Historical Markers, Forgotten Cemeteries, and Finding the Revolution in Your Backyard


November 2, 2023
by Zachary Finn Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

The din of passing cars and semi-trucks jockeying for position as lanes converge ahead rises above the rattle of leaves clinging to the branches of a towering maple tree above. Across the road, a Walmart Supercenter dominates the landscape. NY-13, a busy throughway in Cortland and Cortlandville, New York, ebbs-and-flows with traffic to and from nearby Ithaca.

The world passes the South Cortland Cemetery.

Blink while driving by and you’ll miss it; and yet, having driven past the cemetery numerous times myself, I’ve noticed a slight lull in the pace of traffic around it. Maybe I’m imagining, but I like to think it is folks easing on the gas—for a moment at least—to admire the burial ground. I know I always do. That being said, until very recently, in all my years of passing by and even visiting it, I can’t recall ever seeing anyone else within those stacked stone boundaries meandering through the headstones.

While small and unassuming, the South Cortland Cemetery makes up for it with timeless charm: a stone wall still surrounds three sides of it, tall maples interspersed throughout stretch high above, and, of course, the grave markers and tablet stones—crooked though they may be—serve as a carved memorial. There are roughly 100 known burials that occurred between the years of 1808 and 1932, including two confirmed veterans of the Revolutionary War and perhaps as many as four.[1]

That last fact I found out later, however.

A small historic cemetery, sloping markers, abutting a busy road with a few Revolutionary War veterans buried within . . . boiled down, the description of the South Cortland Cemetery sounds like any number of thousands of cemeteries dotting the American terrain. The South Cortland Cemetery is special and deserving of respect, reverence and commemoration in the way all burial spaces are—and yet it is far from unique. This, the ubiquitous nature of the South Cortland Cemetery offers an opportunity to interpret stories of the Revolution beyond those tried-and-true places like Boston, Philadelphia, the Hudson Valley, and explore the lived experience of those who served during the war. By bringing attention to a tiny cemetery across the street from a Walmart, there’s the chance to connect the public with a more complete view of the Revolutionary experience, offer communities without a pre-established Revolutionary War tourism industry a link to the upcoming semiquincentennial, and commemorate the service of those who fought for independence.

Historical interpretation of cemeteries, big or small, on a rural backroad or in the heart of the city, is nothing new. From walking tours to creative reenactments of those interred within, cemeteries lend themselves to programming. Some are nuanced, exploring with dignity and sound historical methodology the lives of those buried; others less so, focusing on hauntings and grisly tales, which, if nothing else, provide much-needed funding for the organizations running them. Regardless, there’s no shortage of stories to tell in most cemeteries. For larger cemeteries, or those with accompanying associations, friends groups, or local historical societies looking to stretch their legs and move their programming efforts outdoors, these events can prove good fundraisers and a valuable educational offering to the public. However, for most cemeteries, there are neither the volunteers nor staff to conduct these events.

The Patriot Burials Historical Marker Programis a fully funded marker program through the William G. Pomeroy Foundation that allows State Societies of the Sons of the American Revolution to apply for historical markers identifying the burial sites of veterans of the Revolutionary War. The grant for this marker was awarded to the Finger Lakes Chapter of the Empire State Society Sons of the Revolution. Photo Credit: Natalie Murphy.

When programs are not in the cards, interpretive plaques and historical markers can provide other ways to connect the public with the history of a site. They’re visible while driving by, provide snippets of history concisely, and, if done well, can inspire a reader to explore the subject further.

For outdoor spaces such as cemeteries, historical markers for interpretation are a tried-and-trued method. New York, for example, where the South Cortland Cemetery is located, had a statewide funded program for markers during the 1920s and 30s, many of which were dedicated to cemeteries. For the better part of a curious decade, 1926-1936, the state spent money erecting marker after marker despite the fluctuations of a Great Depression.[2] Since then, those looking to find funding for a historical marker in the state have largely depended on local fundraising, purchasing one themselves, or applying to private foundations, such as the William G. Pomeroy Foundation (WGPF), a nonprofit founded by Bill Pomeroy in 2005 that provides grants for markers across the country. Full disclosure: this is where I work as a research historian and grants reviewer, to support these efforts.

Funding opportunities for historical markers vary state by state. Some, like New York, depend on outside sources to fund historical markers; others provide funding for historical markers following an application process; still others require both an application and fundraising.[3] For most funding opportunities, whether private or through a state commission, a review process is required to verify historical accuracy. For example, the WGPF requires evidence for both service and burial of a Revolutionary War Veteran for them to be included on a Patriot Burials marker. The article “Grave Errors: Inaccurate Markers for the 8thVirginia Regiment Soldiers” provides an excellent reminder of why such reviews and requirements are crucial to commemorating history. If someone reads something on a historical marker, they are justified in believing that it is true. Markers are declarative and public-facing, and careful vetting of the history featured on them is important.

Which brings us back to the South Cortland Cemetery. How does the recent addition of a historical marker tie into larger and ongoing conversations regarding public history, national commemoration, and establishing pride-of-place?

To start: there are no sprawling Revolutionary War battlefields in Cortland County staffed by reenactors in period attire. There are no museums dedicated solely to the American Revolution in the county. A metal plaque mounted on a large stone in the Cortland County Courthouse Park that is dedicated to soldiers of the Revolutionary War buried in the county is perhaps the most visible. Yet, erected in 1906 by the Tioughnioga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and sitting amidst other war memorials, it’s lost in the broader tapestry of remembering the nation’s veterans.

At first glance, it could seem that Cortland County is an outsider peering east when it comes to Revolutionary War history.

The county’s history is nonetheless very much intertwined with the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Cortland County was part of the military land tract system used to pay soldiers of the Revolution.[4] Nearby, the Clinton Sullivan campaign—a scorched-earth march through Haudenosaunee villages in 1779—forever changed the geopolitical landscape of the region during the Revolutionary War and laid the groundwork for later removal of indigenous communities from the area and the subsequent arrival of incomers from farther east.[5]

Grave markers for Anstis and John Daboll. Photo Credit: Zachary Finn.

One of those drawn to the area was John Daboll. He and his wife, Anstis, made their way from Connecticut—both are buried in the South Cortland Cemetery. John Daboll 2nd, as he is referred to in his pension file, served during the Revolutionary War and qualified for a pension—though not without some unique developments. In his court appearance in Groton, Connecticut in 1818, Daboll detailed his service from 1776-1783, which included his involvement in the battles of Monmouth and Stony Point. The process was complicated by the fact that he was not the only John Daboll from Groton who qualified for a pension. There was also John Daboll Esq., who was wounded in the Battle of Fort Griswold in 1781 and qualified for payments beginning in 1809. Luckily for the latter, John Daboll Esq. was familiar with John Daboll 2nd, and willing to appear in court to set the record straight.

Grave marker, John Daboll. Photo Credit: Zachary Finn.

In 1820, John Daboll 2nd testified that his total service during the war was more than six years, and that he was by trade a miller, though asthma and difficulty breathing had led to his unemployment. Here, he also mentions his wife, Anstis, which confirms the John Daboll buried in South Cortland is the same one from Pension File W. 24033.[6] His marker, which is beautifully carved, records the year of his death as 1829. Anstis is buried beside him. She passed away in 1845.

Another Revolutionary War Veteran, John Stanbro (sometimes spelled Stanbrough or Stanbury) also ended up in Cortland County and is buried not far from Daboll. Originally from Rhode Island, Stanbro served multiple stints during the War, enlisting in 1776, 1777, and 1778—each for a year—and again in 1779 for three months as both a private and corporal throughout his tenure. He also fought in the battle of Rhode Island in August 1778.

Following the War, Stanbro headed west . . . and west . . . and west. In his 1832 declaration for a pension, he detailed moves—all of which were in New York—from Springfield, to Plainfield, to Brookfield, and, lastly, to Cortlandville, where he was buried in 1844.

Grave marker, John Stanbro. Photo Credit: Zachary Finn.

I learned all this, not from an early visit to the cemetery where I strolled about looking at the stones, but through subsequent research and, as the reviewer for the Patriot Burials program at the WGPF, when the Finger Lakes Chapter of the Empire States Sons of the American Revolution applied for funding of a historical marker for the South Cortland Cemetery.[7] During the review of primary sources provided by the Finger Lakes Chapter, it was also noted that two individuals, Elisha Goodrich and Francis Wilcox, had likely served during the Revolution and were possibly buried in the cemetery; however, due to a lack of records available at the time, primary source confirmation could not be located—hence the “AT LEAST” in the marker inscription.

The experiences of Daboll and Stanbro provide evidence of well-researched trends and themes: from the impact of the military land tract system in attracting those from New England to central New York to the developments and expansion of the pension system for soldiers of the Revolution. Both men risked their lives in the cause of independence, and, from a historical standpoint, went on to live relatively quiet lives before being buried in Cortlandville. There’s no historic house tour a visitor might go on where they’ll learn about either man, nor sweeping Revolutionary War narrative they’re likely to be featured in; and even if there were, those would be visited or read by folks like those reading this article—meaning those who are interested enough in the Revolutionary War to seek out related materials. The South Cortland Cemetery, comparatively, offers a location where the broader public can connect to this history, while drawing attention to local history that fits within the scope of the national commemoration of America’s semiquincentennial.

*  *  *

With the semiquincentennial fast approaching, planning efforts to commemorate the founding of the United States are underway, from the national level to the local. Like the bicentennial, the anniversary offers a unique opportunity to drum up interest in the nation’s history and those organizations that preserve it. What exactly that will look like is still, in many ways, being established.[8]

While America 250 and its partners have highlighted how the semiquincentennial extends beyond spaces with direct ties to the American Revolution, many communities are, understandably, searching for links to the Revolutionary War to feature in programming. Those without battlefields or ties to founding figures may feel their role in the commemoration is limited. Indicative of this, the recent publication of the New York State 250th Commemoration Field Guide by the Association of Public Historians of New York and the Office of State Historian includes a list of current counties with commissions and initiatives for the semiquincentennial: save for Tompkins County (which is just West of Cortland County,) all of those listed (at the time this article was written) are in the eastern portion of the state in areas with robust Revolutionary War connections.[9]

Yet, every county in New York can likely claim numerous veterans of the Revolutionary War buried within their soil. Trying to find a connection to the Revolutionary War in your community? Check the local cemeteries for a start.

There are, of course, limitations. De Tocquevillewas left aghast at the mobility of the American population and their refusal to stay in one place (see Stanbro, for example!) content with their current standing.[10]Still, in their push to the Pacific and further encroachment on native lands, there was a limit to how far even the heartiest veteran of the Revolutionary War could go before succumbing to Father Time. That is to say, cemeteries containing Revolutionary War veterans extend only so far west. There are, also, the constraints of roadside historical markers as a medium: there’s only space for so much text. At the marker in South Cortland Cemetery, there’s no mention of Daboll’s initial pension application woes, nor Stanbro’s many enlistments; but it draws attention to their sacrifices, and, hopefully, inspires further research into their lives from at least someof those who pass by.

There are many ways to do this. Besides online databases with pension records and genealogical records, the Cortland County Historical Society is nearby and an excellent resource for those looking to learn more. And though the cemetery was deemed abandoned and ownership resorted to the town of Cortlandville, the town has done a commendable job of maintaining it. There is also a website dedicated to it, https://www.southcortlandcemetery.com/, that introduces what is known about the South Cortland Cemetery. As is the case with so many cemeteries, the South Cortland Cemetery provides more questions than answers, which can be just as exciting as what is known.

All of which is to say, an individual interested in learning more about the cemetery could quickly find themselves connecting with local repositories, discovering new information, or learning more about the Revolutionary experience . . . they’ve just got to know it’s there.

It can be easy to think of these spaces as static, sites whose stories are already etched in the stones spread about. It’s a cemetery, of course it’s historic. And if you’re someone who’s interested in history, you’re going to be drawn to such places. However, for the folks driving by who only catch such burial grounds in their peripheral, they can meld into the backdrop of a landscape, engulfed by the surroundings. A historical marker, brightly colored and attention-grabbing, affords an opportunity to capture folks’ attention. As America’s 250th commemoration takes shape and local officials, historians, and interested parties are exploring what the semiquincentennial means to them and their communities, it is important not to forget the final resting places of those who fought for independence. Beyond the importance of commemoration, cemeteries may be the most public facing and accessible way to connect the public with the Revolutionary War for many communities, and a historical marker may be the best way to draw attention to this history.

To borrow from famed author of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, in his lesser known Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile, when looking at built spaces with direct ties to the American Revolution, “few things remain.[11] The closing scene of Potter standing at the ruins of the homestead he’d grown up at, lamenting what once was to a stranger, himself a Patriot of the American Revolution, shows that even in their own time the fear of being forgotten loomed large.

Photo Credit: Natalie Murphy.

On Sunday, July 31, 2023 I attended the marker unveiling at South Cortland Cemetery. The event drew a good crowd of SAR and DAR members, municipal and county historians, American Legion representatives, and local residents. It was the type of crowd you’d expect to see at such an event—those interested in history in general, and those interested in preserving the legacy of those who fought for independence during the American Revolution.

Following the photos, speeches, and walkthroughs of the cemetery by folks who dedicate themselves to such ventures, the cemetery cleared out. In many ways, things returned to normal at the South Cortland Cemetery. Traffic passed by and the grounds, once again, settled into their serene existence.

However, now as those cars and semi-trucks drive by and two lanes collapse in one direction and shopping complexes line the road in the other, those passing by will know there are at least two veterans of the Revolutionary War buried there in South Cortland Cemetery.

That’s something.


[1]For additional information about the South Cortland Cemetery, visit: www.southcortlandcemetery.com/

[2]Philip Lord, Jr., “Historical Markers,” www.nysm.nysed.gov/research-collections/state-history/resources/historicalmarkers#:~:text=Unlike%20many%20other%20states%2C%20New,and%20maintenance%20of%20historical%20markers.

[3]To learn more about historical markers, visit: www.hmdb.org/

[4]Jeannette B. Sherwood, “THE MILITARY TRACT,” The Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association 7, no. 3 (1926): 171.

[5]For a map of General Clinton and Sullivan’s march through Seneca and Cayuga County, see: Map of Gen. Sullivan’s march from Easton to the Senaca & Cayuga countries, www.loc.gov/item/gm71002211/. For more information about the campaign, see Koehler Rhiannon, “Hostile Nations: Quantifying the Destruction of the Sullivan-Clinton Genocide of 1779,” American Indian Quarterly 42, no. 4 (2018): 427–53.

[6]John Daboll 2nd and Anstis Daboll pension and widow’s pension application #W24033.Case Files of Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Applications Based on Revolutionary War Service, compiled ca. 1800 – ca. 1912, documenting the period ca. 1775 – ca. 1900. (National Archives Microfilm Publication M804), Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15, National Archives at Washington, D.C.

[7]To learn more about the Patriot Burials program and William G. Pomeroy Foundation, visit www.wgpfoundation.org/

[8]Jennifer Schuesslar, “Will America Be Ready for Its 250th Birthday,” New York Times, July 3, 2023.

[9]Association of Public Historians of New York, Office of State History. The New York State 250th Commemoration Field Guide: 20-21, https://www.aphnys.org/resources/250%20Field%20Guide_DIGITAL%20FINAL.pdf

[10]Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, edited by J. P. Mayer and translated by George Lawrence (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1969), 535-36.

[11]Herman Melville, IsraelPotter: Hist Fifty Years of Exile (New York: G. P. Putnam & Co., 1855) 274 – 276.

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