Bonny Hall Cemetery

Complete independence is unattainable, but all of us cherish the amount we want and can get—freedom to live the lives we choose.

I drove out to Bonny Hall Cemetery, 1440 River Road, in Big Estate, South Carolina, to photograph headstones for the Find A Grave database. The cemetery is a short distance from a former rice plantation of the same name, dating back to 1732, on the Combahee River in the ACE Basin. A few miles farther inland toward Yemassee on River Road are Hobonny and Auldbrass, and all of these estates have been carefully restored and maintained by private owners.

The ACE Basin has stories to tell. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman served as a scout for a Union military operation, known as the Combahee River Raid, in which 750 slaves were rescued. Several secessionists’ plantations were destroyed in the process. The original Bonny Hall was demolished by Union troops.

Today, tourists and freight haulers rush up and down the Charleston Highway across the Combahee on the Harriet Tubman Bridge. At that spot, in every season, the marshland is breathtakingly beautiful. If I encounter someone who has taken notice of it, then I feel I know the person’s heart.

In the ACE Basin, a coalition of property owners has put land into conservation easements, which offer tax relief, in order to prevent overdevelopment and environmental degradation. The downside, if you happen to live in Big Estate, is scant-to-no local job opportunities.

I explored Bonny Hall Cemetery and photographed about 200 headstones in the company of swarms of mosquitos and a bright red velvet ant. The earth underfoot was soft and gave way occasionally. The graveyard isn’t far from the river. Some of the graves were sunken. One tombstone was decorated with a lovely rose carving. Several had been bestowed with tributes.

The process of uploading the graveyard photographs can yield stories, too. When my snapshots were hasty because it was 97 degrees in the shade, sometimes the tombstone inscriptions weren’t visible or legible, so I needed to find a supplemental death certificate or other record online.

palm frond engraving on headstone

Carolina Fields’ grave marker bore a graceful and unusual palm frond decoration befitting someone with such a pretty name. Carolina Fields, to my surprise, was a man. Born in 1865, he died of heart failure 65 years later, having worked as a day laborer on the plantations.

Another marker, the oldest I found, provided little information but enough to disturb me for a good while:

In Memory of
An honest Man
And faithful Servant
Died 5th Feby 1858

In 2017 in the United States of America, all of us are supposed to be free to live our lives and pursue our various versions of happiness, but also buried at Bonny Hall is Jacqueline Young, “Aged 37 years of New York and formerly of the Big Estate Community of Beaufort County, died September 11 in the World Trade Center Tragedy.”

Cherish your freedom.

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