Incorporation of the Big Fork Historic Cemetery

Along a dead-end road in northern Van Buren County, an area of White County until the 1840 formation of Van Buren County, lies Big Fork Cemetery, a historic burying ground that is out of sight and mostly out of mind, even to people who live near it.  Among the other trees in the mostly wooded cemetery are several holly trees, traditionally planted in old graveyards.  The spiny holly leaves historically represented the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus and the deep-red berries symbolized the drops of blood He shed for our salvation.

The name “Big Fork” likely originated from the nearby junction of Cane Creek with the upper Caney Fork River. The cemetery was so named because of its connection to the Big Fork (Primitive) Baptist Church, which was founded there in 1808 or earlier. The site of the old log church is known, but nothing remains of the building. Doubtless, the Big Fork Cemetery is one of the oldest church cemeteries within the early limits of White County. And the church was probably the first Baptist church in the county.

A recent (February 2023) ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey revealed that there are 389 burials at the old graveyard, most unmarked, with some being outside the 0.9-acre fenced area.  Previous attempts to determine the number of graves produced varied results, with the highest prior count being 236 graves.  Of the unmarked graves found by GPR, approximately 90 are graves of children below about age of 10; forty-plus corpses were interred in caskets, one in a vault, and the remainder buried in shrouds, such as quilts or blankets. 

Numerous tent graves are still intact in the cemetery, but many of the graves are crudely marked, at best.  More than half (210 of 389) burials have no markings at all and were only discovered through ground penetrating radar.  The remains of ancestors of such families as the Cummings, Mitchells, Hastons, Stipes, Shockleys, Whitleys, Reedys, Huddlestons, Wilsons, Denneys, Moores, and Madewells are known or suspected to be resting in these graves.  But we can assume that several other unknown local families are also represented within the graveyard.

April 25, 2023 Photo by David Cook

Some of White County’s earliest pioneers, such as Daniel Haston and some of his southern White County peers, are buried there. But for the most part, the identities of the deceased are unknown. For many years cattle and wild animals roamed destructively through the property. And erosion has wiped out identifying markings on the primitive gravestones.

In order to preserve this historic cemetery for all descendants of the original pioneers and other early families interred in this old burial ground, on October 12, 2022, the Big Fork Historic Cemetery, Inc. was formed as a 501(c)(7) tax-exempt non-profit organization.  At that time, an EIN (Employer Identification Number) was assigned and IRS tax exemption became effective.   As a “historic cemetery,” it is closed as an active burial site. The last known burial (Liddie Shockley) took place there in 1965, more than 50 years ago. 

The cemetery corporation is currently under the leadership of Terry “Max” Haston, retired Major General and former Adjutant General of Tennessee, as well as a slate of additional board members. 

In addition to regular maintenance of the cemetery, The Big Fork Historic Cemetery Corporation plans to make numerous improvements to the property.  Earlier this year, acreage surrounding the cemetery was purchased to create a driveway to the cemetery and potentially around it, as well as adequate parking space.  The property will soon be completely enclosed with a fence, gated on Double Bridges Road in the Cummingsville Community of Van Buren County.  Various other enhancements, such as a facility for group gatherings, will be considered for future development.

Descendants of any of the cemetery’s represented families, as well as others who are interested in the preservation of White or Van Buren County history, are urged to join these efforts.  Tax-exempt donations can be made by contacting Jean Ann Haston Hall at 776 East McMurry Boulevard, Hartsville, Tennessee 37074, or (615) 633-6225, or  Contact Max Haston at for questions about the Big Fork Historic Cemetery, Inc. 

Wayne Haston, Ph.D. (University of Tennessee), a White County, Tennessee native, is the author of The Story of the Daniel Haston Family, a narrative account of the Haston family’s journey from the Canton of Zürich in Switzerland, to the Rhine River Valley of Germany, and eventually to the waters of Cane Creek near its confluence with the Caney Fork River in about 1803. Dr. Haston is the historian for the Daniel Haston Family Association and Big Fork Historic Cemetery, Inc.

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