Rutherford County, TN Historic Cemetery Survey

by Bethany Hall, GISP

Rutherford County Historic Cemetery Online Map and Search

Bradley Creek Baptist Church Cemetery, 8505 Bradley Creek Road, Milton, TN (Rutherford county Archive)
Bradley Creek Baptist Church Cemetery, 8505 Bradley Creek Road, Milton, TN (Rutherford county Archive)

Rutherford Co. Historic Cemetery Survey Form:

“Forgotten Place, Living Traditions” story map tour

In 2014, the Rutherford Co. Archives teamed with Rutherford Co.’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Departments, MTSU Center for Historic Preservation, and Bradley Academy Museum to complete the Historic Rutherford Co. Cemetery Survey. While most of the county’s burial places were surveyed in the 1970s by Mr. Steve Cates, Mr. Ernie Johns, and the Rutherford Co. Historical Society, it was decided to bring this data into the digital age.  At the time of the original survey around 800 cemeteries were documented within Rutherford Co.’s Historical Society’s Cemetery Book.  Using this book as a guide, GIS began piecing together the County’s cemetery locations and communities.

Technology and social media outreach along with word of mouth advertising became essential to spreading the message that Archives and GIS were searching for cemeteries.  The research phase of the project began by using historic aerial imagery, 40 year old tax maps, parcel data, USGS topographical maps and ESRI’s ArcMap for Desktop and ArcGIS Online to begin trying to located known cemeteries.  As word spread with the community, an informational page on Archive’s website with an online cemetery submission form was added and citizens began submitting
cemetery names and locations online.

Using ArcGIS Online as our field mapping solution, we created a service on ArcGIS server for our cemetery points with attachments and loaded the free Collector App to two iPhone 5s and started hunting.  GIS became crucial as attempts to locate long forgotten historic settlements and cemeteries began to be discovered through research while information from citizens continued to flow into the project.  As the botts on the ground physical mapping portion of the project started, it became apparent a team of two dedicated people were needed to map the cemeteries.  The team consisted of one PhD candidate from MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation office and a part-time employee from GIS.  With the team formed and trained, they hit the ground running, after the first hard frost, working two days a week.  The team’s goal was to map a cemetery’s GPS position and take several photographs while documenting the nearest address, street name, parcel ownership information, the USGS quadrangle name, and the race of the cemetery’s occupants, if know.  Information poured in from all over the County and it took a little over 18 months to collect GPS and photographic data of 722 cemeteries.  The team met with multiple landowners, was chased by a group of bovines, encountered curious horses and donkeys, several snakes, the occasional tick and chigger, all the while hiking the remote regions of Rutherford County searching for cemeteries.  The field work proved to be the most rewarding aspect of the project as Rutherford County’s historic communities and cemeteries revealed long forgotten names, places and old stories emerged.  The team returned to the office on many occasions with a story about encountering something exciting or someone knowledgeable of a lost cemetery.

The project produced several deliverables.  These included a published driving tour brochure and a digital brochure presented in storyboard format of the 50 most interesting cemeteries documented along with a searchable website of all 722 documented cemeteries with photographs hosted on Rutherford County’s ArcGIS server.

Although the majority of the work has been completed, the survey will continue as an ongoing project.  The goal of the Rutherford County Historic Cemetery Survey was to digitally map and record all cemeteries in our county, no matter how small, so we will be better informed about these important sites.  All information gathered will be available to the general public via the Rutherford County website and shared internally with other Rutherford County agencies for informational purposes.  A secondary goal of this ongoing cemetery capture effort is to have a template for other agencies to follow that would allow them to conduct their own surveys, utilizing the same methods and software used by Rutherford County, By taking on this project we feel that our cemeteries are extremely important to our community, future planning endeavors, history and heritage.

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