Many an old, Southern city have a rich cultural history, but rare is the one that has it so neatly packaged as the quaint little seaside town of Beaufort, North Carolina. As the third oldest town in the state, Beaufort has its fair share of stories to tell, and you can find many of them tucked in tight beneath the sandy soil of the Old Burying Ground. Shaded by the gnarled branches of wizened old oak trees, the cluster of weather-worn and lichen-spotted markers that make up the Old Burying Ground date back to the early eighteenth century, and their inscriptions serve as the unofficial who’s-who of Beaufort. From sea captains to war-heroes, star-crossed lovers to spies, those who found their final resting place in the Old Burying Ground tell the story of Beaufort, a place where history and legend muse and mingle, where the nameless are given their due, and where the rich depth of the town’s successes, failures, hopes, disappointments, and quirks are buried deep in the loamy earth.
Josiah Pender (1819–1864)
Confederates were legendary in their passion for the cause, but Captain Josiah Pender took enthusiasm to a whole new level. When he heard the news that rebel troops were laying siege to South Carolina’s Fort Sumter, Pender was worked into such a lather that he assembled his own band of seventeen soldiers, the “Beaufort Harbor Guard,” and led an assault on nearby Fort Macon—a month before North Carolina had officially seceded from the Union. Though the captain was relieved of duty for his rather preemptive enthusiasm, the fort was held in the name of the Confederacy for over a year afterwards.
Crissie Wright Common Grave (d. 1886)
Though the Southern shore is known for its temperate climate, every once in a while, it likes to throw a curve. Unfortunately for the crew of the Cressie Wright, such was the case on the night of January 7, 1866, when their ship ran aground during a winter squall off the notoriously dangerous coast of Carolina. Six of the crew froze or drowned: two of the bodies were lost at sea, one sent home to New Jersey, and three buried in a common grave in the Old Burying Ground. Only one man—Charles Tayt—survived.
James W. Hunt (1794–1848)
The day he marries, the day he makes his will, and the day he dies are three of the most important occasions in a man’s life, though few can claim the efficiency of James W. Hunt, a surgeon in the War of 1812, who experienced all three on the same day.
British Officer (1700’s)
Though the name of this officer of His Majesty’s Navy has been lost to time, his final wish—not to be “buried with his boots off”—has ensured that he has not been forgotten. The officer was interred not only with his boots on but dressed in full uniform and standing upright.
Captain Otway Burns (1785–1850)
One of North Carolina’s greatest naval heroes, Otway Burns volunteered his sailing expertise and his nimble, private ship, the Snap Dragon, to bolster the fledgling country’s meager navy during the War of 1812. Burns’s daring and skill quickly made him the stuff of legends: he sailed the eastern seaboard from South America to Nova Scotia in a series of Odyssean exploits, attacking British ships and returning to Beaufort with the spoils. He rests today beneath a cannon that once graced the Snap Dragon.
Nancy Manney French (1820–1886)
Charles Grafton Wilberton French came to Beaufort for a teaching job, but he found much more when he met the daughter of the town doctor, Nancy Manney French. Though the pair fell instantly in love, Nancy’s father staunchly opposed their union, and French, determined to earn a name worthy of Nancy’s hand, left Beaufort to pursue a degree in law. Unfortunately, the letters he sent promising his return never reached Nancy; her father had ordered that all correspondence between the two be intercepted and held, and it wasn’t until almost forty years later that French discovered the foul play. On a whim, the aging French contacted the Beaufort postmaster, who, eager to shed the guilt of Nancy’s decades of lovelorn unhappiness, confessed his crime and urged French to make his way to Beaufort as quickly as possible. French returned to find his love in her final days, dying of consumption. Reunited and redeemed, the lovers were finally married, though Nancy died less than two months later.
John Wise (1817–1879)
Though he married four times and fathered sixteen children, John Wise’s zeal for proliferation isn’t what put his name in the Beaufort history books. Apparently unimpressed by the town’s existing abodes, Wise floated into Beaufort on a barge with his family—and house—loaded aboard.
Girl in the Rum Barrel (1700’s)
Though the Old Burying Ground is no stranger to tales of tragedy, perhaps the tenderest of these is the legend of the Girl in the Rum Barrel. Desirous for his daughter to see her homeland, a Beaufort man persuaded his wife to allow him to take their young daughter to London. The wife, scared for her daughter’s safety, was resistant to the idea, but the father persisted, promising that he would return their daughter back to Beaufort. Though the ship they traveled upon proved to be sturdy and the weather mild, the girl contracted yellow fever on the return trip and perished. Though both tradition and safety mandated that anyone who died at sea (especially of what they then presumed to be an airborne disease) should be cast into the water, the father, remembering his promise, could not bring himself to abandon his daughter to the chilly depths of the ocean. He purchased a barrel of rum, hid the body of his daughter inside, and brought her home to be buried in Beaufort.
Special thanks to our friends at Hungry Town Tours in Beaufort for their painstaking research and documentation of these stories and many others.
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