Stroll through the monuments and shadows of the Fairview Cemetery in Van Buren, Arkansas, and you’ll find a series of historical headstones. Their rough-hewn faces weatherbeaten and their curved heads pocked, they’ve clearly stood the test of time—nearly two centuries, in fact. Most of these graves can be traced back to the early- to mid-nineteenth century, when the Thompson family, a group of pioneers, began to settle in the Van Buren region. But one grave stands apart.
Though aligned with the headstones of the Thompson family, similarities between the Mystery Grave of Van Buren and its neighbors end there. Whereas the cemetery’s other traditional graves have simple headstones with curved tops, the Mystery Grave consists of four slabs and worn stone, rising over a foot from the ground and enclosing a supposed burial plot. The headstone bears bygone markings, illegible runes that are still tangible to grazing fingers. Over the years, historians and locals alike have pondered the origins of the mysterious gravesite, and their answers abound, though none yet stand upon the firm ground of fact.
For a long time historians assumed the grave was a byproduct of Spanish exploration; a plaque even existed for many years, tacked forcibly into the grave’s foot, that explained the Spanish origins of the memorial. In 1542 Hernando de Soto led an expedition north through Arkansas, encountering friendly Native Americans and uncharted territory along the way. Historians speculated that when one of de Soto’s men perished upon the journey, his men constructed a grave in the soft Arkansas soil, memorializing the site with an enclosed grave. When pioneers began settling the area some 400 years later, they aligned their own graves with that of de Soto’s minion, creating the Fairview Cemetery that exists today. Unfortunately, this theory has a major flaw: de Soto never made it to Van Buren, or at least his exploration of the region is incredibly unlikely.
Other historians, namely Gloria Farley, claim the grave’s history reaches even further back in time, before de Soto and his Spanish jaunt through Arkansas. According to Farley’s research, Arkansas and Oklahoma hold vestiges of a Viking occupation early in the second millennium. The ancient grave could belong to a fallen Viking explorer whose comrades buried his remains in this then-unknown land. This hypothesis is unsurprisingly lacking in cold evidence and raises doubtful eyebrows from the majority of historians.
Still others point not toward Spanish or Viking adventurers, but to the French. La Salle’s expedition ventured through the Spanish-claimed lands of Arkansas in 1687. His French soldiers encountered various dangers, including hostile Native Americans, land-hungry Spaniards, and even their own compatriots. La Salle, despite his support from the king of France, proved almost inherently incompetent, losing himself and the majority of his party throughout the course of the expedition. Finally two soldiers, Duhault and Liotot, assassinated their inept leader. But according to some accounts, their traitorous decision proved even more deadly; some days later, the remaining soldiers purportedly murdered the recreant duo and buried them in a single grave—in Van Buren. The single, large headstone that stood at the top of the enclosed grave held two inscriptions that have since been weathered away by time.
Though it’s fun to reach through the annals of time for the most sensational story to explain the origins of the Mystery Grave, the most widely accepted theory is also the most conventional. There are a bevy of clues that point not toward the grave’s exceptional history but toward its mediocrity within the span of Southern grave sites—and even within the Fairview Cemetery itself. The grave is very clearly aligned with the headstones of the Thompsons, as mentioned above, leading some historians to believe it’s actually from a similar era. The memorial also runs from east to west, like most Christian gravesites, sweeping away theories of Viking origins. These same historians also note that the symbols carved into the headstone, though worn by weather and wind, resemble the compass and square of the Masonic symbol (though the symbol, if that is what it is, appears upside down, raising its own set of questions).
But perhaps most compelling is the presence of similar sites across the Southeast. Throughout the South you’ll find enclosed stone graves, four-sided and often lidded, most dating from the 1820’s. At the time pioneers and settlers would construct their multi-sided graves with stone or logs in order to keep out wandering varmints and even hogs. It’s possible that the Mystery Grave is no mystery at all but merely another traditional memorial in the cemetery’s lineup.
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