PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The unearthing begins with GPS mapping; with the logging of the latitude and longitude of each tombstone in 50 burial sites found in central Aroostook County. There are Irish cemeteries, Catholic cemeteries, small family plots, some with hard to decipher names and some large with more than 1,000 grave markers.
The tombstone clues — a name, a date, an inscription — serve as waypoints for exhaustive research that begins to breathe life into an untold history of The County. Many of the stories are found through church records, death certificates, ship logs, probate records and census data.
“We call it jumping down rabbit holes because we start with one lead and end up somewhere else,” University of Maine at Presque Isle History Professor Kimberly Sebold said. “Cemeteries can help teach history by focusing on the people in them and explaining how local, state and national events impacted them.”
Sebold’s work shows a layered narrative of community, relationships and the interconnectedness of the people who forged a path through a more rugged Maine. Through her project, History in Stones: Mapping Cemeteries to Teach the History of Central Aroostook County, eighth grade students will eventually learn their local history through interactive maps.
Last summer, Sebold gathered information from about 25 cemeteries and she plans to tackle mapping the larger cemeteries like Parish of the Precious Blood and St. Mary’s in Caribou this summer.
Along with local volunteer Marlene McEachern of Presque Isle and UMPI history students — Angela Wilkinson, Krista Lutrell, Rogue Reeves and work study student Hannah Rachel Brewer — Sebold excavates the tales buried in both large cemeteries and small family plots from Caribou in the north, to Blaine in the south, and from Mapleton in the west to Fort Fairfield in the east.
After the mapping comes the typing in of all the names and uploading photos of each marker before a spreadsheet is generated and then the detailed research begins.
A Zillman Family Professorship supports Sebold’s efforts to map the region’s cemeteries while collecting gravestone information. Additionally, a recently awarded $6,000 Maine Humanities Council Major Grant allows Sebold to hire summer researchers to assist in the data collection.
In the second phase of Sebold’s project, a curriculum will be developed and students will have access to an online interactive map for each cemetery. With a simple click on a grave marker, the story of the person unfolds, taking students deeper into these historical tales.
Sebold talks easily about previous times, about Irish settlers coming across Canada, about migrations from Southern Maine as farmers searched for new farmland, about those who came back to The County after the Aroostook War (1838 to 1839).
Take for example the story of Michael Russell, a native of County Tipperary, Ireland, who is buried in the First Saint Denis Cemetery on Caribou Road in Fort Fairfield.
Former UMPI student Krista Lutrell, who plans to continue her graduate work at University of Maine, Orono, in the Maine Studies program with Sebold, is researching the first Irish settlers of Fort Fairfield buried in what local residents call the Irish cemetery or the Old Saint Denis Cemetery.
Lutrell’s early research indicates that Michael Russell may have been the first Fort Fairfield settler, perhaps with one or two others. And she has placed him in the community somewhere between 1823 and 1827.
“That makes Michael Russell, a man from Tipperary County, the founding settler of Fort Fairfield,” Lutrell said.
Sebold explained that even though Maine became a state in 1820, the boundary between the United States and Canada was not defined until 1842 and the towns we know today were not formed until after the boundary was established.
Russell leaves Ireland and ends up in St. John, New Brunswick. From there, he received a tract of land somewhere between Perth and Great Falls. Russell never became a citizen, but his son did, according to Lutrell.
“When they moved here they really were pioneers, There were deep dense forests and if we think winter is hard here in Maine now, imagine what it was like 200 years ago,” she said, adding that even into the 1840s there were accounts of frost in July. “It really required a group effort to pull together and help each other … it’s not something where a husband and a wife just starting out could do on their own. They would be very reliant on having support of community members to make it happen.”
UMPI student Wilkinson has been piecing together the story of Benny Johnson, an African American landowner who lived in Fort Fairfield for about 37 years. Johnson is buried in Fort Fairfield’s Lovely Cemetery, a small family plot that sits back from Caribou Road on land formerly owned by the Lovely family.
“I think that we have found out quite a bit,” Wilkinson said. “It’s like if someone gives you a puzzle and the box only has 50 pieces and there’s supposed to be 100 pieces in it. We found all kinds of interesting things about him and we’re trying to piece together a timeline of sorts.”
Because of the time period — the mid-1800s — there are so many unknowns.
What they do know is that Johnson was from Alabama, he owned property in Fort Fairfield and lived there for nearly four decades, and he was about 78 when he died in 1921.
Johnson purchased his parcels in 1889 and 1891 from Firena Scott, a widow who was paralyzed and sent to the poorhouse. Scott, who is buried in Riverside Cemetery, and her two sons, lived with Johnson until her death in 1896.
A big mystery for the researchers is that Johnson willed his property to Cordelia Holton. But they have no idea why.
So much of Sebold’s work sparks new questions.
On Johnson’s grave marker it says he was a farm laborer for the Lovelys and the Redekers, but, if he owned property why was he a farm laborer, they ask. And who is Cordelia Holton?
“It’s important we capture the history,” Sebold said. “I like public history; it’s history for local people. This is probably my last 10 years of teaching and I wanted to go out with a bang. That’s what prompted me to do this work and do it in a way that the community could enjoy the work as much as those interested in the scholarly work.”