Efforts underway to locate historic gravesites at Fort Pickett

A historic gravesite is marked off in a wooded area of Fort Pickett, Virginia. More than 100 gravesites were moved during the building of Fort Pickett in the 1940’s, and archeologists are trying to find them to ensure no remains were left behind. (Photo courtesy Christopher Parr)

FORT PICKETT, Va. — Archeologists, with the help of land records, technology and ground surveys, are attempting to locate hundreds of possible gravesites within the confines of Fort Pickett in an effort to determine if those sites still contain any human remains. 

In 1941, the United States government purchased more than 40,000 acres outside of Blackstone, Virginia, to build an Army training site, then called Camp Pickett. That land acquisition, which included parts of Nottoway, Dinwiddie and Brunswick Counties, saw the purchase of hundreds of homes and farm sites. Many of these sites contained cemeteries. 

According to research by Christopher Parr, the Virginia Army National Guard archeologist and collection manager, approximately 140 cemeteries were excavated and the remains they contained moved and re-interred at cemeteries outside of post boundaries. It was a big job handled quickly, with contractors eventually moving more than 3,000 sets of remains to separate locations, as it was still the segregation era. 

“A majority of the white graves ended up at Butterwood Church, and a lot of the African Americans ended up at a cemetery we refer to as the Gills Bridge Road cemetery,” said Parr.  

Because of the urgency of the World War II-era military training mission, the reburials happened quickly. Today, there is speculation that some of those sites may still contain remains. 

“Even though it is believed that these cemeteries were relocated, because of the speed at which it was done, thoroughness, et cetera, we are going to treat these as if people are in the cemeteries, so they will be off-limits to ground disturbance and other stuff,” said Parr. “We don’t want anyone digging finding anything until such time as we can more thoroughly investigate these areas and clear them.”

Parr explained that up until a couple of years ago, there were only piecemeal efforts to locate and mark the gravesites, with areas marked for timber harvest and other development being checked for tell-tale signs of former cemeteries, including obvious depressions in the earth. 

“Usually with the cemeteries removed, it’s quite traumatic. You’ll go out there and it looks like foxholes. Sometimes they’re only six inches deep, sometimes they can be knee-deep or more, where you see the grave shafts excavated out,” said Parr. “Sometimes in addition to the graves, you’ll find the remnants of walls or fences around them.”

Now, in the last couple of years, the Cultural Resources Program has focused on locating these former gravesites with a more systematic approach, using real estate and historical records to map-project possible cemetery sites for further exploration. 

“I divided the base up into zones, and we’ve been working with contractors to go out and hit one zone at a time,” said Parr. “Let’s just knock out all of these map-projected locations.”

However, it’s not as easy as just marking an area on a map and then walking straight to the location. Parr explained that many historical real estate records were lost in the Civil War. Some records they have only contain references to cemeteries on the property without saying an exact location. Even if a record does contain a map or a specified cemetery location, that doesn’t necessarily make finding it any easier. 

“Our guys are having to go out to these map-projected locations using GPS in the field and say okay, according to the military, there’s supposed to be a cemetery here,” explained Parr, who said some they have found have been several hundred meters from where the map projected the cemetery to exist. “If there’s nothing obvious, they just go around and around until they find it somewhere else or they are confident there’s just no sign of it.”

Once former cemetery sites are located, photos are taken and the area is marked off and documented to keep the area from being disturbed. 

“When units go out and apply for a dig permit, they are given the “no-go” zones with images to show them that these are the areas you’re not allowed to go into,” said Parr. 

Of the original 140 known cemeteries which were excavated in the 1940s, the Cultural Resources Program estimates only 119 are still on Fort Pickett property, as the base boundaries have changed since the original 1940s land acquisition. To date, they have located nearly 40, but not all of the located cemeteries match up to those original 119. 

“When it’s all said and done, hopefully we will have accounted for a lot of the cemeteries that were map projected, but we’ve been finding some recently just out in the middle of nowhere,” said Parr. “So even though we’ll be done, we’re never truly done. People have been dying out here for at least 12,000 years.”

Once the surveys of the map-projected cemetery locations are complete, which Parr expects in the next few months, the next phase will be to come up with a plan to check those locations to see if any remains still exist there. If the location is clear of remains, Parr said the goal is to then turn that land over for possible use for training or timber harvest. However, with the possibility of remains still at these sites until they can be fully investigated, Parr said this project is important on both a legal and moral level. 

“The not so warm-and-fuzzy answer is we’re obligated by law to take care of these resources, so this is just one of the things we’re supposed to do, and we’re going to get after it,” said Parr. “The warm and fuzzy is – these are our what I like to refer to as our permanent residents out here at Pickett. It’s just common human decency to let them lay. That’s kind of how I attack it.”

In the meantime, though it is unlikely, there is a plan in place in case any units training at Fort Pickett come across a possible gravesite. 

“If you’re out there training and digging fighting positions and you find remains, by all means, please stop what you are doing,” said Parr. “There’s a standard operation procedure in place for inadvertent discovery that range operations pushes out to all of the units. Just contact the fire desk and they’ll get you in contact with us.”