Hezekiah Stites’ tombstone identifies him as a pioneer of the West who landed at Columbia in 1788. The inscription reads ãIn perilous times he ventured forth to tame the forest and till the earth.
The tombstone is in the Pioneer Cemetery on Wilmer Avenue, across from Lunken Airport in Columbia Tusculum. It marks the grave of a man who was a soldier in the American Revolution, a militia man in the Ohio Indian wars and, in his later years, a Baptist minister. He died in December 1842, aged 81 years, three months and 25 days.
A few hundred yards south is another pioneer cemetery. Here lies William Brown, a sergeant in the American Revolution and the first American soldier to be awarded a Purple Heart. A memorial headstone to William Brown was installed at Pioneer Cemetery in 2004. Pioneer was chosen because of it’s greater public visibility.
But unlike Hezekiah Stites, William Brown’s grave is lost under weeds and rubble and cannot be found. There are no gravestones visible, wrote Enquirer reporter Edwin Henderson about the site in 1922. And today, any surviving gravestones are shattered fragments scattered through the undergrowth, though there are several stones in fairly complete condition.
Old graveyards preserve history. The Cincinnati Historical Society has lists of names on tombstones in these and other early cemeteries, recorded in the early years of the century. Some, like Pioneer Cemetery, remain. Others are gone forever.
“In looking for historical significance, it’s important to know where people are buried” says genealogist Nancy Foster of Sharonville. “And you need to see who is buried around them because families are often buried in groups.”
“The lists (historic records) are important,” she says, “but you have to go to the cemeteries and see for yourself.”
“Sometimes you have to poke in the ground with a stick to find a fallen headstone and dig it out,” Ms. Foster says. “The fallen ones are often easier to read than the standing ones, because the lettering has not weathered as badly.”
People have searched for William Brown’s grave, but it has not been found.
“It’s probably lost,” Ms. Foster says. “Many of the early graves didn’t have any markers at all. Some had wooden markers that rotted away.”
The Pioneer Cemetery on Wilmer Avenue, the old Turkey Bottom Road, is one of the region’s most important historic sites. It is officially the Columbia Baptist Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the Miami Purchase (the land between the Little and Great Miami rivers), dating to 1790.
The first settlers to arrive in this area, led by Benjamin Stites, landed near the spot in November 1788. Many of them are buried here, including Benjamin’s brother, Hezekiah, the first to scout the land, and RachelKibby, Benjamin’s daughter, the first non-Indian child to set foot on land here. She led an adventurous life, following her husband Ephraim Kibby as he joined Daniel Boone moving west. She died in 1864 at age 84 and was one of the last people buried in the old cemetery.
The Pioneer Memorial Cemetery is well maintained by the Cincinnati Park Board. The grass is regularly mowed. The headstones have been repaired and a garden of early American flowers has been planted near the entrance.
The forgotten section is the Columbia Presbyterian Cemetery, which dates to 1795. It is in fact two cemeteries, having been combined with the Fulton Mechanic[k]’s Cemetery, where the people who lived in the village of Fulton were buried. Most of Cincinnati’s steamboat building yards were located in Fulton, the area between Columbia Avenue (Columbia Parkway) and the Ohio River, along Fulton Avenue (now Eastern Avenue) extending about three miles east from downtown. The name survived as the neighborhood designation into the 1950s.
The burials in the two cemeteries date from the 1790s to the 1860s. The churches they served moved away from Columbia in the early years of the 19th century, driven to higher ground by Ohio River floods.
Both the Baptists and the Presbyterians built churches on the Duck Creek, near Edwards Road in Norwood. The Presbyterians moved again to Pleasant Ridge, while the Baptists started the Hyde Park Baptist Church, which has the oldest continuous congregation in the Northwest Territory. An entry in the minutes of the Duck Creek Baptist Church in 1828 reads that the members passed a resolution to attend to the Baptist burial ground at Columbia.
In the 1830s, the Little Miami Railroad cut a path through the two cemeteries (The railroad took land from neither of the cemeteries as it followed an old roadway). However, millionaire Nicholas Longworth purchased all the surrounding land for vineyards, making the graveyards almost inaccessible.
But when one of the first settlers died, he or she was often buried in one of the old cemeteries at Turkey Bottom. During the Civil War in the 1860s, many Union soldiers were buried in the Baptist cemetery.
Stories of vandalism and neglect at these two cemeteries have appeared frequently in Cincinnati newspapers since the early days of this century. Efforts to preserve them date back more than a century.
Though the site has endured times of neglect, it has been in much better condition in recent years.
With thanks to Bart Rosenberg
The Pioneer Cemetery has been known as an archaeological site since 1958, when evidence was discovered that the terrace upon which the cemetery lies was once a Native American village site. Due to the presence of the cemetery, no excavation has ever been conducted.
The cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places under its historic name, Columbia Baptist Cemetery.
Here’s a video tour of the site with captions: