Chuck Brandon of Charlotte is determined to solve a century-old mystery: where was the “Potter’s Field” located at Maple Hill Cemetery? Potter’s field, a term of Biblical origin, is where unknown, unclaimed, and indigent people were buried. Brandon knew from his research that there was a potter’s field at Maple Hill, but it didn’t show up on any of the maps.
“We know there is a field here, we just don’t know where,” Brandon said. Written records show that Potter’s Field was used as a final resting place for indigent Charlotte residents from 1892 until 1923. It’s unknown why the practice stopped.
Brandon is a genealogical researcher as a hobby. He also cleans gravestones and contributes photos and information to a popular website, FindAGrave.com. It was a FindAGrave request for a photo of a headstone located in Section P that started Brandon’s quest and his curiosity.
“Wait a minute…there is no Section P,” was his first reaction. “It must be a typo.” But looking at the original burial record for the person requested, he could see a “P” in the section box, with faded scribbling after. That scribbling turned out to be “Potters.” As he scanned the records, he counted 36 more people who had that designation, including 12 children.
Brandon checked with Ricky Hinken, manager of Maple Hill. Hinken has worked at Maple Hill for 27 years and has never seen any evidence of a potter’s field. He has a very old map in his office, he explained, that has a rectangular blank piece of paper glued on a narrow strip of land on the north side of the cemetery. Was this where the potter’s field was?
The early cemetery sextons respected those who couldn’t pay their own way in death, which provided another clue, Brandon believed. The workers were told to keep this strip of land mowed, with no explanation. This practice had stopped, however, by the time Ricky Hinken started working at the cemetery. Earlier sextons made no mention of the area in their notes.
Several years ago, a highly trained cadaver dog was brought in to investigate the strip of land. The dog “hit” upon four spots in that area.
In September, Rusty Richardson brought modern technology to Maple Hill. He brought ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to scan the area. GPR is a method of surveying subsurface materials using electromagnetic radar pulses. It can detect metal and non-metal objects, voids, and underground irregularities.
“It’s similar to a fish finder,” Richardson explained. “The machine can’t see bones, but it can detect anomalies in the soil, where the layers have been ‘messed up’ and compacted,” he added. Tree roots, moles and groundhogs, and water are all detriments when using ground penetrating radar.
Richardson ran the device, which is similar in size to a push lawn mower, repeatedly in both directions over the area in question.
“I can say for certain it’s not empty,” Richardson said. He found spots that appeared to have been disturbed about four to six feet below the surface. “Someone was digging like crazy, but I can’t 100% confirm that there are graves.” There were no cement vaults back then to indicate a grave and coffins may not have been used, both of which would have left more obvious evidence of burials. Vaults help prevent the ground from caving in as bodies decay, and Hinken pointed out several obvious sinkholes in the area.
There are no plans to dig in the area to confirm locations, Brandon said. The main goal of their endeavors, he explained, is to get a general idea of the location of the potter’s field and install a stone marker indicating that.
The location of potter’s field is still not definite. Brandon hopes to get more cadaver dogs to do more sniffing in the spring.