Tears fell like a soft rain on my face as I touched cool marble stones recently in a long-ago, seemingly forgotten cemetery. It’s said that ‘eyes are the windows to the soul’ and surely, my soul did ache for the souls interred in the Old Claiborne Cemetery, a place of burial dating back to around 1810—some 200 years ago. Where once upon you could see the some 70+ graves there in a field of wavy grass, today, you’re lucky if you can discover 30 or more. Many lie broken, turned upside down, and scattered to the winds—a cluster here or there, or a single, solitary obelisk standing quietly observing with the birds of the air, and the creatures who gather. I imagined a funeral with family standing over an open grave for the child being buried in 1822; the mourners dressed in their finery of black, heads bowed in prayer and mourning. I could sense their sadness, and feel their tears on my face, as I too wept for the beautiful and eloquent words of the epitaphs written in a beautiful flowing verse upon the cold, hard stone.
So much could be written of the historical significance of Claiborne, Alabama situated on the bluff of the Alabama River—the prehistoric and historical peoples who first claimed that land as their own—the events that took place, and the town that simply disappeared, though the river surely still does flow down toward the coast. Native Americans, African Americans and Jewish settlers were among some of the first peoples to inhabit this area, and they played a very important role in the development of this community, the county of Monroe and our Alabama. The very site of the Claiborne Lock and Dam was most likely inhabited for some 10,000 years; there is a huge rock monument sitting alongside Hwy 84 indicating the Indian town of Piache on a peninsula in the Alabama River circa 1540s, with documentation that Trista De Luna, in 1559 with an expedition from Spain, had reached the Coosa Indians on the river. According to De Luna, the Indians were depleted as a result of their encounter with DeSoto and diseases as well. Much like we read today of indigenous peoples in Brazil faced with complete annihilation, so it might have happened here. For our sakes, though, the native people recovered and the population grew again with a new culture created to form the confederacy of the Muskogee.
Travel back in time with me over the next several columns as I introduce you to the families who were broken apart in death, and lie interred in such a history-rich area of our Black Belt region. Make the time to go visit the cemeteries that dot the landscape of the land we call home, and read the stories in stone.