California woman tries to research family history through local cemetery

Todd County Standard

Sept. 8 to Sept. 14, 2010



Her journey began in cyberspace.

A few clicks of a button, a telephone call and there was the map.

The map led her to Tress Shop Road, to the Trenton property of Tammy Valverde where she located the tombstone of a distant relative.

“It’s kind of a wild goose chase,” said Vicki Cheesman, a Nevada resident whose ancestors are more than likely buried on Valverde’s farm in south Todd County.

Cheesman was born in Hollywood, Calif., and grew up in Nevada, but some of her roots are in Todd County, where her family history is mingled with that of the Wares and the Burruses who once called this part of western Kentucky their home.  She is a distant cousin of the W.F. Ware family now in Todd.

Cheesman is trying to confirm that her great-great-grandparents are buried on the local property, and she believes she is on the right trail.

One of the tombstones found on the Valverde property is that of Charles Henry Burrus, whose wife was the sister of Cheesman’s great-great-grandmother.

The two sisters had a very close relationship, and given that, along with Cheesman’s discovery that pictures of her great-great-grandmother were included in a Burrus family photo album, she thinks it likely her great-great-grandparents are buried in the same place as the Burruses.

Cheesman is the great-great-granddaughter of the late Robert Payne and Martha Sanders Ware. Robert Ware was born in Virginia but at some point came to Kentucky, and his son Thomas Edward Ware was born in Todd County.

Thomas Ware’s son, John Eugene Ware, was Cheesman’s grandfather, and he too was born in Todd County. Cheesman’s mother, the late Aileen Baker Ware, was born in Cambridge, Mass., and while Cheesman notes that she is a native of California, yet she says her roots run deep in the Bluegrass.

“I have lots of ancestry in Kentucky,” said Cheesman, who recounts a family history that includes relatives, not only in Todd County, but also in Fayette, Franklin and Woodford counties in the state.

Cheesman discovered the cemetery on Tress Shop Road when a woman related to the Burruses contacted her through the family history Web site

She called the woman, who happened to have a map sent to her by the late Todd County historian Frances Fox. The woman e-mailed Cheesman a copy of the map, which includes the property now owned by Valverde on Tress Shop Road.  Soon Cheesman and Valverde were talking on the phone, and Valverde was telling Cheesman about the discovery of the old tombstones on her property.

“Tammy rescued them and put them in her backyard,” Cheesman said.

Valverde’s property came into the family when it was purchased by her grandmother Ella Harris more than 30 years ago.  Before that it was known as the Lindsey Place and likely at some point as the Burrus Place, according to Gary Violette, who is Valverde‘s brother-in-law and an Elkton native.

Violette said the first time he was aware of the cemetery was in the 1970s, when there was discussion about some gravestones that were behind Harris’ garden.

“The impression I got at that time is that former owners (may have) stacked them there to make way for their farming operation,” he said.

In the years since, Violette has been doing quite a bit of genealogical research of his own about Todd County families, and two years ago he became curious about the stones he remembered seeing all those years ago on his sister-in-law’s property.

Violette went to Trenton, picked the stones up and leaned them against some trees so he could read them. He subsequently took pictures of the propped-up gravestones and posted them online.

Only Cheesman has responded to the pictures, Violette said.

He noted that the tombstones are no longer in any arrangement suggesting a burial plot, although they are all together in one place. When he examined them, Violette discovered a name on the stones — that of Burrus.

Violette said there may be other stones that are buried or grown over in the cemetery, which Cheesman describes as probably having 20 to 30 people buried there who are “one family and related families,” she said.

Violette said his wife’s family doesn’t know how large the graveyard is because the actual location may have been lost before his wife’s grandmother bought the farm on Tress Shop Road.

The stones themselves have been in one place on the farm, according to Violette, and as far as he is aware “they’re right where they’ve always been,” he said.

He said someone has suggested that the stones be moved to the nearby Bell’s Chapel Cemetery, but Violette said that would mean they would lose their connection to the farm.

“Generally in genealogy you try not to confuse matters,” he observed. “Right now people can go to the site and say, ‘This is where these people lived.’’

Violette noted that there are several cemeteries similar to the one on his sister-in-law’s farm in the local community. Just how many he doesn’t know, but the former Todd County man offers a comparison, asking instead how many farms were in Todd County in the 1820s and 1830s.

When Todd County was settled, he said, it was the practice for people to bury their families in what he described as family burial grounds on their farms, and at the time the Valverde graves were dug, that was the way things were done in the community, he said.

He noted that some of these burial grounds have grown into community cemeteries. The Stokes Family Burial Ground a mile north of the Valverde farm became a church cemetery, for example, while the Gant Cemetery in north Todd County has a similar development, according to Violette.

He said he’s visited different cemeteries and burial grounds during his own genealogical research efforts, and Violette said such cemeteries are usually no more than grown-up places in a field that don’t bear any resemblance to modern-day cemeteries.

“Most of these in Todd County are quite rough,” he said.

The Todd County Library catalogues numerous cemeteries in the local community, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 listed in volumes available at the library, and, just as Violette described, they have their roots with the community’s earliest families.

Recorded in the library archives are such cemeteries as the Tatum Burying Ground, the Dawson-Cox Farm Cemetery, the Burrus and McBride Cemeteries and Watts Graveyard.

There are also church cemeteries such as the Pleasant Hill Church Cemetery, the Goshen Church Cemetery and the Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, and one entry records information copied from someone’s diary, with a note from the late historian Fox pointing out that even though there is the potential for mistakes, yet the information, as she described it, “is too valuable to overlook.”

In one of the volumes, Fox refers to the lists of Todd County cemeteries as a “compilation resulting from the work of many researchers,” and she noted that, while that particular volume didn’t encompass all the cemeteries in the county, it did include both public and private facilities.

Violette notes that some of the old cemeteries – like the one on his sister-in-law’s property – are in good shape, while others are rife with the likes of broken headstones and illegible inscriptions.

Because the cemeteries are on private land, each landowner will have his own approach to caring for the property, and “you don’t want to tell anybody how to address their land,” Violette said.

Cheesman considers the Tress Shop Road cemetery where her ancestors may be buried and says that she would like someone to go out to the property, unearth the lost tombstones and set them up.

In short, she would like to get someone in the local community interested in visiting the cemetery and finding more tombstones, hopefully even those of her great-great-grandparents.

But Cheesman says the story goes well beyond her own family. 

“This is a bigger story than just me,” says the Nevada woman, who professes to an affinity for cemeteries. “It speaks to what is happening in Todd County in regard to cemetery preservation.

“It doesn’t take anything to go out and pull weeds and do a little maintenance every once in a while.”

Cheesman notes that there are a “wealth of people” who live throughout the country but have their family history in Todd County, and she said they need a place to find their families.

Having researched her own for the past 10 or 11 years, she says that research has allowed her to encounter more family than she’s ever known in her life – to have the large family she never had before – and she is sure there are others like her who are searching for those Todd County roots.

Violette observes that, as far as he is aware, neither his wife nor her sister is related to the people buried in the Tress Shop Road Cemetery. But Cheesman does have a personal connection to it, he said.

“My part is just to share this lost burial ground so that people like her could find it,” Violette said.

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