Fascinating tombstones display incredible craftsmanship, tell stories of loss 200 years ago
As a photographer and history buff, I frequently find myself in old cemeteries. But rarely do I find a small family cemetery with grave markers as fascinating and exquisitely carved as these.
Scroll to bottom to watch a video filmed in this cemetery
Several of the deceased show cause of death on their tombstones as “the nervis feavor.” This probably refers to typhoid fever, a bacterial illness caused by poor sanitation and fecal matter contamination of drinking water. Others were killed by a “brest complaint.”
Riggs Crossroads Historical Marker
The full text of the Riggs Crossroads historical marker:
“Located 110 yards west at crossing of Fishing Ford or Riggs Rd., oldest traveled thoroughfare in Middle Tennessee, and old Columbia or Flat Creek Rd. Old village compound consisted of a brick house, post office, blacksmith shop, and store on about 1000 acres expanded by Gideon Riggs from the 555 acres recorded in 1811 by his father, David Riggs from North Carolina. Scene of Civil War Headquarters of General Forrest. Gideon married three times each with descendants — Mary Reynolds: Ogilvie; Sophia Campbell: Haley; Mary Catherine Holden: Brittain, Duggan, Fuller, and Riggs.”
This plaque was inset into the Riggs Crossroads Cemetery in 1969 by descendants of the Gideon Riggs. It says:
“In memory of Gideon Riggs 1790-1871
and his wives
Mary Reynolds 1798-1825
Sophia Campbell 1801-1836
Catherine F. Holden 1815-1865
All their graves are here except Catherine F. Holden’s which is in Arkansas. His farm included approximately 1000 acres hereabouts, with brick house about 100 ft. northwest of here.
Erected 1969 by his descendants”
If the brick house still exists, I couldn’t see it.
One of the exquisitely carved antique gravestones in the Riggs Crossroads Cemetery belongs to Gideon Riggs, namesake for the community that developed here. This must have been a very expensive headstone, even in the 1800s. Most of the older tombstones in this cemetery display extraordinarily beautiful typography and finely crafted chiseling. Apparently, the region was home to a superior stone carver. Look at the deep, accurate cuts inside the letterforms, contrasted with the delicate scroll work around the word “Died,” and in the two outspread leaves at bottom. The typography is very distinctive and matches the styles that can be seen in printed materials of the late 1800s.
In 1810, at age 20, Gideon Riggs moved from North Carolina to Williamson County, in middle Tennessee, with his father, David Riggs. He served as a soldier under General Andrew Jackson in the battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 .
Riggs owned 1,000 acres and donated land for one of the first churches in the county, which is still an active congregation.
The area became a headquarters location for controversial Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest (born in nearby Bedford County). As a wealthy southern landowner, one could safely assume that Riggs would have been a confederate sympathizer and a slave holder, although I’ve seen no records of this. In fact, I read in one genealogy of the Riggs family that some close relatives of Gideon Riggs were anti-slavery Democrats, so maybe we can give Gideon Riggs the benefit of the doubt on that topic.
As can be seen by the icon on his grave marker, Gideon Riggs was a Mason. He was a charter member of the Masonic Lodge No. 160, F&AM, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Tombstone in the Riggs Crossroads Cemetery in Williamson County, Tennessee: “Sacred to the memory of Sophia Riggs, Wife. Gideon Riggs. Who was born Jan. the 22. 1801. & Departed this life the 16th of June 18, 1836. Aged 34 years.” I’m not great at math, but isn’t her listed age incorrect? Based on her birth and death dates, it appears she was 35 years of age.
Tombstone in the Riggs Crossroads Cemetery in Williamson County, Tennessee: “Sacred to the memory of Spencer G. Reynolds, born Aug. 16th, 1805 or 2. Dep.d this life the 16th of July 1815 at 5 o’clock in the morning with a brest Complaint. Aged 20 years.”
Tombstone in the Riggs Crossroads Cemetery in Williamson County, Tennessee: “Sacred to the memory of Richard C. Reynolds, born Nov. 27th, 1771 or 2. Departed this life the 8th of Nov. 1825, in the Evening with a brest Complaint. Aged 54 years.”
Above: An extraordinary example of the incredible craftsmanship in the stone carving of these 200 year-old grave stones.
Tombstone in the Riggs Crossroads Cemetery in Williamson County, Tennessee: “Sacred to the memory of Gideon R. Defrees, born’d Aug. 27, 1805. Departed this life Aug. 1, 1822. About 10 o’clock p.m. with the nervis feavor. Age 17 years.”
Broken headstone that has been remounted in a cement base: “Sacred to the memory of Sarah T. Defrees, Wife of John Defrees, was born’d Sept. 21th, 1780. Departed this life Aug. 17th about [time obscured] o’clock p.m. 1826 with a feavor”
Tombstone for Elizabeth Watson, Born Sept. 16, 1832, Died April 31, 1897. She hath done what she could.
With all the amazing historical gravestones being well-maintained in this one small cemetery, imagine how many others are slowly fading away among the forests and farm fields of America.
Video: Walking around the old Riggs Crossroads Cemetery
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