Friday, October 09, 2015

TOP STORY >> Historic Austin cemetery dates to 1831

Leader staff writer

A small group of local historians is working to preserve a cemetery and Union encampment in Old Austin off Hwy. 38.

Nestled between the Old Austin Baptist Church and a new housing development under construction is the nearly forgotten Austin Pioneer Cemetery reclaimed by nature.

Local historians R.D. Keever and Rusty Eisenhower are trying to preserve the cemetery time has nearly buried. Headstones have disappeared into the soft soil. Sunken depressions in the ground mark where bodies eternally rest. Trees and vegetation had hidden any signs of a gravesite. So far, 60 headstones have been discovered.

The oldest engraved stone marker dates back 184 years ago, to 1831, five years before Arkansas became a state and 30 years before the Civil War.

Saturday, a cleanup of the cemetery was held. Youth and church groups removed fallen tree limbs, brush and dead trees from the site.

Then, from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, historic tours will be given at the cemetery and Civil War re-enactors will present a living history of a Union artillery camp.

Plans are to install a gazebo, a decorative wrought-iron fence and security cameras to protect the cemetery grounds.

To help pay for a historical marker and restoration of the Austin Pioneer Cemetery, a brick fundraising program is underway. Personalized engraved bricks will be placed on the grounds of the cemetery as the floor of the gazebo. Red bricks are $50, and white bricks are $100.

Checks can be sent to the Austin Pioneer Cemetery Fund, 1616 W. Cleland Road, Cabot, Ark. 72023.

Civil War era bullets, saber tips, spurs and buttons have been recovered from the grounds. Keever has determined the cemetery was used as an encampment by Union soldiers.

“The whole town of Austin is a Civil War site. The Confederates had it until the fall of Little Rock in 1863. Then the Union Army occupied it. We think the Old Austin Baptist Church was used as a hospital during the war,” he said.

Keever said Austin was a star-shaped hub for mail, merchants and stagecoach routes. To the north, merchants used the route to Searcy and the White River to ship goods. To the west was Conway, to the east was Dec Arc, to the southwest was Little Rock and to the southeast was Brownsville.

Austin was in the Carolina Township. All of its early pioneers came from the state of Carolina. The first mercantile store in Austin opened in 1848.

The town had three different names; Saundersville, Oakland Grove and Atlanta.

“It is so rare to come across an abandoned historic cemetery that dates before Arkansas statehood and then what it says about the local history of that time frame and the mass migration from South Carolina to Arkansas and Texas,” Keever said.

He thinks the cemetery may have begun as a family plot.

Mary Patience Ferguson, who died in Jan. 1831, was the grandmother of Steven Saunders and Anna Dunaway.

Steven Saunders died in July 1843. Anna Dunaway was buried in the Austin Pioneer Cemetery in 1853.

“John Dunaway was a son of Isaac and Anna Dunaway. He was born and raised at Austin. He joined the Austin Rifles-Fifth Arkansas Infantry when the war broke out and fought out East,” Keever said,

He continued, “Back at Austin during the war, the Union forces tore down most of the buildings and used the materials to construct winter quarters for the troops and stables for the horses.

“When John Dunaway returned to Austin after the war, he is quoted as saying, ‘the little town of Austin had been destroyed and there was no business of any kind. Gloom was depicted in every face,’” Keever said.

“Isaac Dunaway, John’s father died before 1860 and is probably one of the lost graves in the cemetery,” he added.