Tombstone hunters: 32 years of finding, documenting a preserving markers

By Brice Stump
Posted 3/6/21

CRISFIELD — When the first hard frost of mid-fall kills vegetation, it marks opening season of hunting for Ed Smith, 72, of Fairmount and Philip Goldsborough, 73, of Crisfield.They slash their …

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Tombstone hunters: 32 years of finding, documenting a preserving markers


CRISFIELD — When the first hard frost of mid-fall kills vegetation, it marks opening season of hunting for Ed Smith, 72, of Fairmount and Philip Goldsborough, 73, of Crisfield.
They slash their way through dense walls of briars and squeeze between tall stalks covered with thick, hard, long sharp thorns of devil’s walking sticks. Dense vines underfoot, like snare traps, threaten to trip them, face down, into the brush and over fallen trees.

Marshes have been crossed and creeks explored. They love the thrill of the hunt.
Their “game” of choice isn’t the trophy buck, or the impressive wild tom turkey.
They are tombstone hunters. For 32 years, their quest has been to find forgotten and lost tombstones.
Instead of shotguns, or bows and arrows, the two arm themselves with machetes, pruning shears, axes, metal probes and shovels. There are jugs of water to lug, and mirrors, cameras, brushes and gear to carry in back packs.
While discoveries are not made by chance, but by relying on a network find something in the woods or marsh.

“The best graveyard we have ever found and no one else has ever inventoried it, was discovered through a hunter tipping us off,” Smith said. It was the graveyard of the Waters family, and for years historians and genealogists have wondered where certain members of the family were buried, and now they know. The team found them hidden in the Fairmount Wildlife Management Area.
Smith, too, was working on family genealogy, and his cousin, Becky Miller, got him on track and the two soon met Goldsborough, and his wife, Linda, and a team was formed. The late Grace Morris, of Princess Anne, was active as a genealogist at the time and supported their research. It was while helping Morris to record information from tombstones in her family graveyard that the group decided to explore other graveyards as well.
At the time Miller was director of the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at Salisbury University.

“As the years passed, people joined up to help us to find their family tombstones,” Goldsborough said. As the years turned into decades, volunteers have come and gone, leaving the two core men to stay the course.
“Because of genealogy we have become historians. It’s detective work. It’s the pursuit, too, you’ll never have all the genealogy and you will never get to the end of the internet. Tombstones are an excellent resource for genealogical research.”
Through Miller, the duo pursued the history aspect of recording more than just names and dates off tombstones. “One day,” Goldsborough said, “I told Becky, ‘While we are doing this, why not get it all?’ Meaning pictures, location, epitaphs and pertinent data. About 30 years ago a book publishing idea was proposed. It didn’t happen and it won’t happen, at this stage of the game,” Goldsborough said.
Goldsborough and Smith are descended from the most prominent 18th century families of the Eastern Shore, so both have lots in common with many tombstones of their extended families. Through their extensive tombstone work they have met personalities of centuries past. They know their occupations, homes, farms, families and stories. Both know real people behind the names and dates chiseled into stone.

The two are able to rattle off complex genealogical information with ease. They have worked with so many Somerset family lines so long so often, they know what’s what and who’s who.
They confirmed recently that a genealogical report had inaccurate information, and it was the data on a tombstones that set the record straight. Critical information for writing accurate history.
Solving mysteries
It was an important cemetery be cause the information on the stones was not known, Goldsborough revealed. Tombstones can solve mysteries and correct faulty genealogical research.
“We have an expression, ‘It’s chiseled in stone,’ and that means, to us, that the information that’s on a tombstone, in most cases, is very accurate,” Smith said.
The two also work closely with Moody “MK” Miles of Saxis, Va., the creator of the famed Miles Files, also on the internet. An unparalleled source, it has genealogical information on tens of thousands of Shoremen.

Smith and Goldsborough have built their own impressive file of data.
Between the hundreds of pages filed in binders are thousands of hours and decades of their tombstone hunter lives, neatly presented in meticulous detail. It is so rich in historical discoveries, so precise and so thorough, it is a genealogical holy book unto itself.
“This is the way we first kept the system before computers,” Goldsborough said. Information on early handwritten-pages was linked to a map noting the location of each graveyard explored and documented.

“We started in 1988 and these books have been kept up to date from the days before we had computers and GPS, to the present. Years ago, I was working with surveyors. Worked with NOAA in the 1980s and got a set of topographical maps that we used to plot our graveyards. I didn’t get a computer until 1996.
“One big problem we had was trying to figure out where graveyards were that were known to other historians. For example in Thirty-Four Families of Old Somerset Co., Maryland, by Woodrow T. Wilson, he mentions that a graveyard was on ‘the Long Farm.’ Well, who in the world now knows where that’s at now? So the graveyard is lost to us.

“Every night, when we came home from exploring a graveyard, I sat down, and with details fresh in my mind, recorded the location on those paper maps. There was no Google Earth in those days,” Goldsborough said, “and we needed something more precise than ‘X marks the spot.’” Not only was it labor intensive to create their early maps by hand, but the two also had to embrace new technology and transfer all their work onto a Google Earth map format.
There were also photo conversions to be made. “We had 35mm film cameras in the early days, and now we are switching everything to digital,” Smith said.
“Here you go,” Goldsborough said, holding a page of mounted photos. “Here are black and white pictures I developed in my bathtub.”
There were other critical challenges to address. “We used Matrix printers. Now they are just about gone. We are struggling to keep up with constant technological changes. Now, when I enter data in a computer, I print the page out and add it to our hard copy books. I have been very religious about filing a report in details with every project,” Goldsborough said.
And all those years of hand work had to be again reworked into a computer.

Flawless records
It is no small chore. “As of June 2020, we have documented 260 cemeteries, black and white, resulting in 10,000 files,” Goldsborogh said.
“History work,” Goldsborough calls it. After each exploration in the field, notations of the days’ discoveries are entered as “write ups,” into the digital records and properly indexed. Their record keeping is flawless.
Now they have added another tool to their research resources: a drone.
Goldsborough, with the aid of YouTube videos, online research and manuals, taught himself drone technology and flight instruction. Now they have an eye in the sky to find graveyards in the marsh and woods.
He said, “Ed and I have been working for ‘everybody’ in doing this. We document every graveyard we can, without respect to black or white or religious affiliations. We want our work to benefit everybody.”
It is a collection without equal about tombstones and cemeteries in Somerset County.
“It’s really become a science on how to do this, it really has, to do it correctly,” Goldsborough said.
“We cleaned graveyards to search for our own genealogical information, but then decided to record it all,” Smith said, “about everybody buried in a graveyard. Maybe other people would want to know who was buried there.”
It was a smart move.
Smith and Goldsborough are beyond generous with sharing. Almost everything to date has been posted on the internet website. Never mind it has cost them thousands of dollars out-of-pocket on their end. It is shared for free. Land patent records, wills, GPS coordinates maps and documents.
All for free.

Back-breaking work
“To think we started all this with pen and paper, a hand-held recorder, film cameras, typewriters, then word processors, then computers,” Goldsborough said. With his voice slowing and softening, he added, “It’s been unreal. There’s no way of knowin’ the time we have in this. Years of our lives.”
Even exploration of graveyards is performed methodically. “We use steel probes and follow a grid to check for hidden tombstones,” Smith said.
“Ed has the strongest back between us,” Goldsborough explained, “and there’s no tellin’ how many times he’s done bull work to get a tombstone out of the ground.”

“A tombstone can easily weigh 250 pounds,” Smith said. They agree, it can be a battle for two senior citizens wrestling and struggling to get their fingers under often slippery, muddy stones and to lift and move hundreds of pounds of awkward, dead weight.
“We do back-breaking work. It’s what we do,” Goldsborough said.
Once out of the ground, or marsh, stones are washed, brushed, rubbed with water and mud to make the writing pop. The information is recorded, the location noted and, if possible, they stand them up and firm the dirt at the base.
Their secret tombstone cleaning recipe is simple. “The miracle solution to cleaning stones so we can copy inscriptions is water and mud. It cuts the moss (lichen lecanora which obscures letters and dates) and fills in the lettering,” Smith said.
“Lightly rinse it and walk away,” Goldsborough added. “The dirt and water method works. If the sun is at the right angle to the stone you can really see the letters pop.”
They also use a mirror to sweep strong light across the face of a stone to read epitaphs.

Still on the chase
After 32 years of driving, wearing out five pickup trucks, equipment, cameras printers, computers, burning fuel, boots and brushes, the two are still on the chase.
They have been in rural graveyards so overgrown that briars and devil’s walking sticks shredded their coats. “We have never been lost looking for graveyards. Mesmerized a few times, but never lost,” Goldsborough said with laughter.
Yes, both have had their share of tick, sheep fly and mosquito bites and chiggers They are not armchair, fair-weather, sleuths. It’s all about long difficult walks, briars, mud and physical work.
Smith retired from Sears in 2015 as a service technician and Goldsborough is co-owner and vice president of Goldsborough Marine, in Crisfield.
Neither seem concerned about age and physical limitations.
“I walk a mile every morning,” Goldsborough said. “Rode my bike four miles this afternoon. I got diabetes, got an artificial heart valve and I have had triple bypass. I’m going to keep on going.”
No doubt about it, a mysterious strong magnetism is pulling these two tombstone bloodhounds. “Never been hurt yet,” Goldsborough said, “but we’ve been in dangerous places. We were in a graveyard, and didn’t even know it, because there was much overgrowth, until Dickie Ford, who was with us, fell into a grave. He said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve fallen into a grave but I’m crawling out.’”
Some graveyards are simply lost, but others are vanished.

Incredible as it sounds, some of the tombstones the two have found and recorded have disappeared. “There’s a lot of stones we found that are gone,” Goldsborough said.
They exercise considerable discretion in dealing with leads and peculiar discoveries. In one instance the team dug up hidden tombstones, photographed them and reburied them as they found them.
Tears after discovery
Some discoveries have been tough to deal with emotionally.
They know of at least one instance where a tombstone was stolen with a pickup as well as the almost unbelievable case of, “We seen tombstones carted off on the back of a crawler while they were doin’ the ditchin.’ Where they went we don’t know,” one witness told the guys.
A now deceased judge took the initiative to cover tombstones and plant roses over them. He let the men dig them up, and photograph them with the provision they not reveal the circumstances.

It is the most difficult part of their work, trying to maintain confidentially and yet get access to the data on the stones before they are lost. It is sensitive diplomacy in the world of tombstone hunting.
Both agree their confidentiality standard was tested, several years ago, by the discovery of tombstones in a barn near Shelltown.

“A lady called us, in tears, saying she found six tombstones in a pile in her barn. They were there when she bought the property,” Smith related.
“She didn’t know what to do with them. We told her we thought there was no legal problems for her, because she found them well after she owned the property,” he said. “We asked if we could photograph them and she consented.”
The two men removed the carcass of a dead cat, and several rats, and dug through the stack, setting each stone upright, so they could be read and photographed.
Remarkably the stone on the bottom was not broken from the considerable weight above it.
Sometime later, not only did the barn disappear, but so, too, did the tombstones. There have been whispers as to what happened to them, yet the two promised not to reveal their source.
In Crisfield under a beautiful manicured lawn, so neat “that it looked like a pool table,” the two dug up buried stones. They were removed, washed, brushed, photograph and reburied.
Timber cutting has long been associated with tales of tombstone and graveyard destructions. Without prying eyes, machine operators with no regard for the cemetery, pulverized the stones.
Out of sight, out of mind.

“We’ve heard many tales about graveyards in the woods vanishing,” Smith said. “What’s really heartbreaking,” he said, “is when long-removed family members return to the county to visit ancestral graveyards only to discover they have simply disappeared without a trace.”
Timber cutting has long been associated with tales of tombstone and graveyard destructions. Without prying eyes, machine operators with no regard for the cemetery, pulverized the stones.
Graveyards have eroded into the bay and now lost underwater, some hundreds of yards now from the shoreline.
Small graveyards disappear
People have small old-time graveyards in their yards, that “disappear,” and rampant in the past was the callous elimination of graveyards on building sites. Some farmers find these small cemeteries in their fields a nuisance and year after year they nudge closer and closer to the stones.
Smith’s “third great-grandfather’s son’s” tombstone is broken into more than a dozen small pieces. Smith learned that farm equipment had struck it, breaking it up with disc and cultivators and big tractor tires.

Aside from routine disappointments, the two have had moments to laugh about and remember.
“We went to one place four times looking for the White family graveyard on high ground near the marsh near Fairmount. Couldn’t find it where people told us it was located,” Smith said.
“I met up with Donald Catlin in Fairmount and he said, ‘It’s got to be there. I ran my (hunting) dogs up there all the time, I’ll take you out there.’ So off we go, trip number four,” Smith related. “When we got to the site Donald said, ‘They’ve built a huge ditch all around it, and worse, they piled all the debris in the graveyard.’”

On the next trip, Goldsborough and Smith took a 16-foot extension ladder to cross the ditch by crawling over it. “Becky Miller and Dickie Ford couldn’t handle that so they got a 14-foot canoe, put it in his truck. They dragged it across the marsh. Once Dickie and Becky were in the canoe, they got to the other side of the ditch, but there were so many holes in it,” Goldsborough said, laughing, “that when the two came back for the return trip, it had sunk.” Robust baling saved the day.
“We are history buffs, we love doin’ it,” Smith said. “Each year we have a ‘want to do list.’”
“Yes, it’s the excitement of learning history that really drives us,” Goldsborough explained. “This tombstone research stuff is addictive, bad stuff.”
“I’m goin’ to keep doin’ this until they put me in the grave,” Smith said, laughing. “As long as there’s a cemetery out there, we’re goin’ to get it.”