Finding the Fletcher Graves in the Forest

2013:

At my house this morning, my husband and I drag from the bed while the sun still sleeps. We have plans to search for the graves of Mary Vann (Polly) Dorminy Fletcher and her husband William Fletcher. Polly died in 1860 at the age of 52. She and William married in 1832.

Sleep still in his eyes, Richard packs a book and a cell phone, a sure sign he has no intention of trampling through the woods. I pack my camera, a bottle of water, bug spray, a tobacco stick, and snake boots.

In southern Georgia the August heat can bring a man to his knees. I know. In my youth, I worked in the fields during the summer, and I’ve seen men and women get too hot and dehydrated. Water is essential on a day like today. By the time we reach the truck, sweat is popping out around my face and neck.

On Sutton Road, we pull into Hal’s driveway where he is outside waiting for us. When he has time, he’s my gallivanting partner. Climbing into the truck with a bottle of water, directions, a smart phone, and a machete, he seems like a man prepared for adventure.

Every pond we pass this morning breathes, exhaling fog the way my father exhaled smoke. He’d take a drag from a Winston and blow out ghosts from his lungs. Traveling toward a landscape of approximately 5,000 acres, we drink coffee and map out a plan for the hunt. This will be the second time I’ve searched the area, the third time for Hal.

Edd Dorminey, a descendant of the Fletchers, and an expert in his family’s history, is not with us, but Hal has been in contact with him. Edd has given us directions. In 1996, he searched and found them, but the forest has grown up since then. A few family members have gone looking for the graves yet had no luck locating them. They were last seen about three years ago.

During the weeks before setting out on this trip, Hal, Richard, and I visited with several members of the Fletcher family, talking with them about the graves, discussing their location and importance to the family members before deciding to do our own search. June Harper, another descendant of William and Polly, visited the graves three years ago. Lois Fletcher used to come to the site often, but she says it has been years since she has seen them. Lois fears the tombs the dense landscape swallowed the graves from sight. And that’s why we are here this hot August day; we long to find the burial spot before it is gone and forgotten.

We’re riding in my husband’s GMC truck. It’s old. He’s owned it since its birth in 1999.  We pass pastures, fields, and ponds sleeping under a layer of fog. When we reach the designated drop off spot, Hal tells Richard to pick us up in approximately three hours. My husband has no desire to hike through the woods in search of graves. Old graves are my thing, not his.

We won’t have phone access back here.  It is now 7:00 AM and we should be finished by 10:00 AM.  “Meet us here at ten,” says Hal to Richard. They share a joke about getting lost. I don’t laugh. I’m seeping sweat, and the boots on my feet are heavy and too big. I feel as though I weigh a thousand pounds or more. My boots are bricks on my feet. Richard watches us climb a fence. I turn back and wave at him and he backs the truck onto the highway. He plans to read at a nearby church and cemetery until time to pick us up.

Hal and I trudge through mud, water, sand, vines, and thick weeds. I’m a redhead, and my flesh is on fire. At times I’m discouraged and, other times, I swell with excitement. I’ve crossed into the past, and the past is a place of few sounds and many mysteries.

We’ve been trailing these graves for more than a month. During times of uncertainty, when I think the hunt will come to nothing, I fear the graves have been turned over to make room for the planting of new trees. I fear the graves are lost forever. I’m swollen with doubt, yet hope and the thrill of the hunt jolts me from time to time, and my adrenaline sizzles. I’m not yet ready to give up the chase.

I rely on Hal for directions. After a tiring walk, we leave a clean path to move into a wooded area. He says, “The graves shouldn’t be far from here.”

The tobacco stick comes in handy for whipping through thick growth and alerting snakes that I’m coming through. Plundering through the forest, we come close to deer, snakes, and all manner of wildlife.  Hal spots wild hogs and identifies what he believes to be the tracks of a bobcat. It makes me uneasy, but I’m not about to complain.

Religion doesn’t grow here in this glorious place, yet there is something sacrosanct about nature. Hal and I are intruders, trespassers, strange creatures. Dirty, sweaty, tired, we walk on the holy ground of history. Perhaps I don’t belong here, yet I am in love with this southern landscape. When I leave this land my footprints will stain the stanzas of one of nature’s poems. I’m walking inside history.

After searching for some time, with no sight of graves, we separate. Hal goes off in one direction and I take off in the other. We are on the verge of giving up for the day. It’s getting late. We’ve been back here for some time. Richard will be waiting for us, and if we don’t meet as planned, he’ll be worried.

Like a scene from a scary movie, my legs tangle in strong vines and I’m yanked to the forest floor. Bam! Sweat clouding my vision, I lean back, relax, and wipe my face with the tail of my shirt. On my back, I gaze upwards. The view above me is lovely. Dappled sunlight dances around me. The forest carries the scent of a mossy stone pulled up and turned over. I smell the Alapaha River.

 

When Hal and I meet up again, near a path, he makes another plan, and we head off once more through undisturbed land. He takes one route and I take the other. It occurs to me that I am likely wasting another morning in the woods when I should be writing, Still, I search, aware that our time is running out.

My family originated in Irwin County, and the Fletchers settled in Irwin County during the same time period. I come from Faulkner, Story, Tomberlin, Sutton, Rowe, Sears, Jowers, Tyson, Hendley. And I long to see the graves of the people my ancestors knew: Fletchers.

Much later, when I’m almost certain the graves have been turned under for trees, I hear Hal’s familiar whistle and rush toward its sound. “I found them,” he says.

I yell, “Yes!”

The tombs are surrounded by aged fence made of fence wire nailed to split-rail lighter posts. Sunlight slips through the trees and shimmers on the graves. The two burial spots are beauties. We recognize slave and servant graves once marked with wooden markers. Light gleams golden and hopeful on a thousand southern leaves shivering overhead.

Hal cuts back thick growth with the machete, thinning the area so we can move in closer. Polly’s tomb has a small crack and two holes about the size of large marbles. The inner part of William’s tomb has crumbled and is filled with dried leaves, straw, and soil. The outer structure remains intact.

As Hal works, I take photos. At some point I put away the camera and sit in this lovely bedroom of death. It’s a place of quiet and solitude.

A large outdoor room containing two concrete beds is surrounded by fence. Quilts of moss cover the beds. The Fletchers sleep under the shade of a magnificent magnolia. I pull on posts, testing them; they are sturdy. William and Polly died in 1855 and 1860, and I assume the fence and posts were erected at least a century ago.  A rustic gate has been left open, as though the tombs, 150 years old, are expecting visitors.

 

This is the way we found the graves in the heart of the forest.

Everything out here seems luminous and fertile. I look back and imagine these people’s lives. I imagine the laughter of Polly and William coming through the trees like a breeze. During their marriage they prospered, at one time owning oxen, horses, sheep, milk cows, hogs, and more than 1,500 acres of land. Their children once played in these woods.  At night, in the Fletcher home, out here in this peaceful forest, the couple held each other, talking about the events of their day. Perhaps they made love with a wind blowing in from opened windows. Perhaps Polly gave birth to her children here.

 

I like to think that William and Polly Fletcher loved as deeply as any married couple has ever loved.

I hope the Fletcher graves remain in this location, deep in the heart of the forest, sleeping among nature.

Update: We found the graves in 2013. The graves are now accessible by car after changes made to the land surrounding them.


Brenda Sutton Rose is the author of Dogwood Blues. 

ABOUT DOGWOOD BLUES

Change has come to Dogwood, Georgia, dividing the town, friends against friends, neighbors against neighbors. With the liquor referendum on the ballot,  signs, declaring VOTE YES, others declaring VOTE NO, many signs as tall as billboards, pop up in yards throughout the city limits. All of Dogwood has an opinion. And the local newspaper, Dogwood News, reports it all.

When Boone Marshall , a blues musician who  inherits the family farm after his father’s death, brings home a new bride not long after his first wife’s suicide, Nell Sauls, the town busybody, goes bat crazy spreading rumors that have no substance. And when Kevin Kilmer, award-winning author, moves back to Dogwood, the town where he’d grown up, and brings with him a husband, Nell makes it her business to drop gossip like bird poop up and down the historic district.

Compared to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, to Cold Sassy Tree, and to the movie Steel MagnoliasDogwood Blues is as southern and true as a story can be.

DOGWOOD BLUES  by Brenda Sutton Rose was nominated for a 2015 Georgia Author of the Year Award for First Novel. She has been the guest at numerous books clubs that chose Dogwood Blues as their book for the month. She has taught writing workshops at conferences for new and upcoming writers.  Click here to purchase Dogwood Blues.

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Book signing for Dogwood Blues near Atlanta.

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