St. John Barned-Smith
LAKE JACKSON, Texas — The small cemetery is tucked away in a copse of trees at the northeastern tip of Brazos Mall. Concrete crosses are scattered about the site and tombstones once piled at the base of the plot’s thick live oak are kept in a secure place.
Documents identified the cemetery as Mt. Zion, linking it to a church that was active in the 1940s. The church, which sat just east across Texas 288, has long since been torn down and covered by suburban housing.
As new construction just a few feet outside the cemetery’s boundaries began recently, archaeologists found something intriguing: pre-Civil War remains of a person they believe may have been a slave from one of the county’s biggest sugar plantations, as well as evidence of several other unmarked graves.
Local historians and residents now are re-examining the origins of the cemetery site, which like much of the area sits on land that was once part of a well-known plantation owned by Abner Jackson, a Virginian who moved to Texas in the mid-1800s. Some have concluded the cemetery is the resting ground for slaves who worked Jackson’s plantation, and not their church-going descendants from a century later as had originally been believed.
Virtually no artifacts were found with the remains — no clothes, no coffin. Archaeologists hired by Brazos Mall management to monitor construction did find a handmade, square nail of the sort that they guessed to have been used in the 1800s. But they think the lack of clothes, which experts say might have been too valuable to bury when others could wear them, could be a clue in and of itself.
They also point to the placement of the grave, in a small strip of unusable land by a creek near the plantation’s slave quarters, as another clue.
A few yards away, archaeologists found more bone fragments, just below the surface, and evidence of two other “grave shafts,” holding bodies buried deeper in the ground.
Such cemeteries were common around Texas, which had more than 182,000 slaves by the outset of the Civil War, said Gene Preuss, a history professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. And sometimes, he said, a slave was buried with little fanfare, often without clothing.
“People who were servants, who were enslaved, kind of had to do things as they were allowed,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “If they didn’t have the resources to give someone the burial they would have wanted, they would have just buried them the way they could.”
For decades, the cemetery has been referred to as being part of the “Mt. Zion Church,” according to Harold Gaul, president of the Texas Historical Cemetery Guardianship Association, a Brazoria County-based group that tries to document and preserve historical cemeteries.
As Gaul explains it, some people believed the bodies at the cemetery near the mall were once interred near the church.
“That’s one theory, but so much is coming out, we don’t know the real story,” he said.
Mall officials, along with Johnney Pollan, an archaeologist with the Texas Archeological Society, said they believe they’ve come up with another possibility: a second cemetery lost for decades, which has been rediscovered. “It’s not beyond reason to think slaves died and were buried on the property,” Pollan said.
He said a 1943 Army Corps of Engineers map strengthens that theory. That map shows a cemetery next to Mt. Zion Church, as well as a cemetery at the tip of what is now the Brazos Mall. That cemetery could have held the remains of slaves from the Jackson Plantation, he said.
After the church was torn down and the gravestones from its cemetery were dumped in the plot by Brazos Mall, he thinks locals and historians could have come to imagine the two as one, he said.
Records label the mall’s cemetery as Mt. Zion Cemetery. Local historians think the people who named it mistook it for the cemetery near Mt. Zion Church.
“My guess is, over time, people literally forgot where the cemetery was,” Pollan said.
The existence of the cemetery surprised some. Mall officials, the site caretakers, said it was kept hidden by the wall of trees so that vandals wouldn’t desecrate the property. The dumped gravestones are safeguarded in the mall’s offices.
“I didn’t have any idea anything was back there until they showed me that map,” said 71-year-old Adrian Tracy.
Tracy, who has lived in the area since he was a child, remembers exploring Mt. Zion Church in the early ‘50s. He’d found it deserted, ramshackled and covered in soot after someone had tried to burn it down. He was aware of the area’s history of slavery, he said, recalling listening to stories from an elderly woman born on the plantation just a few years before the conclusion of the Civil War.
Robert Rule, executive director of the Lake Jackson Historical Association, said the conundrum was not uncommon, given the area’s history.
“Anywhere around here, there could be graves,” he said. “It’s one of those things ... it wasn’t all recorded. They’re making their best guess.”
Despite the findings, questions still remain about the Lake Jackson-area population before and after the plantation era, he said.
“The reason we know so much about the Lake Jackson Plantation is because it was investigated,” he said. “You can track who owned it, but not necessarily who lived there.”
When the Jackson Plantation was thriving, it was part of a regional economy that was powered by the work of slaves. Jackson grew sugar, corn and cotton on the plantation, which housed more than 200 slaves, said Pollan, the state archaeologist.
During the plantation’s heyday, Jackson was the second largest slave owner in Texas. But despite his success, his fortune soon crumbled. He died in 1861.
After the Civil War, Texas officials used the plantation as a prison facility for several decades, forcing convicts to work the land. — (AP)
A private company bought it and ran the plantation until about 1905, when a storm destroyed much of the machinery used to process sugar, Pollan said. A businessman then bought it and ran cattle on the property, before it was finally sold and developed.
Patty Sayes, general manager of Brazos Mall, said her hope was to landscape the area around the recently discovered graves, fence off the area and erect a marker detailing the recent findings.
“They were such a critical part of our society and our history — the plantations wouldn’t have functioned without them,” said Sayes. “They may not have been revered in their day, but we plan to honor and revere them.”
Preuss, the history professor, said the discovery and others like it are an important part of the town’s true history.
“When we find discoveries like this ... it helps remind us there are a lot of holes in the fabric of history,” he said, “and this helps to patch some of those gaps in history and helps remind us there is a bigger story than the one we learn in grade school.” — (AP)