Unraveling the secrets in Trenton’s abandoned, ancient cemetery of unknowns

Posted May 16, 2014, at 6:58 a.m.
The broken gravestone of William Norris, who died April 21, 1872. Norris was a veteran of the War of 1812. His gravestone was buried for about 100 years -- in Trenton in a cemetery that was later destroyed -- until Bob Whittaker's efforts led to its discovery in May 2013.
Courtesy of Bob Whittaker
The broken gravestone of William Norris, who died April 21, 1872. Norris was a veteran of the War of 1812. His gravestone was buried for about 100 years -- in Trenton in a cemetery that was later destroyed -- until Bob Whittaker's efforts led to its discovery in May 2013.
Bob Whittaker's cousin from West Haven, Connecticut, named Bob Whitaker, trims trees during their first visit to the abandoned cemetery site in Trenton in May 2012.
Courtesy of Bob Whittaker
Bob Whittaker's cousin from West Haven, Connecticut, named Bob Whitaker, trims trees during their first visit to the abandoned cemetery site in Trenton in May 2012.
One of many gravestone fragments, discovered in May 2013, at the abandoned, ancient cemetery in Trenton. Note the faded inscription.
Courtesy of Bob Whittaker
One of many gravestone fragments, discovered in May 2013, at the abandoned, ancient cemetery in Trenton. Note the faded inscription.
Bob Whittaker's cousin Lynn Esola is pictured at the far end of a centuries-old cemetery in Trenton, in May 2013, providing a sense of how large the site is. Whittaker and his extended family are working to unearth the destroyed gravestones and find out who was buried in the spot off Bar Harbor Road.
Courtesy of Bob Whittaker
Bob Whittaker's cousin Lynn Esola is pictured at the far end of a centuries-old cemetery in Trenton, in May 2013, providing a sense of how large the site is. Whittaker and his extended family are working to unearth the destroyed gravestones and find out who was buried in the spot off Bar Harbor Road.
Bob Whittaker's cousin Sarah Vining runs a grid line across the cemetery in Trenton, in preparation for gravestone probing, in May 2013.
Courtesy of Bob Whittaker
Bob Whittaker's cousin Sarah Vining runs a grid line across the cemetery in Trenton, in preparation for gravestone probing, in May 2013.
This is the primary site in Trenton, pictured in May 2013, where broken gravestones were found. Note the gravestone on the left and the fragments on the right. White flags identify probable buried gravestones or fragments.
Courtesy of Bob Whittaker
This is the primary site in Trenton, pictured in May 2013, where broken gravestones were found. Note the gravestone on the left and the fragments on the right. White flags identify probable buried gravestones or fragments.
Bob Whittaker of Rhode Island is pictured with his wife, Lois, in the &quotcemetery of unknowns" in Trenton, Maine.
Courtesy of Bob Whittaker
Bob Whittaker of Rhode Island is pictured with his wife, Lois, in the "cemetery of unknowns" in Trenton, Maine.
Bob Whittaker's uncle Walter Whittaker, a petty officer who served aboard the USS Amsterdam light cruiser during World War II.
Contributed photo
Bob Whittaker's uncle Walter Whittaker, a petty officer who served aboard the USS Amsterdam light cruiser during World War II.
Bob Whittaker of Rhode Island has returned many times to Maine to learn who his family members throughout the ages were. On one trip to Trenton, to find the gravestones of his great-great-great-great grandparents Elisha and Ruth Whitaker, he found an abandoned, mostly destroyed cemetery and is now working to identify the dead buried there. George J. Whitaker, who was born in 1841 and died in 1917, is pictured here. He was Elisha and Ruth Whitaker's grandson.
Contributed photo
Bob Whittaker of Rhode Island has returned many times to Maine to learn who his family members throughout the ages were. On one trip to Trenton, to find the gravestones of his great-great-great-great grandparents Elisha and Ruth Whitaker, he found an abandoned, mostly destroyed cemetery and is now working to identify the dead buried there. George J. Whitaker, who was born in 1841 and died in 1917, is pictured here. He was Elisha and Ruth Whitaker's grandson.
Bob Whittaker of Rhode Island has returned many times to Maine to learn who his family members throughout the ages were. On one trip to Trenton, to find the gravestones of his great-great-great-great grandparents Elisha and Ruth Whitaker, he found an abandoned, mostly destroyed cemetery and is now working to identify the dead buried there. Elisha and Ruth Whitaker's granddaughter, Diemma G. (Whitaker) Hodgkins, is pictured here.
Contributed photo
Bob Whittaker of Rhode Island has returned many times to Maine to learn who his family members throughout the ages were. On one trip to Trenton, to find the gravestones of his great-great-great-great grandparents Elisha and Ruth Whitaker, he found an abandoned, mostly destroyed cemetery and is now working to identify the dead buried there. Elisha and Ruth Whitaker's granddaughter, Diemma G. (Whitaker) Hodgkins, is pictured here.
Bob Whittaker's grandfather Elmer Whitaker, aboard a U.S. Navy armored cruiser just before World War I. Bob Whittaker never met his grandfather because he died in 1925, 16 years before he was born, as a result of a tragic steamboat accident. Bob Whittaker has been trying to learn more about his relatives, who lived in Maine generations ago.
Contributed photo
Bob Whittaker's grandfather Elmer Whitaker, aboard a U.S. Navy armored cruiser just before World War I. Bob Whittaker never met his grandfather because he died in 1925, 16 years before he was born, as a result of a tragic steamboat accident. Bob Whittaker has been trying to learn more about his relatives, who lived in Maine generations ago.

The story begins with the genealogical research of our family with my cousin five times removed and good friend Bob Whitaker from West Haven, Connecticut. (Yes, we even have pretty much the same name.) For almost two decades we have been searching for our ancestral grandparents in Trenton.

We enjoy our search for historical information, old photos of our family and occasional “field trips” to Trenton to find cemeteries where family members were buried and discover their old properties.

One of our research dilemmas was trying to find the graves of our great-great-great-great-grandparents Elisha and Ruth Whitaker. During the 1790s to about 1840 they once owned a 100-acre farm on Bar Harbor Road in Trenton. We had located the farm and searched several times for the graves without any luck.

During our visit to the Trenton area in 2011, I phoned Hancock County Genealogical Society President Patti Leland to inquire if she might be aware of any graves on the property that Elisha and Ruth owned. Patti told us she was not aware of any graves on their property, but to our surprise she informed us that there was an ancient, abandoned cemetery across the road from their property.

The cemetery was rediscovered by Patti and her father. It is completely devoid of upright gravestones or markers. On our first visit we found it to be heavily wooded with thick underbrush. Before it was horribly desecrated about 100 years ago, it was enclosed with an iron fence.

Suddenly the task of finding Elisha and Ruth Whitaker was not as important as attempting to reclaim this piece of sacred ground where not only they were likely buried but their family, friends, neighbors and children.

Unearthing

There are no burial records or documentation of remains being moved from the cemetery, and there are many sunken graves visible. Early evidence of the existence of the cemetery is well documented on published 1860 and 1881 maps of Hancock County, as we later discovered.

The proximity of the cemetery to a municipal building on the 1860 map leads me to believe this cemetery was possibly the original community or common burial location in the town and may possibly be one of the original burial locations for Plantation No. 1 or, as it is alternately known, “Thornbury Plantation” or “Thorndike Plantation.”

We are in the process of identifying individuals who may be interred in the cemetery through a thorough review of available town death notices in the local newspaper, information recorded on the 1860 and 1881 maps and U.S. Census records. It is sad to see the suffering and death endured by the young families and children.

Trying to identify the dead is a long, tedious process, but it is a labor of love and may provide relief to people looking for lost ancestors who lived in this area. If anyone is looking for their long-lost relatives, they are welcome to contact Bob Whittaker at 401-568-8447 or rwhittaker1@verizon.net, or Patti Leland at 266-6186 or pleland57@yahoo.com.

Desecration

There are many disturbing stories about the cemetery.

Approximately 100 years ago, the land that the cemetery is located on was purchased for the purpose of turning it into a hayfield. All visible grave stones and markers were removed and discarded. The cemetery was plowed for growing hay around 1914, according to Leland.

There are old stories of fishermen dumping gravestones from the cemetery site onto a dirt road leading to nearby Jordan River for traction in the mud. This dirt road is diagonally across Bar Harbor Road from the cemetery.

The cemetery is the third largest in town. It has a 140-foot frontage on Bar Harbor Road and extends back at least 110 feet. The cemetery is set back from Bar Harbor Road about 150 feet — behind a densely wooded frontage.

There is no established road or path. The only way in is by foot, first crossing a small, wet marsh and then descending into a 15-foot gully, crossing a small stream and then ascending out of the gully to the cemetery.

During our initial visit, my cousin Bob and I used the south and east sides as guides and set up a rectangular boundary. We marked the boundary with reinforced caution tape to set up the area for clearing (brush and small trees) and to establish a starting point to probe for any evidence of fallen grave stones and markers that would have escaped the farmer’s plow.

Maine law allows for descendants to access burial lots, and the owners of the property have approved our access.

Over the course of the last two years, we have been able to cut down all undesirable trees and underbrush in the cemetery with our newfound cousin Daryl Whitaker, who is an experienced lumberjack. We have now cleared the way for more extensive gravestone probing.

Last spring we had two additional cousins join us over a long weekend to work in the cemetery. They traveled from the West Coast to help. Sarah Vining of Washington state and her sister Lynn Esola of California, my second cousins whom I had never met, came to lend a loving, helping hand.

The dead

During our exploring for graves on that spring visit, we discovered numerous gravestone fragments, bases, and the broken but legible gravestone of William Norris, who died April 21, 1872. We later found Norris’ pension records and discovered he was a veteran of the War of 1812.

I was given the honor of placing the U.S. flag on his grave once we were able to prove his service. Being a veteran of the U.S. Army, it was a very moving experience for me. We since have uncovered the high probability of a Revolutionary War veteran in the cemetery.

We would like to potentially use a different method to find gravestones. We have been trying to find a forensic survey resource with underground survey capabilities that could evaluate the area without disturbing the graves. We are continuing with the clearing and probing process since this is the only option open to us at the present time.

We also have a desperate need for a volunteer with deed- and title-search experience to research the cemetery property for evidence of a right-of-way or easement to the cemetery.

We have not found the graves of Elisha and Ruth Whitaker and probably never will. But in our hearts, we know they are buried in the “cemetery of unknowns” because their property was in the proximity of the cemetery.

Our objectives for the cemetery now are to determine the actual physical size of the cemetery, determine the total number of burials, and establish the approximate age of the cemetery. We have developed a probable list of almost 30 individuals buried there.

This year we have planned two trips to the cemetery: one on Memorial Day weekend and another in the summer. We are also in the process of planning a consecration and dedication of this sacred ground.

Our work will continue until we are no longer physically able to travel to this site. By identifying our ancestors and the so-far unknown dead, we hope to raise awareness among landowners, town officials, residents of Trenton and the state of Maine, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, so this land will be preserved forever and cared for as a cemetery of local civilians and United States military veterans.

Bob Whittaker lives in Chepachet, Rhode Island. He and his wife, Lois, have three grown children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He served in the U.S. Army, Army National Guard and Air National Guard. His civilian occupation was as a quality assurance manager with a division of Northrop-Grumman Corp. He is now retired and doing extensive work on his family history.

 

More slideshows

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business