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.