Surely Martha Baldwin has a story to tell.
Even if she was laid to rest on Hilton Head Island 190 years ago.
On a sunny afternoon this Wednesday, with U.S. 278 traffic nearby louder than ever after the loss of trees in the old graveyard during Hurricane Matthew, two people from New York scanned the earth for Martha’s remains.
Katie Seeber, a PhD student in anthropology at Binghamton University, rolled a ground-penetrating radar over the ground by ancient tombstones. She was in the Kirk family plot in the St. Luke’s Parish Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery, where a mausoleum stands as Hilton Head’s oldest structure.
Staring into a screen slung around her neck, Seeber can see signals of what lies below the sandy soil.
In anthropology, this is known as “immediate gratification.”
And Matthew C. Sanger, assistant professor at Binghamton and co-director of its Public Archaelogy Program, says it is “research without destruction.” They can find things down below without damaging the area.
This week, they have found the outline of another family plot in the cemetery and several buried tombstones believed to be of the Davant family.
The cemetery that was recently nominated for the National Register of Historic Places was in the center of activity on a lonely island of the 18th century — with a chapel, militia muster house and Masonic Lodge. Its silent stones have long captured the imaginations of island visitors and residents.
It’s easy to see why, with the creepy Baynard Mausoleum built in 1846. At one time, people poking around its clammy walls could actually touch the corpse of a beautiful woman in a cast-iron coffin, according to an old newspaper story.
An historical marker nearby tells how this area was the site of a bloody ambush during the American Revolution. We play miniature golf and ride on bike paths today where islander James Davant, a patriot, was killed by a loyalist from Daufuskie Island.
The gravestone for Martha Baldwin’s husband, Isaac, says he departed this life in 1826, the same year she did. And it has a much newer, bronze marker beside it noting that he was a private in the South Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War.
But where is Martha’s grave?
Martha and Isaac stood on the same ground where they rolled the radar, but it was in 1806 and they came with the heavy burden of burying their teenaged daughter, Martha Sarah. Sarah’s sister, Mary Elizabeth, married the wealthy James Kirk. They’re all buried there, so surely Martha is as well. Her remains may show up on a computer screen back in Binghamton, where the radar scans are analyzed.
The archaelogists hope that something else will show up as well. They spent a little time scanning the earth for the outline of the old church, the wooden Chapel of Ease that was built in 1788 and disappeared in the late 1860s, just like the island’s old cotton plantations and the slavery that fueled them.
The Chapel of Ease site is now owned by the Heritage Library, a private, nonprofit history and ancestry research center on Hilton Head. It is trying to raise $440,000 to restore the mausoleum and bring the old cemetery and all its stories out of the island’s shadows.
It has built benches and laid a pathway so that learning can take place there.
And it has cooperated with other institutions of higher learning — the Savannah College of Art and Design and the University of South Carolina Beaufort — to find, document and restore the often-overlooked stories of life on Hilton Head Island.