SOMERSET TWP. -- In July of 2014, the Belmont County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society and Mark Morton of Gravestone Guardians of Ohio, with a grant from the Belmont County Tourism Council, began restoring the historic Captina African Methodist Episcopal Church cemetery which dates back to 1830. Interned there are one Mexican War veteran and nine Civil War veterans. Also interned there is Underground Railroad conductor Alexander "Sandy" Harper (c.1804-1889).
During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War the two groups and volunteers including Barnesville High School history teacher Nick Saffield and members of his Contemporary Issues Class helped with the restoration under the guidance of Morton.
Captina AME Cemetery was part of an original family burial plot belonging to a 300 plus acre section of land owned by Harper prior to 1825, the year the church was established. The cemetery stands as evidence of a once thriving African American farming community established in the 1820s with the aid of Harper, who was the community's leader. Captina was the only free settlement of African Americans in Ohio, prior to the Civil War and was the first in Belmont County.
Captina, originally called Guinea, became a stop on the Underground Railroad, a national network of volunteers who directed slaves northward. Like the Quakers in the area, the free blacks directed slaves along the railroad. Guinea had cross connections to Somerton, where Dr. William Schooley helped the fugitives. Stops were also located in Belmont, Quaker City and Barnesville. Guinea was known as a safe stop where the residents were reportedly well-armed. Following the end of the Civil War and slavery, Captina continued to be a farming community and the church continued to be the center of it. Black citizens from Barnesville also attended the church until what became the Bethel A.M.E. church was formed there in 1864.
By the turn of the Twentieth Century, the community's population dwindled, and later, with the influence of the Great Depression and the lure of the city, the number of black residents in the area, now known as Flatrock, further thinned until, by 1940, all had gone elsewhere. At the church, irregular services were conducted through the 1950's when the building hosted an annual reunion and an occasional service until 1962. The building then fell into disrepair and collapsed during a windstorm in 1978.
Harper is buried in this cemetery, along with Benjamin Oliver McMichael (1865-1941), an educator who taught for 12 years in Captina/ Flatrock at a segregated schoolhouse. There are now 130 known burials in the cemetery, including at least nine Civil War veterans.
Morton said Harper was the "heart of it all" for the settlement and the Captina Cemetery grew out of Harper's family plot which was the biggest at the cemetery. Harper's pillar was cleaned two years ago and a new stone was set at the bottom of it describing his importance in the Underground Railroad. Family stones were found and erected and a new chain was installed around the plot. Morton called Harper the "main character" of Captina and enjoyed learning his story and those of other Captina residents, aided in large part by the research of historian Bruce Yarnall whose efforts helped to get the cemetery placed on the National Historic Register in 2002. Josephine Drake and Virginia Bell were two former church members who worked with Yarnall to get the marker approved and raised the local matching funds to cover the cost of fabrication and erection.
Morton said that armed with Yarnall's research, Belmont County OGS member Cheryl Skinner was able to use obituaries from The Barnesville Enterprise and The Whetstone to research those buried at Captina Cemetery. Morton said one of the stories uncovered was that of George Edwards who took his family back to Liberia where they lived for 20 years before returning to Captina.
In Yarnall's research he found that some of the early settlers of Captina, in addition to Harper, included John Wooten, Samuel Creek, William Betts, Alex Hargrave Sr, Nicholas Betts, Tempy Hargrave, Judy Watkins, Silky Turner, Henry Watkins, Carey Hargrave, Jeremiah Myers, York Simmons, Charles Newsome, Roger Simmons, Petter Jackson, Simon Briggs, Sr. Later families that settled there included the McGees, Munts, Mabras, Parkers, McMichaels and Spareys. A larger frame church was erected at the site of the original church in 1841 to accommodate these new community members. That building was destroyed by fire in 1890.
Following initial restoration efforts in 2014, descendants of those buried at the cemetery came from as far away as Maryland to be part of this historical reclamation. Restoration of Captina Cemetery continued the next summer.
Morton said Yarnall's research found seven Civil War veterans, but he thinks three more were discovered during the restoration process. Morton said only three of those original seven had markers prior to the restoration. He said there are still tombstones that need to be replaced and the Belmont County OGS is working with descendants of those buried at the cemetery to replace them. Morton said Yarnall had located 113 graves and now there are 130 located.
"We would like to do more work there," Morton said. "We would at least like to apply for and replace military markers."
He said there is a possibility of working with students in Belmont College's Building Preservation/Restoration (BPR) program.
Morton has also worked with the Belmont County OGS to restore gravestones in Barnesville cemeteries, Belmont Cemetery, and will be working at the Ebeneezer Cemetery this spring.
According to the BCOGS there are at least 188 cemeteries in Belmont County, most of which are in need of restoration. This restoration work is vital and expensive. To support the BCOGS cemetery preservation efforts, visit belmontccogs.org.