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History unearthed: Graves from the 1800s discovered in Dawson County woods
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Two previously unknown graves were recently discovered by a Dawson County resident while he was walking in the woods behind his house. - photo by Erica Schmidt

Two previously unknown historical graves were recently discovered on the land of a local homeowner. 

In May, Dawson County resident Randy Couch was out walking in the woods behind his house with his dog Gracie when he stumbled across two tombstones in the middle of a thicket. 

Unsure who to call about them, Couch reached out to a friend that he thought would point him in the right direction, and eventually, the news made it to Carol Dooley, the vice president of the Dawson County Historical and Genealogical Society. 

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The graves were found to belong to William and Elizabeth Whitmire, who died and were buried in Dawson County around the 1850s. - photo by Erica Schmidt

When Dooley heard about the graves, she says she first thought might be the Grogan Family cemetery, a family plot of graves that she and other historical societies had been searching for a long time. But upon closer inspection, they realized that the two graves were totally different and unknown to the historical society. 

“Randy let me come out on the property to see these two graves and I thought they were going to be the Grogan cemetery,” Dooley said, “but when I got out there I could make out that it said ‘Whitmire’. So I immediately called Pat and told her these weren’t the Grogans, they were the Whitmire’s.” 

Pat Floyd, another member of the Dawson County Historical and Genealogical Society, began gathering information about the Whitmires from past research she had done and researching them in more depth. Amazingly, through her research, Floyd discovered she was a distant descendant of the Whitmire family line and knew another descendant of the Whitmire’s, a man named Bill Page, who was related through the wife’s family line.

“We need permission from a descendant before we can clean the gravestones, so I found Bill Page again through his job as a librarian of Texas A&M,” Floyd said. “I reached out to him and he replied immediately with permission and said that finding these graves was ‘like Christmas’ to him.”

With Page’s permission, Dooley was able to set about cleaning the tombstones in order to try to gain more information about the people they memorialized. 

“The first time I saw them, I could just read ‘Whitmire’, the date of birth, and part of a word that looked like it could be either ‘December’ or ‘deceased’,” Dooley said. “But I only use do-no-harm methods when it comes to cleaning stones like these, so I knew I’d have to wait until we had Bill’s permission and I could take supplies out there to clean them properly.” 

The do-no-harm method of cleaning tombstones involves a lot of water, so Dooley and her husband had to carry gallons of water in jugs to wet the stones thoroughly, then gently scraping off lichen and other growth with a plastic scraper. Using Orbis soap, a biodegradable organic cleaner and a biological cleaner that helps prevent growth from reappearing on the stones, the couple was able to wash the stones. 

“The stones have pores in them where the roots of the algae and lichen grow, and the D/2 gets down in those pores and kills it at the roots so it’ll stay off,” Dooley said. “And it’s all safe, so it doesn’t hurt the stones, and it doesn’t hurt me so I don’t have to wear a HAZMAT suit or anything like that.”

Dooley and her husband spent several hours on the property cleaning the stones and discovered that the tombstones each said the name, date of birth and the word “deceased.”

Just to be sure that there weren’t any other graves on the plot, Dooley was also able to probe the ground in the surrounding area. 

“We had the two headstones and what looked like a footstone, but the other foot stone looked like it could’ve been another headstone,” Dooley said. “So I used the probe to see if there were any more graves here, but determined it was just the two.”

Through the research done by Floyd before and after the graves were discovered, a wealth of information on the Whitmire family and the two deceased was discovered by the historical society. 

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Carol Dooley, vice president of the Dawson County Historical Society, cleaned the stones with do-no-harm methods so as to preserve the inscriptions on them. - photo by Erica Schmidt

“It was William Whitmire and his wife Elizabeth (Reece) and they had no children, so nobody knew what happened to them,” Floyd said. “We still don’t know who buried them out here.” 

William Whitmire was born in 1779, and Elizabeth was born in 1783. The Whitmire family and Elizabeth’s family line, the Reece family, were from South Carolina but moved to several different Georgia counties throughout their lives. 

“They moved from South Carolina to Hall County, then to Forsyth County,” Floyd said. “Then they moved to a part of Gilmer County which eventually became Dawson County.”

Floyd discovered through census and tax records that William Whitmire would have died around 1850, and through a copy of William’s will, they learned that Elizabeth would have still been alive when he passed away. 

“We don’t know when she died, but we know that she died after he did,” Floyd said. “I couldn’t find her name in any census records after that.”

Dooley says that finding, cleaning and learning about the graves was a group effort that couldn’t have been done without all the people involved. 

“Without everyone working together it wouldn’t have worked out like it did,” she said.  

Floyd explained that her love for crosswords and other puzzles led her down the path of historical research, and today, unraveling the history of people like the Whitmire Family feels like an exciting “real-life puzzle” for her. 

“Older cemeteries especially are like open-air museums,” Floyd said, “and if you take the time to learn, you can find a lot about somebody by looking at their tombstone.”

Dooley says that finding more cemeteries like the Whitmire cemetery and the Grogan cemetery, which she eventually found, is a passion that she will continue to follow. 

“It’s sad but also very sweet to see the hand-carved inscriptions on some of these old tombstones, and there’s actually a lot of symbolism in them too,” Dooley said. “And there’s probably a lot more cemeteries in the woods of Dawson County that we don’t know about yet.”