Wow, y’all. If you are interested in history you really need to visit Lebanon in the Forks Presbyterian Cemetery. Honestly, my visit left me a little awestruck.
But let me back up. Emily and I went walking Saturday, as we are wont to do. We picked our destination off a list of Knoxville Greenways, and ended up on the Holston River Greenway, which we had not visited in years. My pictures from our walk will probably turn up in another blog post, but it’s not a super-long trail and we weren’t ready to go home when we finished walking, so we decided to drive around for a bit.
Now, I’ve lived in Northwest Knoxville, West Knoxville, South Knoxville, North Knoxville, and now Northwest Knox County, but never in East Knoxville. So this is always a fun area for me to explore. And as we drove I remembered that I’d seen a cool old cemetery somewhere across Boyds Bridge.
We found it on Asbury Road, right at what signs warn drivers is a “non-negotiable turn,” which also happens to be right at the Forks of the River (where the Tennessee splits into the Holston and French Broad, for those who don’t know). Lebanon in the Fork is what it’s called, and it lays claim to the title of oldest cemetery in the county.
The church that once stood there is gone now–burned in a 1981 fire–but its predecessor was built on this site before Tennessee was even a state (1793). And people were being buried here before then–trappers, hunters, and soldiers–although their graves are unmarked.
Mrs. Elizabeth Carrick’s grave is marked, though–and hers is the oldest marked grave in the county. According to an 1875 history of the church penned by Dr. J.G. M. Ramsey:
Among the first Christian interments here was that of Mrs. Carrick. It occurred on the day of the contemplated attack upon the infant Knoxville by the Indians, Sept., 1793. All the inhabitants who would bear arms had gone to its defense, and relations and remains of Mrs. Carrick were brought down in a canoe, on the Holston River and deposited in the church yard, attended and buried by women only.
Another grave of note is that of Francis Alexander Ramsey, father of the aforementioned historian, builder of Ramsey House, and Tennessee–or should I say FRANKLIN–statesman.
The cemetery is overflowing with Ramseys, actually, including the historian, as well as quite a few McNutts, some Dicksons, and many other interrelated families. The last burial here took place in 1976, but the majority were during the 1800s.
There are a number of epitaphs that I’m sure would be delightful, but they are just too old to read. There are also some unique carvings.
We’ve got war heroes here from three separate conflicts. The Ramseys’ Confederate sympathies landed them in deep trouble, according to the histories I consulted.
I don’t know the story of the fellow buried below, but I’m imagining that he died as a victim of the Gold Rush.
I’m not going to waste too much time complaining about the condition of a 200 year old graveyard that hasn’t seen active use in a hundred years, but I really wouldn’t need to anyway because this place is mostly in great shape. There are a few overgrown graves and the steps that once led into the cemetery are impassable (but they’d be inaccessible at this point anyway), but over all this graveyard is being well cared for.
There is no fence around the churchyard, which is surrounded on all sides by property belonging to the quarrying operation further up Asbury Road, but there are obstacles in place should you try to wander too far:
Dr. Ramsey’s history describes the site like this: “[T]he site for the church edifice was an eminence in the center of a beautiful grove of cedars and other trees, covered by vines forming a dense arbor and a shady bower which excluded the sun.”
At least one of those cedars still stands, and the eminence on which the graveyard sits makes for some impressive views.
This is just a lovely cemetery that anyone with an interest in Knoxville history will enjoy.