Mae Clair: Old Cemeteries & Princess White Feather

I picked up several habits from my parents, including my love of reading and writing, and a rather strange one from my father. He liked to explore old cemeteries and make etchings of tombstones. I thought that was an odd habit to have, but as early as my tween years, I was poking around the local cemetery in the town where I grew up.

My father had traveled all over the country when he was younger, leading a nomadic existence even before joining the army at the start of WWII. Family genealogy says he hoboed around on trains, went to art college, and taught at an Army War Barracks. I know the last two are true, I’m not so sure about the first. My father’s life, prior to meeting my mother, is a bit of a mystery — one he never made any great effort to clarify. Although he died when I was a child, I inherited his love of words, history, and that strange passion for old cemeteries and churches.

As a kid, I remember an old white church on a hill with a cemetery dating back to the 1700s. It was sheltered by trees and wrapped in a hush that felt positively ancient. A friend and I used to ride our bikes there to look at tombstones. Many had birthdates that pre-dated the American Revolutionary War, including that of Thomas Lingle, born in 1742. Lingle was a private with the Pennsylvania Volunteers during the Revolution, and eventually founded the town of St. Thomas.

Yet the gravestone that stayed in the forefront of my memory throughout the years belonged to an Indian Princess named White Feather. It was a small, wind-pitted stone, tucked at the back of the cemetery beneath a row of trees. As an adult I searched for it again, many years ago. It was still where I remembered, but the inscription had faded with time, barely legible.

I did a little research on Princess White Feather and learned she was a Sioux, only a baby when her People were killed in an army massacre. Her uncle was Chief Iron Tail whose likeness appeared on the U.S. nickel, her second cousin Sitting Bull. She had other names later in life — Mary Greene, Mary Redd, Mary Taylor – but to me she’ll always be Princess White Feather. According to one obituary, more than 500 people, including many Native Americans, attended her funeral services.

I was spinning stories long before I stumbled over her tombstone with my friend, but I will never forget the feeling I had standing in that cemetery as a child, looking down at her grave. It made me wonder who she was, what her life had been like, and how she’d come to be buried there. It was the first time I felt a strong affinity for the past and, although my friend and I rode our bikes home without knowing the answers, I was already writing versions in my head.

Just for the record, I still like to scope out old cemeteries. Although some may view it a morbid hobby, it makes me value the lives of those who came before me, including the obstacles they faced and the wisdom they shared.

What about you? Would you poke around an old cemetery or does the idea of reading tombstones make you uneasy?

For more on Princess White Feather, you can find two obituaries celebrating her remarkable life here.

24 thoughts on “Mae Clair: Old Cemeteries & Princess White Feather

  1. Another thing we have in common Mae…one of our parents enjoys strolling thru cemeteries! My mom has always been fascinated by the history of the cemetery and the lives of the people buried there. We’ve visited one from the 1600’s. Our ancestor has a church and cemetery named after him..He purchased the land in the 1700,s for that purpose, and his son erected the church and cemetery in the 1830’s..We’re “dying” to visit…NO pun intended! I just wanna stroll thru, thank you, and walk back to my car.
    Thank for the interesting article!

    • Wow! How very, very cool that sounds! I’ve heard of families that have cemeteries and churches named and/or built for them but never actually came across one. If I were you, I’d have to take a stroll through too. What a fascinating story!

  2. Beautifully written. I know I spend a great deal of my travels wandering through old cemeteries and little church graveyards. Some of the stories on tombstones are more poignant than anything written in a book. They stick with me long after I have forgotten the brochure copy about the next town down the road. We are grateful that you found the story of Princess White Feather, then pursued it. It is worth remembering.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Caleb. I feel the same way about old cemeteries and little church graveyards and how the stories on the stones write their own on our hearts. There’s sadness but also joy for lives lived. Thanks so much for commenting!

  3. Mae, another wonderful post — I love reading each one. I’ve always been a little skittish about cemeteries, at least modern ones. LOL I love the old ones like you’ve described, though, and in New England, there are plenty of them here. There’s something less scary about those slate headstones. I’m not sure why! I love genealogy and have done a lot of research on my family tree, which goes back to the colonial times and even the Mayflower. That may explain why I find all of this so fascinating!

    • I prefer exploring old cemeteries too, Donna. Maybe it’s because the newer ones feel too “real.” I guess it’s easier to view mortality when you place it in the perscpective of centuries past.

      I would love to do more with my family genealogy. I have the family tree back on so far but would love to explore further. One of these days! How very cool that you’ve been able to trace yours back so far. WOW! I love that stuff!

  4. That is so interesting about Princess White Feather. I find the past fascinating as well but never even thought to look and ponder in the cemeteries. I can’t say I’ve been in one for quite awhile. Great post Mae!

    • Thanks, L.J. I’ve dragged my husband through several. If I ever get up to the New England area, I know I’ll be dragging him through several more, LOL. I’ve been to Lexington and Concord and Salem but I’d love to poke around in Maine.

  5. I haven’t done it since I was a teenager, but I used to love exploring old cemeteries. I remember being on holiday by a beach one year and found an old graveyard and a ramshackle church. The church was missing its roof and windows and oddly enough, there were headstones inside where the pews should be. They were so old the engravings had faded away but I remember feeling a sense of the mystical about the place.
    Did you end up writing about White Feather?

    • I never did end up writing about White Feather, Emma, but I’ve NEVER forgotten her. She’s one of the strongest memories of my childhood. I actually have a story that revolves around a graveyard and, I think, if I ever set it to paper Princess White Feather (maybe with a different name) will have a starring role.

      What a great story about that odd and mysterious church you discovered. The idea of headstones where the pews should be inspires goosebumps and mystery in equal measure! Wow! I loved hearing about your experience!

      • Princess White Feather was indeed a wonderful person. Her son raised me telling me the wonderul story of his mother. I never met my great- grandmother whom my mother told me I would have loved her dearly. Thank you for writing about her

      • Hello, Rosa. So excited you dropped by and checked out my post. I’m stunned and honored to have the great-granddaughter of Princess White Feather on my blog. You have no idea how many times I visited her grave as a kid, again as an adult. She has always retained a strong place in my memory and, from what I’ve read about her, she was an amazing woman. You must be so proud! When I think of Linglestown, Princess White Feather is part of its history fo rme.

        Thank you so much for commenting on my post!

  6. I don’t go to cemetaries often, mostly because I haven’t yet visited my brothers’ graves since they’ve been put to rest and something inside me feels like I should probably see them before I go there for purposes other than burying a loved one. For me it’s hard because there was so much loss at such an early age that I stay away to shield myself.

    However…I do have a fascination with tombstones people find and post online. I think the history behind it all is very cool. I love your story about Princess White Feather. I had a teacher that used to hunt for famous graves. I thought that was pretty neat as well. Maybe one day I’ll be able to bring myself to go in. But first, I think I’ll probably have to visit my brothers.

    • It’s definitely a strange balnce, Kitt. I lost my father when I was very young but I have probably only visited his grave a handful of times since his passing. The last was probably over 20 years ago. He isn’t there for me. His spirit is elsewhere.

      Old tombstones and cemeteries are different for some reason. Maybe because I don’t have a connection to them. I have no problem walking through them and thinking about all those exceptional lives and wondering how they viewed the world. It’s kind of like a celebration of life rather than death. Very weird. I can’t explain it.
      Then again. I’ve always been a bit bizarre 😉

      Wishing you peace!

      • I don’t think you’re bizarre at all. I do, however, blame you for my nervousness on my way home tonight from my writers group…LOL! There was a huge lightening storm in the direction I was heading and all I could think of was lightening balls. I kept hoping not to see one because I didn’t want to do any impromptu time traveling.

        As for my brothers…I know they’re not there. But I’ve never seen one brother’s gravesite because he died overseas and was transported back while we were still there. He was buried at a military cemetery. The other one I haven’t been to since we put him to rest. Once I go back and know their sites are ok, I think I’ll be better able to do those things.

      • Glad to hear you made it through that nasty storm safely. I wouldn’t want you ending up in 1863 or 149 years in the future like Caleb!

        Losing two brothers must have been devastating. I’m not sure I’d be able to visit their gravesites either.
        Hearing you talk about a writer’s group makes me realize how much I miss that local connection. That’s something I really have to work on *wistful sigh*

  7. Hi Mae,
    My mom and I, as part of our genealogy research, find deceased relatives and friends of theirs burial sites. It’s most times recorded on their death certificates. We visit them where they are buried and like your dad, I like to do rubbings of their tombstones. Great post!

    • Wow, how fantastic – – you actually do rubbings! I imagine it has to be fascinating visiting burial sites and learning about your past and genealogy. Very cool that it’s something you can share with your mom. I could book entire day-trips around an adventure/excursion like that. Good for you!

  8. I, too, find old cemeteries fascinating. Oddly, so do my children — in particular the 9 and 12yo boys. We love walking through the old ones in particular. I enjoyed this post, Mae!

  9. I just went to visit Princess White Feather at the cemetery on my way through town to Pittsburgh. What a beautiful place -calm and serene under the trees.. my kids and I enjoyed our visit with her. I love old cemeteries because they remind us of those before and the trials they must have had so that we can benefit now. I wish I knew more of her story because it seems so inspirational.

    • Hi, Linda. Thanks for visiting my blog. It is a beautiful cemetery isn’t it, and her spot is so lovely tucked back by the trees. I’m glad you and your kids had a chance to see it.

      Like you, I love learning about people who shaped the past. Cemeteries are an ideal place to ruminate about those who came before us. It makes me want to learn more about how they lived.

      The Church associated with Wenrich Cemetery has a lot of genealogy research available, much of it online. If you Google St. Thomas Church in Linglestown, you should find a lot to interest you! 🙂

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