A Family History Mystery, Cont'd
by Amy Williamson Jonak, Wallace Room Volunteer
I can’t say what Evelyn Williamson, my Granny, knew about Everett Williamson that day as she stood among the shattered caskets at the construction site of I-64. I do remember, however, days from my 1960s childhood when she and my Mom (Mary Williamson) sat at our dining room table, heads bowed, reading and typing. Granny slowly read a sentence from a small brown book. Tick, tick, tick, Mom typed loudly on a bulky gray metal typewriter, over and over again.
Ten years later it became clear what had captivated the women. A folder of hand-typed pages, copied from a diary, surfaced at Granny’s house: the Diary of Everett Williamson, May 1864-August 1865 and April 1882- April 1888. Everett’s words from the 1860s, now neatly typed, told of the weather, Confederate camp activities, deprivations and troop movements:
June 4, 1864, Fair…. about 8 o’clock at night a very severe shelling occurred in which my wagon & myself was very much exposed, but by the interposition of a mercifull & kind providence, I Came out unhurt. Human skeletons & bones lay strowed around thick in the woods in which we are encamped…. the immortal spot where Genl Jackson made the Celebrated flank attack upon the enemy….
Everett’s life began to take shape. On April 22, 1861, he mustered into the 41st Virginia Infantry, Company F. Company F, known earlier as the Norfolk County Rifle Patriots, was led by William H. Etheredge of Norfolk County. The company served at the Portsmouth shipyard, and saw action in the Battle of the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, among others.1 April 8, 1865, Everett was captured near Farmville, Virginia—the day before General Lee surrendered. Everett made it home to Norfolk County April 20, 1865:
…although every thing upon the road was in a very dilapidated Condition yet they look natural & when…in view of my own dear home it Seem quit[e] homely although it had been three long years since I had seen it when I arrived at home there I met my beloved wife, my dear mother & sisters it was a happy meeting. I felt that I was once more by the help of God Safely ensconced at home….
In addition to leaving a diary, Everett also recorded family milestones in a Bible. There he wrote of his marriage to Phelia McCoy Etheredge July 15, 1847, and of their three children. Little Bettie only lived five months. George Caleb made it to five-and-a-half, until he died in 1862. Mary, the oldest, also died in 1862 at eleven-and-a-half. None of his children survived to welcome him home from the war.
Reconstruction took a heavy toll on Everett and Phelia. Debts piled up. In 1881, Phelia died, leaving Everett alone, except for his sisters. By October 1886, Everett was forced to sell his farm and other property to pay his creditors. He gathered enough money to build a small house in Berkley in 1887, where he passed his last days.
The final item in the diary was a newspaper clipping that read, “WILLIAMSON – This morning at 7 o’clock, after a short illness, at his residence in Berkley, EVERETT WILLIAMSON, aged 65 years. Funeral will take place from the Chestnut Street M.E. Church, Berkley, Tomorrow at 2:30 P.M. Friends and acquaintances invited.” No date was included. Who “finished” Everett’s diary for him? Where are his original diaries now? And, where are his final remains?
1 William D. Henderson, The Virginia Regimental Histories Series: 41st Virginia Infantry (Lynchburg, Virginia: H.E. Howard, Inc., 1986), 2-17, 39-70, 148.
Records show Everett and Phelia Williamson are broken branch ancestors. None of their children survived to carry on their family line. Whether it was the appearance of Everett’s crumbling casket or his diaries that brought the man to the attention of his distant nieces and nephews, we’ll never know. But there were clues to his resting place.
In 1993, Evelyn Byrd Williamson passed away along with her knowledge of Everett. Boxes of her papers and books ended up in my hands. Flipping through Tombstone Inscriptions of Norfolk County Virginia, a listing on page 107 read:
LOCATION: Cemetery on the Farm of B.H. Darden – Great Bridge Road – In path of new road. Note: Some bodies moved to Brookhill Memorial Gardens
Everett Williamson/Born 1823/Died 1888; Phelia Williamson/Died Aug. 12, 1881; George Williamson/Age 5 years; Caleb McCoy (dates obliterated); Mary/Daughter of/ Everette & Phelia/ Williamson/ Died of Scarlet Fever/ Feb. 26, 1862/Age 11 years.
Cursory research at the Wallace History Room didn’t locate Darden Farm. Brookhill Memorial Gardens’ ad in the 1963 telephone directory (remember yellow pages?) listed its address as “Great Bridge.” The phone number didn’t work. Dead end.
“I think they buried Everett off of Back Road,” Porter Williamson (my dad) mentioned one day several years after Evelyn died, “want to go look?” Twenty minutes later, we stepped out of his minivan parked on the side of Back Road near Great Bridge. I’d driven past the cemetery dozens of time. It was most famous for its lonely “haunted” Jesus statue. The grass was tall; the day was warm. We walked west or north, away from the road, about 50 yards. We stopped at a spot where the ground was uneven, mounded slightly in places. Porter searched the grass. Finally he located a small metal sign (a foot plate?) with a name on it. It didn’t say Everett Williamson, but it did it hold a name I recognized, perhaps Caleb McCoy. Was this it? Was this Everett’s grave?
More than 10 years went by before I met Chesapeake’s cemetery guru, Jean Spencer. She explained that Brookhill was the name of a bankrupt cemetery on Back Road. However, she said, the bodies there had been moved to Chesapeake Memorial Gardens (CMG) on Cedar Road. (Everett seemed to do more traveling dead than alive.) I searched Chesapeake Memorial Gardens on foot. No sign of Everett.
With time to kill one day in 2015, I wandered into Hollomon-Brown, the funeral home next to CMG. I told them Everett’s tale. Dana Dekker graciously took the time to pull the fat, old Brookhill file and explain what had happened to the graves in Brookhill. Deep within the papers was a 1965 letter from the general manager of Brookhill Memorial Gardens confirming the reinternment of remains transferred for the State. “George Williamson” and “Everett Williamson” were named in the letter. Another list of reinternments for the State included Halsteads, Bishops and a Randolph. Although nearly all the remains had been moved from the Brookhill/Back Road site since 1965, Everett’s were still there, plot 80D in a section called “Garden of Faith.”
A return visit to Back Road looked entirely different. The grave markers were gone! The Jesus statue was gone. All that was left was a green meadow – and lots of houses very close to the spot Porter pointed out nearly 20 years earlier. I walked the site in summer, fall and spring looking for some evidence of Everett’s grave. No luck.
A few years later, Kay Ziegler set up a meeting with Dana Dekker and the NCHSC cemetery volunteers and invited me. Dana showed us the Brookhill documents I’d seen before and some additional maps. I also learned there were a few headstones, laid flat, near a tree. When I drove to the meadow off Back Road, the stones were resting flat in the shade, just as described. They belonged to the Halsteads, Everett’s “next door” neighbors in the defunct cemetery’s Garden of Faith. That meant Everett was most likely somewhere nearby. So this is the answer. This might be as close as I can get to finding Everett… until somebody lends us ground-penetrating radar.
Unlike mysteries in novels or on TV, real life rarely hands us all the answers. We may never know who clipped Everett’s obituary and taped it in his diary or where his original diaries are now. It drives family historians nuts but we learn to become comfortable with curiosity.
Forty years ago, Norfolk County Historical Society volunteers created the book Tombstone Inscriptions of Norfolk County Virginia. Today, Jean Spencer, Kay Ziegler and many others comb the area for gravesites to add to NCHSC’s impressive database of burial sites. Without their skill and effort and the kind assistance of Dana Dekker at Hollomon-Brown, Everett would have been lost forever.