Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee

Date added: October 26, 2023 Categories:
Cemetery overview - looking east to west (2001)

McMinnville, located 100 miles east of Nashville, Tennessee, was founded in 1810 and the first courthouse was completed in 1811. Like many rural county seats at that time, the town was a small trade center with government business at the new courthouse attracting customers. McMinnville was large enough, however, to have the only school "of any consequence" in Warren County, established in 1809. Local officials established the City Cemetery in 1813, the year that it received its first interment. It remained the town's only cemetery until the Civil War. Thus, the City Cemetery contains the graves of the earliest builders of the community of McMinnville, who were the first to buy lots around the courthouse, construct substantial brick buildings, open stores, hotels, churches, banks, schools, law offices, and doctors offices, and take community positions such as county clerk, circuit court clerk, and postmaster. Also represented, are the women who helped create a "civilized" society. The cemetery may also include the slaves who helped construct the town since there are many unmarked graves on the west side. Local historians state that this area was reserved for the burial of African Americans. It may also have been the burial site of poorer residents who could not afford permanent grave markers.

There are many prominent McMinnville residents buried in the Old City Cemetery. Many of the epitaphs include the person's county of birth, illustrating that people came from other states and counties to settle in McMinnville. Most originated from Virginia and North Carolina but there are also people from as far away as England and Massachusetts. The language of the epitaphs also reveals the age of the monuments, such as Comfort Mullins' (d. 1816) marker, which reads, "consort of Mathew Mullins . . .". The elaborate motifs and designs suggest that the cemetery includes the town's upper and middle classes, while the many unmarked indentions suggest the graves of the lower classes and possibly slaves.

The first burial was Samuel Colville, who served as postmaster for the community. He was interred in 1813. His father-in-law, Robert Cowan, gave the land for the cemetery. The most locally well-known McMinnville resident to be buried in the cemetery is likely Major Joseph Colville (1764-1834), father of Samuel Colville, who along with two other men, donated 1,000 acres for the permanent county seat. In addition, Joseph Colville was the first county clerk, a postmaster, and the trustee for one of the first schools, Quincy Academy. Also of note is Colonel Samuel Henderson. The Colonel was a Revolutionary War hero and an early settler of Boonesboro with Daniel Boone. He helped to rescue Boone's daughter as well his own future wife, Elizabeth Calloway from the Indians. Susan Montgomery Ward (dates unknown), is reported to have been Boone's cousin and is also buried in the Old City Cemetery. Henderson's son, Pleasant Henderson (d. c.1837), who died when lightning struck his house, was the first circuit court clerk in McMinnville.

Other early community leaders buried in the Old City Cemetery include Colonel Samuel James Powell Thompson (1793-1886), a lawyer who bought the first lot in the center of the new community and built ornate brick buildings facing High Street. His main house was well known for its unusual tapestry wallpaper. Landon A. Kincannon (dates unknown) established the first bank, Kincannon's Bank, around 1825. The bank failed between 1835 and 1839. William "Buck" White (1800-1863) also tried the banking business and established Buck's Bank. In addition, White owned a store, was postmaster in 1828, and opened his home to orphan boys and girls. Both Kincannon and White are in Old City Cemetery.

Merchants buried in the Old City Cemetery include Alexander Black (1804-1859) from Kentucky, and Major L.D. Mercer (1810-1903). Black built his store and residence on the town square circa 1830. Early lawyers include Stokeley Donaldson Rowan (1794 and 1870), who built a house on the square, and Robert A. Campbell (1812-1856), who was a graduate of Yale University, a lawyer, and teacher. Dr. Hiram B. Stubblefield (1814-1864) and Dr. Melchesdek Hill (1804-1861), from Georgia, were early doctors. Archibald Stone (1798-1868) was a reverend and presided over the school that became Cumberland Female College. Major L.D. Mercer (1810-1903) and his wife built the first Church of Christ in McMinnville.

War veterans interred in Old City Cemetery include Captain William White (1750-1816), from North Carolina, and Colonel Samuel Henderson (1742-1816) who fought in the Revolutionary War. Captain William White was the father of William "Buck" White. Sion Spencer Read (1791-1843) fought in the War of 1812 in General John Coffee's Regiment of Calvary and later in Williamson's Mounted Gunmen of Tennessee. In addition, Read was the owner of a hotel called the Indian Queen, which burned after the Civil War. His son established the Chattanooga Hotel, the Read House. E.M. Mercer (?-1857) fought in the Mexican War with Company of Mountain Blues, Capt. Adrian Northcutt, 1 TN Regiment. B.J. Hill (1825-1880) was a Brigadier General in the 56" Regiment Tennessee Volunteers during the Civil War. Drury Clair Spurlock (1833-1862) and Chamberling Jones Spurlock (1842-1873), fought in the 16th Tennessee, CSA. Dury Clair Spurlock died at the Battle of Murfreesboro. Captain John Lucas Thompson (1833-1886) was in the 16th Tennessee Regiment, CSA.

Of these town founders and antebellum community leaders, few other extant properties associated with their period of significance in McMinnville remain extant. The R.H. Hunt designed county courthouse was constructed in 1897. The city transformed its built environment in the 1920s and 1930s when the Memphis-to-Bristol Highway passed through the center of town. New economic growth led to the demolition of many early homes that once either stood on, or were adjacent to, the town square. Today a ring of buildings, mostly between 1920 and 1970, surround the square, and only a handful of antebellum homes remain in the city.

The Old City Cemetery also includes the graves of the women who created the town. Judith Turner Harrison (circa 1803-after 1850), a widow, lived in the first brick house built in the western end of the town. She collected rare plants and is believed to have introduced pecan trees to McMinnville. Jane McCullough Rowan (1808-1887) was granddaughter of Governor Richard Caswell of North Carolina and daughter-in-law of Felix Grundy. In addition, she was a bridesmaid of Mrs. James K. Polk. Bersheba Porter Sullivan Cain, (dates unknown) relative of one of the early settlers, was known for having the first pianoforte in town. In 1833, she discovered the spring on top of Cumberland Mountain, which is named for her.

Several infants are buried in the cemetery, including the three children of Dr. John R. and Laura C. Paine. John Norwood and Maggie Lou died in 1822, and Alfred died in 1833. Less than ten-percent of Warren County families owned slaves in the early days. Their graves are likely in the Old City Cemetery as well since it was not unusual to have interracial cemeteries in the early to mid-1800s.

The Old City Cemetery was the only cemetery for the town of McMinnville until after the Civil War. The cemetery was nearly full and some people just buried their dead in small family cemeteries on their own property. From the Civil War until the mid-1900s, only a few family burials had taken place in the Old City Cemetery. In 1878, Riverside Cemetery, also known as City or New Cemetery, was established. Riverside is a larger cemetery with a more formal layout, including avenues for hearses. Its landscaping and avenues reflect the influence of the Rural Cemetery Movement on Tennessee urban cemeteries from 1850 to 1900. The Old City Cemetery reflects none of that design influences as the graves are somewhat loosely grouped in family plots, lined up in long rows facing the street. The curvilinear placing of graves, intersected by avenues and walkways, found at Riverside make for a distinctly different cemetery landscape. Another key difference was race: Old City Cemetery was not legally reserved just for whites while Riverside Cemetery, again like many other urban cemeteries in Tennessee in the late nineteenth century, was reserved for whites.

The new design elements of Riverside Cemetery so strongly attracted Victorian-era residents of McMinnville that some families moved their loved ones from the Old City Cemetery to the new one. An article in the December 30th, 1893 issue of the Southern Standard, reports that Mrs. William Richardson and her sister, Miss Sophia from New York, visited McMinnville to move their sister's (name unknown) grave from the Old City Cemetery. At least half of the graves are unmarked but are evidenced by indentions in the ground. Some of these may never have been marked, the monuments may have been destroyed, or they were moved to Riverside Cemetery. Riverside became the more fashionable place of internment once it was established, leaving the Old City Cemetery as the burial place of McMinnville's founders and early leaders.

The first Euro-American burials took place in small graveyards on family farms. As towns grew, interments took place within cities, mainly in church graveyards. Issues with water, sewage, and crowding prompted a trend in the early 1800s to move cemeteries to the outskirts of town. The Old City Cemetery sits in a location just along the outskirts of the original town. Even with the community's growth over subsequent years, the cemetery still lies outside the main downtown area.

In addition to location, Americans began to consider the design of cemeteries due to new ideas about death and dying. David Charles Sloane in The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History sites two main reasons for the shift. One was a practical need and the other incorporated the need for a symbol of American virtue and hope. "Practical concerns such as overcrowding in-city burial grounds provided the catalyst, but Americans were concerned about understanding the history of community and nation, strengthening the family, maintaining the virtue of rural life, and encouraging respect for the dead." As a result, a trend developed to bury one's dead in an ornamental garden setting, separated from city life. Reformers believed that the many symbolisms embedded in this new mortuary practice would help preserve American values. This separation of a garden setting from the rest of the city created a boundary between the living and the dead and provided a place of beauty, a place for introspection, meditation, and even celebration. A description of Old City Cemetery which appears in a circa 1910 book comes from a compilation of memories of previous generations.

Magnolia trees were planted, rare shrubs and evergreens-a flowering, very fragrant box plant among them-and roses and gradually the spot became beautiful with all the planting and tending, and the lovely green things grew everywhere, all bathed in soft tremulous light of quiet serenity that comes to old loved places tenderly cared for. This was the appearance of the cemetery remembered by persons now gone, but who in the days preceding the War Between the States went there often for the soothing quiet and sweetness of the scene.

The cemetery retains its garden-like setting with magnolias and evergreens.

The style of the monuments also represents several issues taking place in the early to mid-nineteenth century in respect to design and death rituals. Near the close of the eighteenth century, the lower classes gained power because of the industrial revolution. The newly rich felt the need to create material manifestations of their new status and wealth. This period also saw a political and philosophical shift toward the "innate worth of the individual." This explains the switch from plain headstones to more elaborate monuments with detailed carvings and sentimental inscriptions. Obsession with prestige and class also went hand-in-hand with a growing "cult of mourning." Death was viewed as a grandiose ritual because of high mortality rates due to illness and warfare. All these forces combined led to mass production of funerary art, growth in funerary industries such as the quarries and stone artisans, and wide distribution of books on monument design. Stock designs, with a few individual designs by the wealthy populated most cemeteries of this time. These new ideas about death also led to the mass acceptance of complex symbols of hope, immortality, and life. This is evidenced in many of the Old City Cemetery's headstones, which include designs of weeping willows, lambs, scrolls, shields, acorns, doves, and Masonic emblems. The creation of family plots, of which the Old City Cemetery has several examples, helped to create the garden-like setting. Plots at Old City Cemetery are enclosed by wrought iron fences and stone block surrounds. Originally, the cemetery had a lane running down the center (not extant) that provided access to the center of the cemetery. There is a line of stone pillars that were most likely connected by chains and bordered this road.

In its location and design, the Old City Cemetery represents early to mid-nineteenth-century mortuary practices. Memories and town newspapers recount that the residents of the community, as opposed to an organization or company, cared for the grounds and monuments themselves. In some cases, people with different death dates share one monument. It is possible that family members, to either replace simpler headstones or to mark a previously unmarked grave, erected some of the monuments later. The Old City Cemetery was located with a view of the mountains and rivers about one-quarter of a mile from the main street of town. A Memory of the Old City Cemetery reads, "and being almost surrounded by a forest was for that reason regarded as being in the country."

Genealogists surveyed the cemetery and their work was published in the 1999 Warren County, Tennessee Cemetery Book 4.

Site Description

The Old City Cemetery, established in 1813, is located on South High Street in McMinnville, Tennessee. The cemetery is a rectangle about 500' in length and 200' in depth, and begins just 6' off the road. Cottages and a few 1920s commercial buildings now surround the cemetery on three sides. The west side retains its view of a cedar bluff above the Barren Fork River. The east boundary is South High Street (previously Winchester Road), and has a short strip of shops. The north boundary is George Hodgins Drive and the south is the property of a 1920s dwelling. The unfenced cemetery has a peaceful park-like setting, with old-growth trees and undisrupted views along the bluff. Ornate obelisks to simple headstones are scattered throughout, alone and in clusters, seemingly without a formal plan or orientation. Wrought iron or stone fences define some family sections. A line of rough-cut limestone pillars run from east to west through half of the cemetery, suggesting a path or road. Despite a few broken monuments, the Old City Cemetery retains its integrity as an early- to mid-nineteenth-century cemetery.

The ninety readable monuments of the estimated 200 graves range from interment dates of 1813 to 1938. The majority of the monuments, date from the 1830s to the 1880s and are tablets, obelisks, and pedestal tombs designed in classical revival styles with motifs symbolizing life, hope, nature, and salvation. Motifs include weeping willows, lambs, acorns, doves, Masonic emblems, as well as non-traditional motifs such as a beehive with grapevines. Several graves are discernible by a rectangular outline of rough-cut stone, without markers. Scattered throughout, and along the west bluff, are alternating mounds and indentions signifying unmarked graves. According to local historians, the line of indentions along the bluff is where African Americans were buried before the Civil War. Other indentions likely represent either moved graves or missing monuments.

The most unique monument is in the White family plot close to South High Street. The White family included an early merchant, the founder of one of the first banks, and the builder of the second courthouse in McMinnville. The monument is a pedestal with a female figure at the top, facing South High Street. The girl kneels on a tasseled cushion with one knee, her hands clasped in prayer. On one side of the pedestal is a carving of a wreath with the names "Jennie and Sallie" in the center. Below the wreath, the pedestal reads "Jennie, daughter of Wm. T. and M.J. White," (1857-1862). The south side of the pedestal reads, "Sallie, daughter of Wm. T. and M.J. White," (1860-1862). Nashville stonecutter D.C. Coleman and a second artist, whose name is illegible, signed this, most likely custom, monument for Sallie and Jennie White. Normally only ten percent of monuments are signed but the Old City Cemetery has this one and several others. William White (1800-1863) has an obelisk signed by Coleman.

Coleman also signed another obelisk, shared by Dr. John Steele Young (1804-1857) and his son Walter S. Young (1832-1865). A simple tablet for Jane L. Bowier [Hammer] (1858-1873) is signed by M. and S. Hege. This monument is located within a 30' x 15' family plot, which is surrounded by a spiked wrought-iron fence. The dates of extant monuments in this plot range from 1816 to 1863.

The most highly decorated monument, and the one which bears traditional and nontraditional symbolism, is the marble pedestal-tomb of Miss Hally Morford (b.1868, d. ?), which includes carvings of a wreath, beehive, entwined grape vines, and upside down torches. A three-dimensional urn tops it. The wreath and torches are typical symbols of the period and represent victory and life extinguished, respectively. The beehive and grapevine are both symbols of the Mormon Church. They represent the businesses, grapes and honey, that Mormons engaged in to support themselves in the early years of their religion. However, there is no evidence that the Morford family were members of the Mormon Church. The monument reads, "Weep not for her spirit was too far too pure and free for this guilt tainted earth."

Wrought-iron fences surround most of the family plots, however, the most elaborate fence in the cemetery surrounds just one grave. The fence has a scroll-based design motif with solid iron corner posts. It tightly surrounds the tomb-table of Robert E. Titus (1815-1843). Four Doric columns support the marble tablet section of the monument.

An unusual carved decoration is on the monument of John Wesley Mitchell (1826-1899). At the top of the tablet are three interlocked links of chain. The middle one appears to be broken. The three rings may represent Mitchell, his wife Orpha, and their only son. Another unusual design is the two sun motifs found on the tablet of Elizabeth Evans (1818-1853), who was born in Fauquier County, VA. A very faint carving that is no longer clear surrounds the suns.

The cemetery has many tablets commonly found in other cemeteries, ranging from simple arched tops to pointed arch with caps. One monument is a rustic box tomb of rough-hewn stone topped by a rough-cut ledger and includes a tablet. The letters are slanted, varying in size, combine capital and lower case letters indiscriminately, and include a backward "s" in the name of "Sinthey Susannah Potter." The only date on the stone, presumably her death date, is April 12th, 1842.

There are seven identifiable family plots. Howard Black's (d. 1830) arched tablet is located in one corner of a stone-surrounded plot of about 30' x 10'. The location of the monument within the plot and the size of the surround suggest that there are other graves located here, probably Black family members. Alexander Black, one of the town's early merchants, maybe one of those members since he was reportedly buried in the Old City Cemetery; however his grave is either unmarked or has been moved.

Frank Bell (1853-1854) likewise is the only person with a readable extant marker in his family plot, which is enclosed with a spiked wrought iron fence with stone corner posts.

Two graves with one monument are marked in the Greer 12' x 12' family plot. The monument is an obelisk on a rough-hewn pedestal and memorializes B. Josephine Greer (1868-1880), daughter of A.P. and P.H. Greer, and A.P. Greer's second wife, Phila H. Greer (1826-1881). The plot is enclosed with a spiked wrought-iron fence and decorative wrought-iron corner posts topped by finials.

The wrought-iron fence that most likely surrounded the Argo family has only one side standing, with the other fence sides leaning against the standing section. The monument in this area is an obelisk marking two graves: Charity A. Paine Argo (1827-1875) and J.B. Argo (1819-1880). There are two other Argo footstones, in this area.

The Jones family has a 15' x 15' plot surrounded by a spiked wrought-iron fence with an elaborate gate. The gate reads "E.W. Merz/ J.L. Jones/ Louisville." The plot includes two monuments. Dr. J.L. Jones (1831-1902) received an unusual marker carved into the shape of an open scroll with scrolls carved into the side. The other is an obelisk for Fannie Jones (dates unknown), with "Fannie" carved into the shaft. The pedestal reads, "She was dear to me. I loved her."

The Waters family has a 40' x 20' plot surrounded by square cut stones. The two marked graves are simple tablets. Landy Water's (1856-1863) tablet has a relief carving of a flying dove and Evaline P. Water's (1846) tablet has a relief carving of a lamb. The plot includes two old magnolia trees.

The Smartts, Nelsons, and Hills have a roughly 40' x 20' plot enclosed with a wrought-iron hoop fence with an ornate gate. The site includes twelve marked graves. Most are simple tablets but there is also an obelisk and a pedestal tomb. There are few carved designs found here except for a flying dove. Dr. M. Hill was an early doctor and B.J. Hill fought in the Civil War.

Two square monuments were added to the graves of Rebecca Bowmer Wharton (1762-1836) and Jemima Wharton (1806-1834) in the 1920s. It is unknown if these were previously unmarked sites or if the granite monuments replaced earlier monuments.

The monuments in Old City Cemetery range from simple, hand-carved tablets, to box tombs, to elaborate carved sculptures memorializing prominent McMinnville families. Many of the people buried in Old City Cemetery, in graves that are both marked and currently unmarked, directly impacted the early development of McMinnville in the nineteenth century. Although located near downtown McMinnville, Old City Cemetery retains its sense of being on the outskirts of town, likewise an abandoned African-American church is across the street, and the remaining markers provide a link to McMinnville's earliest residents.

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery overview - looking east to west (2001)
Cemetery overview - looking east to west (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery overview - looking north to south (2001)
Cemetery overview - looking north to south (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery overview - looking north to south (2001)
Cemetery overview - looking north to south (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery overview - looking south to north (2001)
Cemetery overview - looking south to north (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery overview - looking south to north (2001)
Cemetery overview - looking south to north (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery overview - looking south to north (2001)
Cemetery overview - looking south to north (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery unmarked graves - close up of slab along west ridge (2001)
Cemetery unmarked graves - close up of slab along west ridge (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery unmarked graves - west ridge looking south to north (2001)
Cemetery unmarked graves - west ridge looking south to north (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery family plots - Argo (2001)
Cemetery family plots - Argo (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery family plots - looking east to west (tomb table) (2001)
Cemetery family plots - looking east to west (tomb table) (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery family plots - Greer (2001)
Cemetery family plots - Greer (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery family plots - Bell (2001)
Cemetery family plots - Bell (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery family plots - Smartt, Nelson and Hill (2001)
Cemetery family plots - Smartt, Nelson and Hill (2001)

Old City Cemetery, McMinnville Tennessee Cemetery monument - Two marble obelisks (Taylor and Morford) (2001)
Cemetery monument - Two marble obelisks (Taylor and Morford) (2001)