptist structure. The town lot, lot 81, must have filled up early, for by 1828 the commissioners, recognizing a need for additional space, ordered that a new cemetery be surveyed and laid off. In 1867 the commissioners began the planting of elm trees in front of the churches that border the cemetery.

Snip from Gray's 1880 Map
In the cemetery are buried people who played notable roles in the eighteenth and nineteenth century history of the state: Colonel William Thompson, the highest ranking officer from Beaufort during the Revolutionary War and a delegate to the Hillsborough Convention; Captain Otway Burns, who privateer Snap Dragon took many prizes during the War of 1812, who served in the North Carolina legislature, and who made in his kiln many of the bricks for Fort Macon; Confederate Captain Josiah Pender, whose forces took Fort Macon in April, 1861; Mary and Robert Chadwick, who adopted and [helped mainly by Julian Carr] educated a young Chinese stowaway named Soong, who eventually became the father of Madame Chiang Kai Shek and Madame Sun Yat Sen.

Today the cemetery encompasses part of lots 71, 72, 82, 92, 101 and all of lots 81 and 91. Included are the original burying ground, the Methodist cemetery and the Baptist cemetery. 

The whole area with its lichen-encrusted stones shaded by great trees is pervaded by an atmosphere of age, peace and pleasant melancholia that makes it one of the most memorable spots in one of North Carolina’s most picturesque communities—the seaport town of Beaufort.

The range of tombstone design is quite remarkable, from the primitive grace of the simple cypress slabs to the sober functionalism of the long brick grave covers to the ornate memorials of the Victorian period. Particularly notable is the vividly descriptive Otway Burns marker—a cannon atop the grave of a naval hero.

Contemporary Photo
This nomination form was prepared by:
Survey and Planning Unit Staff
State Department of Archives and History

Raleigh, North Carolina.

The designated State Liaison Officer for the National Historic Preservation of 1966 officially nominated this property for inclusion in the National Register and certified that it had been evaluated according to the criteria and procedures set forth by the National Park Service—signed by H.G. Jones, director, State Department of Archives and History, 2 February 1972