The Old Smithville Burying Ground:
A Place of Rest and History

by Jennifer Milanese

Old Smithville Burying Ground
Old Smithville Burying Ground

Cemeteries have had a bad rap for some time now. Perhaps our fear of our own mortality leads us to find cemeteries a bit frightening and disconcerting. And of course all the scary tales and movies that use cemeteries as breeding grounds for zombies and ghosts probably hasnít helped. The Old Smithville Burying Ground located in what is now known as Southport, North Carolina, could easily live up to the stereotype of a haunted and chilling graveyard. The lot is dominated by large shady oak trees and surrounded by a small dilapidated-looking wooden fence. The gravestones are old, uneven, and come in all shapes and sizes. Even the sign for the cemetery looks eerie, as it is a weathered wooden sign with the name spelled out in Old English-style lettering. Despite this daunting description, do not be put off.

The Old Smithville Burying Ground is a must-see spot for both tourists and locals alike. This cemetery is chock full of history if you know where to look. Each gravestone and memorial has a tale to tell. From the young to the old, from natural deaths to those lost in accidents or to disease, these tombs are a reminder of the lives that helped make Southport a thriving coastal town and tourist stop.

Benjamin Smith's Memorial
Benjamin Smith's Memorial

If you stop by this old burying ground make sure to look up the memorial dedicated to Benjamin Smith. Smith is the founder of the town, hence the original name of Smithville. Smith was born into a well-known family in Brunswick County on January 10, 1756. In 1792 Smith founded the town, as directed by the General Assembly of North Carolina. In addition to being the founder of the town, Smith had a long and prestigious career both in the military and in the government. During the American Revolutionary War, he served under General George Washington. He finished his military career as a Colonel for the Continental Army. Smith also had active terms in the North Carolina Senate for 25 years before being elected Governor of North Carolina in 1810. He held this office for one year, in which time he concentrated his efforts on amending North Carolina's criminal system.

Smith died in January of 1826 and it is believed that he was buried in the Old Smithville Burying Ground (see Editorís Notes). Due to his role in the creation of Smithville, a memorial has been placed in the Old Smithville Burying Ground in his honor. Smith's contribution to North Carolina is still being acknowledged today. In 1992, for the city's bicentennial, the General Assembly of North Carolina honored the memory of Benjamin Smith in a document sent to the mayor of Southport and the chairman of the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners.

Robert Howe's Memorial
Robert Howe's Memorial

Another distinguished military figure is also remembered in The Old Smithville Burying Ground. It is General Robert Howe, born in Brunswick County in 1732. Howe moved to England for a couple of years and upon returning to North Carolina became the captain of Fort Johnston in 1766. In 1775 Howe became the commander of the 2nd North Carolina regiment. He led his men to victory over Lord Dunmore in Virginia and was made a brigadier-general. In 1777, Howe took control of the Southern Department of North Carolina and moved up the rank to major-general, becoming the highest-ranked officer in the South at that time. In 1778, however, Howe was defeated at the Georgia-Florida border by British troops. Later that year he was again defeated when he lost the city of Savannah, Georgia to the British. Howe went on to command Fort West Point in 1880 and in 1881 he served with General George Washington in New Jersey.

Howe died of a fever while campaigning for a seat in the North Carolina state legislature in November of 1786. General Howe's life began and ended in Brunswick County. His memory lives on both in history books and on the memorial found at The Old Smithville Burying Ground.

In addition to notable figures, you can also find monuments dedicated to those that lost their lives to the sea. Being a coastal town, a large majority of early settlers made their living on the sea. With such a dangerous and unpredictable employer, many hardworking souls perished. There are countless tales of loss and woe in the town of Smithville, NC.

Sprunt Monument
Sprunt Monument

One such tale involves the Cape Fear pilot boat the Mary K. Sprunt. She was officially launched in February of 1876 in Smithville. One year later she and three other Cape Fear pilot boats went out to sea on April 12, 1877. The next morning, April 13th (Friday the thirteenth), a large storm developed from the east. The Sprunt and one other boat, the Timmons, went missing. On the morning of Tuesday, April 17th, the Timmons came back to port largely intact. Smithville residents held out hope that the Mary K. Sprunt would also return with its crew unharmed. Unfortunately, she had not fared as well as the Timmons. The Mary K. Sprunt and its crew never returned from the sea. Aboard were the owner and captain, Charles Dosher and his two brother-in-laws Robert S. Walker and Christopher C. Pinner. They also had two additional pilots aboard, Thomas B. Grissom and Laurence Gillespie.

You can find a monument erected at The Old Smithville Burying Ground for these local heroes and many others like them. These are just three of the many histories that can be found within this deep-rooted graveyard. If you are ever in Southport, take the time to drop by. Each and every gravestone has a story behind it that longs to be told.

Editorís Notes:
During the process of reviewing facts for this article I was amazed to find out that nobody knows for sure exactly where Benjamin Smith, the founder of Smithville, is actually buried. I first realized this when I went to look him up in the book ďThe Cemeteries of Southport (Smithville),Ē a book published by the Southport Historical Society, that lists all the gravestones found in The Old Smithville Burying Ground. As a member of the Southport Historical Society I started asking questions and I found out that there is a "memorial" for Benjamin Smith in The Old Smithville Burial Ground, but when The Southport Historical Society did their compilation of all of the headstones in the burying ground, one for Benjamin Smith was never found. There is a placard, however, near his memorial, which says that Benjamin Smith is buried in The Old Smithville Burying Ground. The memorials of both Benjamin Smith and Robert Howe were placed near the area where the oldest graves were located in the burying ground. The Southport Historical Society believes that Benjamin Smith is in fact buried in the area where the oldest graves are, where many are unreadable. However, when they did their compilation of all of the headstones found in the cemetery, they could only document the ones that they could read. So if Benjamin Smith has a headstone in the cemetery that is unreadable (or was buried without a headstone) it cannot be documented and, therefore, he cannot be listed as being buried in the Old Smithville Burying Ground.

While researching the mystery of Benjamin Smithís grave it was brought to my attention that the National Governorís Association Website stated that Benjamin Smith was buried in an Episcopal Churchyard in Wilmington, NC. This was the first I had heard of this and the information seemed very nonspecific and probably untrustworthy but I decided to follow the lead just in case. I contacted St. Andrewís Episcopal Church because they are the oldest church in Wilmington and they have a graveyard. They had a record book of all the graves in their graveyard but it did not include Benjamin Smith. They suggested that I contact Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington. I contacted them as well and they did not have any record of him either.

Needless to say, it seems as if it will never be proven exactly where Benjamin Smith is buried, but it seems a safe assumption that he was buried in The Old Smithville Burying Ground. Being the founder of Smithville, it would seem only fitting for him to lay to rest in The Old Smithville Burying Ground.

Copyright © 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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