If you read my December post on the big changes and new projects coming to the State Archives this year, you know that I’ve been working on adding PDFs of the WPA cemetery surveys for North Carolina counties to the NC Digital Collections and the NC Family Records Online project.
I finished adding the last survey yesterday and you can now find all of them here; while not every county has a survey, most of them do. Please be aware that you will find errors in the surveys – it’s likely that no project done on such a large-scale could ever be perfect. But still, the records can be very useful because they list the location and condition of cemeteries, as well as names, birth and death dates, and other information that the project workers could glean from the tombstones themselves.
In getting ready to write this blog post, I looked up the WPA Cemetery Project in our online catalog MARS to see if I could find any background on the history of the project to share with you. What I found was a wonderful description, most likely written by former State Archives employee Mary Hollis Barnes, who sadly died in November of last year. The cemetery records were Mary’s passion for a long time and all of us who knew her deeply regret that she didn’t get to see these materials online. The description is fairly long, about four pages, but it gives an excellent and very detailed overview of how and why these materials were created. Rather than trying to condense it, I’m just going to include it at the end of this blog post. For reference, the materials we’ve put online are referred to as “Cemetery Listings (Typescripts)” in the description of the collection.
Historical Records Survey, Tombstone Transcription Project
Creator: United States. Works Progress Administration
MARS #: 176.1 (Series)
The Works Progress Administration was established by Executive Order No. 7034 on May 6, 1935, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In general, its purpose was to operate useful work projects designed to provide maximum employment in all localities and to coordinate necessary and useful data-compiling and research activities.
One of the major projects in North Carolina was the Historical Records Survey conducted under the direction of the North Carolina Historical Commission. The secretary of the Historical Commission, Dr. Charles Christopher Crittenden, served initially as state director of the survey and most of the details listed below were gleaned from his correspondence file.
Dr. Crittenden proposed two components to the Historical Records Survey; the first was surveying various public records and historically important manuscripts, and the second was surveying and recording tombstone inscriptions. A review of his correspondence does not reveal contemporary evidence of any other state collecting tombstone inscriptions as part of their WPA projects; however, a review of several online catalogs and postings does indicate that at least 17 other states did conduct some sort of tombstone transcription or “graves registration” project. In a 1934 memorandum, a commission staff member stated: the “second section of the survey — a compilation of monument and cemetery inscriptions — would result in a vast collection of data, useful and otherwise, virtually unavailable to biographers, historians and lawyers. The State Board of Health has vital statistics from cities beginning in 1909, and from the entire state beginning in late 1913. The proposed compilation is the most effective method of supplying North Carolina vital statistics prior to the enactment of the first state law on that subject in 1913.” [The staff member was referring to Chapter 109 of the Public Laws of 1913 entitled, “An Act to Provide for the Registration of all Births and Deaths in the State of North Carolina. It was ratified on March 10, 1913, and became effective on July 1, 1913.]
Initially part of the Federal Writers’ Project, the Historical Records Survey and its cemetery survey and transcription project began in 1936 and the first phase of the project was to last four weeks, at 30 hours a week. The total estimated cost of the first phase of cemetery work was $9,269. This overall estimate included $5,232 for paying 109 cemetery survey workers (for four weeks) and $1,962 for paying 218 assistant cemetery survey workers (for one week), $300 for office supplies and equipment to compile the transcriptions from both the archival and cemetery portions of the survey, $480 for paying 10 workers to do the compiling and indexing from both portions of the survey, and $545 to cover the local workers’ travel expenses. The estimated travel cost for 10 regional supervisors (to coordinate both the records inventory and the cemetery inscription) was listed as $750.
The commission quickly realized that having the data from each tombstone transcription listed on an index card would facilitate their alphabetical arrangement in a card catalog. The indexing staff also compiled and prepared summary pages of typescripts on each cemetery. In a report dated December, 1936, Dr. Crittenden stated a “number of workers have been engaged for several months in copying essential data on such inscriptions, and it is hoped that the task can be completed. A card catalogue is to be provided in the offices of the Historical Commission [now the State Archives’ Search Room], and perhaps eventually the lists will be published.” However, the commission chose not to publish the compilations of cemetery information; and focused instead on publishing the data gathered by the records survey portion of the project. The work in several districts continued into the next fiscal year, and a breakdown of workers in November, 1936, listed cemetery survey workers or indexers in the following counties: Brunswick, Buncombe, Columbus, Durham, Franklin, Gates, Johnston, Mecklenburg, Pasquotank, Pender, Person, Scotland, Wake, Watauga, Wilkes, and Wilson. The Historical Records Survey (and the cemetery and tombstone transcription work) continued as a nationwide project until 1939 when “it was terminated as a Federal project and continued its work in the individual states as a series of locally sponsored projects operating within a national program.”
In a letter dated September 14, 1940, Mrs. May E. Campbell (state director of the WPA’s Professional and Service Projects) and Colbert F. Crutchfield (state supervisor of the Historical Records Survey) jointly described the cemetery survey work: “these records were compiled as a sort of side line to their work of surveying church records. They were requested to fill in their time between appointments with church officials by listing near-by cemeteries…. The worker prepares a cemetery form, containing pertinent data about the location and condition of the cemetery and a list containing an entry for each stone, giving only the factual information thereon. This material is forwarded to the Raleigh office of the Survey, where a card for each cemetery and for each stone is typed. The cemetery cards are filed in alphabetical order within each county in separate files. The tombstone cards are filed in straight alphabetical order by surname for the state as a whole. Each tombstone card, of course, carries the name of the cemetery and the county. The cemetery itself can be located by reference to the former file.” The writers further state that the work “is not by any means complete, as we consider it a by-product of the church records work and do not attempt to cover all cemeteries or any particular locality. We have to-date filed approximately 5,023 cemetery cards and 177,044 tombstone cards.”
A souvenir program prepared for a May, 1940, meeting described the tombstone transcription project as follows: “These files are in constant use by research workers and genealogist[s] from many states in the union, who have indicated that they find them of much value and interest. Even though the Survey has not discovered any so-called ‘Virginia Dare Stones,’ it has re-discovered quite a few heretofore unknown graves of prominent men. Two of the more recent finds were those of two North Carolina justices of the United States Supreme Court, James Iredell and Alfred Moore. This file will for the first time make such information available to the public at a central point…”
In a report on the overall status of the Historical Records Survey, dated April 10, 1941, the total number of cemetery cards typed and filed were 6,422 (with an additional 579 entries on hand to be typed); and the total number of tombstone cards typed and filed were 240,471 (with an additional 27,771 entries on hand to be typed). In what would be the Historical Commission’s final project proposal for additional funding for the fiscal year ending June, 1941, staff listed the need for an additional $2,295 to fund 3,939 man hours to continue collecting, filing, and typing cemetery data. The commission planned to pay for additional office supplies out of its own funds, including $240 for index cards. The same proposal listed the cemetery survey work as accomplished to date: 7,969 cemeteries surveyed, 7,025 cemetery cards typed and filed, 243,807 tombstones listed, and 219,553 tombstone cards typed and filed. It also listed the following work to be done: approximately 200 cemeteries to be surveyed in the next fiscal year, with an approximate 10,000 tombstones within those cemeteries to be transcribed (new surveys were to be held to a minimum), with 944 cards to be typed and filed for cemeteries previously surveyed, and 24,254 tombstone cards remaining to be typed and filed. Depending on which report is consulted, it can be estimated that the final overall totals for the Tombstone Transcription Project were: just under 8,000 cemeteries surveyed, and over 268,000 tombstones transcribed.
Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, under the guidance of Mrs. John Scott Welborn, were also greatly involved in their own concurrent project to transcribe tombstones and their group cooperated with staff of the Historical Commission to avoid duplication of effort. Copies of the WPA tombstone inscriptions were prepared by the Historical Commission and distributed to the state chapter of the DAR and some county lists were also sent to officers of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Colonists as requested. Typescript copies of the DAR’s tombstone compilations were in turn deposited with the commission; however, the DAR cemeteries were not reflected in the project’s overall survey totals.
The nation’s entry into World War II brought an end to all WPA projects, and the Historical Commission shifted its collecting focus to that of gathering and compiling records and papers to document the state’s role in the war.
- Card Index (in Archives Search Room)
The project’s card index is estimated to contain just under 8,000 Cemetery Summary Cards and over 268,000 Tombstone Inscription Cards. It is grouped into three main categories:
- Drawers Contents
1 — 9 Cemetery Summary Cards
10 — 175 Pre-1914 Tombstone Inscription Cards
176 — 203 Post-1914 Tombstone Inscription Cards
The Cemetery Summary Cards are arranged alphabetically by county, then by town and name of the cemetery. In addition to the cemetery name, county, and location, the Cemetery Summary Cards usually include total numbers of marked and unmarked graves, total numbers of pre- and post-1914 graves. The Cemetery Summary Cards are also available on 2 reels of microfilm: Z.3.17 — Z.3.18.
The Pre-1914 Tombstone Inscription Cards are arranged alphabetically by name and include birth and death dates or other information if listed on the tombstone. The Pre-1914 Tombstone Inscription Cards are also available on 21 reels of microfilm: Z.3.19 — Z.3.39.
The Post-1914 Tombstone Inscription Cards are arranged alphabetically by name and include birth and death dates or other information if listed on the tombstone. The Post-1914 Tombstone Inscription Cards are also available on 5 reels of microfilm: Z.3.40 — Z.3.44.
II. Cemetery Listings (Typescripts) (in Archives Stacks)
These cemetery listings (or typescripts) are arranged alphabetically by county, then by town and name of the cemetery. Information usually includes name of cemetery, brief location information (usually), and names and dates from transcribed tombstones. Sometimes the same information is included that was typed on the Cemetery Summary Cards (such as total number of marked and unmarked graves, total numbers of pre- and post-1914 graves, and a more complete description of the cemetery location). The typescripts are also available on 6 reels of microfilm: Z.3.11 — Z. 3.16. PDF versions of this portion of the project are now available online via the North Carolina Digital Collections (http://digital.ncdcr.gov/) and NC Family Records Online (http://statelibrary.ncdcr.gov/dimp/digital/ncfamilyrecords/).
Box. No. Contents
1 Alamance — Bertie
2 Bladen — Cabarrus
3 Caldwell — Cleveland
4 Columbus — Forsyth
5 Franklin — Haywood
6 Henderson — McDowell
7 Macon — Onslow
8 Orange — Richmond
9 Robeson — Scotland
10 Stanly — Wake
11 Warren — Yancey
12 Duplicate Typescripts, Alamance — Yancey; Miscellaneous