21st-century technology draws living history out of 1810 cemetery in Missouri

ST. CHARLES COUNTY, Mo. – Black Walnut Cemetery has been around since 1810, placed in the Black Walnut area during a land transfer before Missouri became a state 11 years later. But technology and old-fashioned hard work have brought it back to life.

The cemetery had grown into a jungle and was in ruins until the Black Walnut Cemetery Association (BWCA) was formed in 2019. The group consists of historians, genealogists and other locals who have been renovating the cemetery and adding technology for the last three-and-a-half years.

Steve Stopke, first-year president of Black Walnut Cemetery, told The Heartlander his group initially noticed 40 headstones in the graveyard, but they knew there was more to the story.

The local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter and others began gently probing the ground with garden tools after removing extensive amounts of brush. The efforts unveiled nearly 100 more tombstones, some sunken deep into the earth’s soil. 

“Some were just under the surface where you couldn’t see it,” Stopke said. “But some were a foot deep. We probed every three to five inches because a lot of them were in pieces. We know there are well over a million probe holes going down from a foot to 18 inches. We gridded out like an archaeological site and meticulously went over every square inch of that place. In fact if you go out there you’ll find some of these tombstones have literally been glued together.”

Stopke says some of the headstones were ingrained into the sides of trees, essentially crushing the stones over time.

Patience was one of the association’s greatest assets while unearthing the headstones of individuals and entire families. Due to their easily eroded limestone structure, the headstones were handled carefully. so as not to shatter them during the restoration process.

Stopke received a phone call from a local man who purchased a home and noticed an uprooted and homeless tombstone leaning against one of his trees. After research, the BWCA realized the tombstone belonged to someone in its cemetery.

But how did they know this for sure? In the 18th century, footstones were often placed with initials at the foot of graves. After finding the matching footstone, Stopke and his group knew exactly where to place the stray tombstone. 

“Behind the scenes, there were a number of historians and genealogists that were working as we brought up the stones and found the individuals. They would do the background historical checks on these people.”

Members of the St. Charles Historical Society have joined the efforts at Black Walnut Cemetery and have compiled genealogy reports on entire families and some individuals buried in the cemetery.

Visitors will now even notice sticks with QR codes next to family plots or single gravestones. Once a QR code is scanned, guests can read the history of the family within the immediate area.

“We don’t know of any other cemetery in St. Charles, much less in the region, that has anything like this.”

Due to the beautification of the renovated cemetery, some locals have reached out to the BWCA and have asked to purchase plots for their future burial. Stopke says the group has used ground-penetrating radar to ensure the best outcome for everyone.

“The only way you can do this is to make sure when the burial occurs, shovels are not digging into a previous burial site. We know we are missing stones. We had a man come in and mark each anomaly in the soil, so if in fact there is an opening we don’t dig into a present site.”

To learn more about the Black Walnut Cemetery, visit the website.

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