By John L. Ross / Staff Writer
An historic cemetery in the Tri-County has been trampled, demolished and destroyed – by cattle.
Jennifer Gray, a resident and descendant of some of the dead buried at the J. B. Gatliff Cemetery near Rockholds, has been pushing to end this destruction; however, the cemetery continues to rapidly fall into ruin.
According to Gray, “The persons buried in the Gatliff-Farris Cemetery are descendants of Capt. Charles Gatliff (1748-1838) and John Esom Farris (1746-1827),” she said, adding “To my knowledge, my grandfather, John Isham Farris, spouse of Sarah Louise Gatliff (daughter of Capt. Charles Gatliff) was the first person buried in the cemetery – his date of death was May 23, 1841.”
The cemetery was apparently last used in the late 1920s.
“The most recent burials were those of Greenfield Gatliff, in December 1926, and Jane Gatliff, in March 1928,” Gray said.
She added that a census performed on the cemetery in 1981 estimated 75 grave sites.
Gray said for years she sought the location of the cemetery. “To my understanding, this cemetery was known as ‘The Lost Cemetery,’” Gray said. “For many years, no one knew of its whereabouts.”
Determined, she continued her search. “I spent countless hours and drove in circles for hundreds of miles, before I located it,” she said. “Many times, I was so close, but got off course. I finally found it, after researching the names from the old cemetery census.”
She made a discovery during her research.
“One day, a photo of one of the gravestones popped up, and I followed the link,” Gray said. “I was able to get in contact with the person who had posted the photo, and she gave me exact directions to the location.”
That person added a few pieces to the puzzle.
“She told me that her grandparents, Earl and Arie Mays, once owned the land, and she used to visit the cemetery, as a young girl,” Gray said. “Years later, her family sold the property, and she moved to Chicago with her parents.”
That person said her last time there was just over a decade ago.
“When she last visited the cemetery, in 2002, there was no damage to the stones – it was only grown up with weeds and brush,” Gray said. “Therefore, I expected to find the cemetery in the same state as in the pictures that she had online.”
There were impediments in reaching the cemetery. “To get to the cemetery, we had to go through an electric fence,” Gray said. “We then drove the gravel road, and along our way, had to wait for cattle to clear the path.”
The journey continued to reach the gravesites. “We drove to the top of ‘Cemetery Hill,’ as generations before mine had referred to it,” she said. “When my parents and I found the old graveyard, my heart sank.”
It stunned the whole search group.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Gray said. “The current property owner had released cattle onto the land, and he hadn’t enclosed the cemetery.”
The damage was extensive.
“All of the stones had been toppled over, crushed, and defaced by the cattle,” she added. “I fought back tears, as my father and I lifted up the ancient gravestones, dusted them off, and pieced them together, in an effort to locate the burial sites of our ancestors.”
It was a devastating blow for the family. “I couldn’t understand how someone could be so inconsiderate to a burial ground, even though it hadn’t been visited by family for years,” she said.
That’s when Gray began to take action.
“That evening, I contacted the Magistrate, Paul McDonald,” she said. “He informed me that when he created the gravel road for people to access the cemetery, he had told the landowner to enclose the cemetery, so that the cattle wouldn’t ruin it.”
“Needless to say, that hadn’t been done.”
Gray let him know the situation.
“I told him about the condition we had found the cemetery in, and he drove up there, the next day,” Gray said. “He told me that he talked to the property owner, and the owner said that if we, the family, would provide fencing materials, that he would put them up.”
She also said she spoke with Ann Johnson, with the Cemetery Preservation Society/Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort.
“She was infuriated,” Gray said. “She informed me that it is illegal for the landowner to let the cattle run in the cemetery. In fact, it is considered a Class D Felony.”
She shared that information with the magistrate. “I told Mr. McDonald that I had spoken to Ann Johnson…in Frankfort,” Gray said.
Despite the laws in place, Gray said enforcement is the issue.
“The problem is, there is no enforcement piece to the legislation and all enforcement is left up to the families and descendants to carry out,” Gray explained. “Per the Attorney General, the landowner is not required to maintain the cemetery, but he is required to see that no damage is done...thus the cattle issue.”
Preserving the integrity of the cemetery is up to the landowner.
“The landowner should have enclosed the property, as instructed by Magistrate McDonald, before letting his cattle onto it,” Gray said. “Ms. Johnson wanted me to conduct a census, to register the cemetery with the Kentucky Historical Society, but it is in such a desperate state, that there is no way to perform an accurate census; the stones are scattered and shattered all over the burial site.
“In fact, many graves are just sunken places in the earth with no marker remaining at all.”
Then Attorney General Greg Stumbo, in a letter dated Aug. 1, 2007, responding to a query from Johnson, made a statement concerning the desecration, and prefaced with, “this is not a formal opinion.”
“The pertinent part of KRS 381:697 (2) states that ‘The owner or owners of public or private burial grounds, regardless of size or number of graves, shall protect the burial grounds from desecration or destruction as stipulated in KRS 525.115(a), (b), or (c)or from being used as dumping grounds, building sites, or any other use which may result in the burial grounds being damaged or destroyed,’” he wrote.
He added that a “family cemetery” would fall into that category.
“The language, ‘or any other use which may result in the burial grounds being damaged or destroyed…it without apparent ambiguity,” Stumbo wrote. “If the landowner uses the burial grounds in any way that damages them, he or she would be in violation of the statute.”
He also addressed the cattle situation in Gatliff Cemetery.
“The situation with the cows would clearly constitute damage in regards to damaged stones,” Stumbo wrote. “The other circumstances certainly seem like they might fall under desecration, but KRS 525.115 (1) requires an element of intent on the part of the violator.”
He added that intent varies “from case to case.”
Gray looks to get the cemetery restored and repaired to preserve the history. “I can no longer locate my grandmother’s stone,” she said, adding her grandmother was the daughter of Capt. Charles Gatliff, who fought beside Daniel Boone during the Civil War.
“My uncle, J.B. Gatliff, was a very prominent figure in Williamsburg,” Gray said. “His historical home still stands there to this day.”