Who was Elias Bowman Sr. and what was he doing in the community around Jonesborough in the 1800s?
Those are exactly the sort of questions Jerome Cohan and his family have been wondering ever since they stumbled upon a whole family of headstones seemingly related to the mysterious patriarch.
The Cohan family, including Cohan’s wife, Bettina, and their children, Shealy, Reily and Wyatt, frequent the track area behind the Leesburg Ruritan Club, which is surrounded by brush and farm land.
The family had never noticed the scattered stones beneath the tree until this past fall, when Shealy pointed out that one of the stones near their walking path had inscriptions on it.
“I walked over there and come to find out that they were very old headstones from like the early 1800s, late 1800s and that there was a 2-year-old buried there, and of course, that sparked Shealy’s interest,” Cohan said.
The burial plots were found to not be part of Ruritan land, but rather they sat on a local farmer’s land to the left of the club house.
The Cohans put some thought into it before jumping to their next move.
“We came home, we kind of had a family meeting about it and walked up here together, walked around it and said ‘Yeah, we’ve definitely got to pay respects to these folks and get this cleaned up,’ ” he said.
Cohan said he did some research on cemetery and burial law in Tennessee and found that the first step was contacting the property owners about the burial site, which didn’t pose a problem as they gave him the go ahead to work and take ownership of the cemetery land.
“According to the law, you have to have public easement in order to pay respect to the dead, or at the owner’s expense, they have to exhume the bodies, remove them and provide another burial ground for them in a respectful manner. Of course, that’s pretty costly,” he said.
Cohan paid to have an electric fence put up, hoping to keep cows and other animals out of the burial area, as well as made a sign telling passers-by that a grave restoration was in progress and providing contact information.
So far the family has found 18 headstones in all, 10 marked with names and dates, four assumed to be children’s graves with just initials, and four unlabeled field stones.
The oldest marked headstone was Bowman’s that showed he died in 1829 when he was 83 years old. Doing the math, Bowman was born in 1746, which means he lived through the Revolutionary War era.
While a lot of the stones have information as far as dates and names, Cohan said they would really like to know stories and information on the family.
“It would be nice if anybody out there who was familiar with this family, had any old photos of the cemetery ... to be able to put the headstones back into their original locations,” Cohan said.
Information on cleaning the stones also would be helpful for the Cohan family as they try to tidy up and reposition the stones back to their rightful places.
“I’ve looked at some stuff online and some people have some little polishing tools and this kind of stuff, so I’m not really sure what’s available to be able to restore the headstones,” he said.
The Cohans said a little further down the line they would like to put a wooden, country-style fence around the cemetery grounds, with possibly a plaque showing those buried there.
“As far as I’m concerned, you should respect neighbors’ past, present and future. I mean, they’re still our neighbors even though they walked this ground a couple hundred years ago,” Cohan said. “It’s kind of like a nice Appalachian cultural thing that doesn’t need to disappear.”
He said not only is this project something he likes to do, he hopes it will help his kids understand the importance of honoring those who have passed.
“We’re also trying to teach our kids that, you know, the way you pay respect to the dead is a reflection of how you treat the living,” he said. “In my opinion, the dead should be treated just as the living and hopefully 200 years from now somebody’s looking after my burial site.”
While many have inquired about the gravesite, to Cohan’s knowledge, no one’s ever taken the initiative to fix it up.
“Apparently everyone’s talked about doing something, but no one’s ever done it,” he said. “Life’s busy, but life’s not that busy to where you can’t stop and do something that’s right.”
Cohan said anyone willing to help donate their time, materials or information on the family or on gravesite maintenance would be appreciated. Monetary donations are also accepted, and Cohan said he would even provide receipts for those who decide to help out with any costs.
The Cohans have set up eliasâ€‰ firstname.lastname@example.org â€‰ for anyone that may be able to provide information or want information on what they are doing as far as restoration efforts. Cohan can also be reached at 943-6266.