NEW STRAITSVILLE, Ohio - A sudden wind snapped six small American flags to attention and ended a momentary illusion of silence at Payne Cemetery. The flags, marking the graves of a half dozen Civil War veterans, testified that someone from the American Legion had visited the site.Eight inches of undisturbed snow, however, proved that no person or animal had walked the cemetery grounds during the final frigid days of January. In truth, few people have reason to come calling. The Payne, which had its first burials in 1852, has not seen a funeral since Annie Priest died in 1927.
The families who began the cemetery, who cared for it and watched over it, were mostly gone from the area by 1900. A nearby settlement called Payne's Crossing is remembered only by name.
In that regard, the Payne is like many other rural 19th-century cemeteries. The land changes, the people move on, flags pay tribute to veterans, but flowers are seldom seen among the headstones.
Yet, the Payne always has had differences as apparent as footprints crossing a field of fresh snow. Evan Payne's marker identifies him as a member of the 5th U.S.C.T. The headstone for Thomas Payne, his brother, stands a dozen feet away. He served with the 27th U.S.C.T. Both regiments were formed at Camp Delaware in Delaware County. The initials, U.S.C.T., stand for United States Colored Troops.
The men were black. Their families and many of their neighbors were black. They went to war in 1863 and '64, as did 180,000 other black men. The Paynes saw carnage in northern Virginia battlefields such as Petersburg, Chaffin's Farm and New Market Heights.
In 1865, the brothers did what thousands of other black and white veterans did. They returned home to their families to find the quiet they had left behind. Evan was a cooper, Thomas, a coal miner.
Then, suddenly, the Paynes and their neighbors were gone from the census and land records of Hocking and Perry counties. The reasons for their arrival and their departure have been misplaced in time.
Ann Cramer, an archaeologist for the Wayne National Forest, wants to find them again. She first heard of the Payne Cemetery five years ago.
"Some of the people in the office knew about it," said Cramer, whose office is in Athens. "We didn't know who owned it. I was told it was a black cemetery, and I noticed there were some black Civil War veterans buried in it. I was told they were buried there because, at that time, they couldn't be buried in the white cemetery."
In checking records, Cramer discovered that in the 1830s the U.S. Forest Service purchased about half the land that the Payne occupies.
"Lots of times when we get property, the cemeteries are left out of the acquisition," she said. "Families have provisions that they still take care of them. I looked through the original acquisition file, and it looked like it was not exceptioned out. I became more interested. It seemed to be potentially very important from a black history standpoint."
Cramer tried to interest several genealogical groups to do research on the Payne. Last summer, she finally was contacted by the Lancaster, Ohio, Genealogical Society.
"We had just done some research into our own Civil War ancestors," said Lois Walker, a nurse and one of the group's 14 members. "The timing was just right."
The group, whose members are all white, visited the cemetery with Cramer and the project quickly took on a life of its own.
"They adopted the place," Cramer said. "They've done volumes of research. It is now being recognized as one of our most important sites. These men played a significant role in black history. From what we can tell, they were wealthy land owners and were well respected in the community. They had their own settlement - Payne's Crossing - but we haven't found much in the literature about it."
Sharon Dailey has been visiting the Payne regularly since last summer. A nurse and a member of the Lancaster group, Dailey has come to know and worry about the forgotten people buried in the Payne. She likes days when there are no footprints in the snow around headstones.
"When you cruise cemeteries a lot, sometimes you get feelings of unrest," Dailey said. "The feeling from the Payne is extremely peaceful.
"We saw it for the first time in the evening with the sun coming through the trees. It was so beautiful. The Paynes, when they bought the land to set up the cemetery, had the right spot in mind."
By examining records of the era, the genealogists have discovered many connections between families such as the Paynes, the Betts, the Striblens, the Normans and the Harpers.
"The initial land was purchased from Jesse and Catharine Payne, who were from Belmont County, in 1859," Dailey said. "Evan, Jesse and Westward Payne, and Amos Robinson bought the land and came here. But the earliest burial was in 1852.
"One of the guys buried here was listed as a druggist in Payne's Crossing. Some of the guys were coopers. Others were farmers."
The more they found out, the more they wanted to know how the Paynes and the others fit in with their ancestors.
"It doesn't make any difference to us that it's a black or white cemetery," she said. "We believe in families. We believe that what occurred in the generations before us affects us. Color makes no difference.
"And the cemetery is located in an area where there are not an abundance of records. That made the challenge more exciting."
And frustrating. Few documents exist for the cemetery. Indeed, an 1875 cemetery report in the Hocking County recorder's office refers to it as "the nigger cemetery."
"There is a generalized plot map that lists the Civil War guys only," Dailey said. "Some of the townspeople say the cemetery was full of stones. But we have no plot map. We have 25 stones standing."
One of the standing stones belongs to James and Rebecca Betts. A star placed next to the headstone identifies him as a member of the Union Army. A farmer before and after the war, he and his wife had 11 children.
The Betts name may be a key to unlocking the mystery of the black community, said Shandra Barnes, another of Dailey's colleagues. She has traced some of the Payne's Crossing residents back to Belmont County in eastern Ohio.
While doing research there, she found that some of the black land owners in Belmont County were freed slaves from the Drewry Betts plantation in Sussex County, Virginia.
"I've seen abstracts from his will," she said, adding that the slaves were freed after Betts' wife died in 1821.
Slaves named Nicholas Betts and Silky Turner are mentioned in Drewry Betts' will. Both settled in the Captina-Flat Rock area of Belmont County. Barnes also has traced the Payne family tree from Virginia and into the same area of Belmont County.
"I found records where Jesse and Mary McKee Payne were born free in Prince William County," she said. "The Paynes lived in Smith Township in Belmont County. A lot of them were farmers. Jesse and Mary Payne died in Belmont County. Their children moved into the Payne's Crossing area before 1860. Some of them were farmers and others were miners."
To help with the project, Cramer has placed it under a volunteer forest service program called, "A Passport in Time."
"It helps us do work on sites," Cramer said. "The volunteers can receive a few benefits now and then and a certain amount of reimbursement for their time. If they're hurt on the project, they're covered by workman's compensation."
Cramer also has asked for money in her 1994 budget to rehabilitate the Payne.
"We'd like to restore the existing stones as much as possible," she said. "We'd also like to clean up the parking lot and there's a trash dump we'd like to get rid of."
She estimates the cost at "a couple of thousand dollars." She thinks the returns will be far greater.
Henry Striblin served with the 4th U.S. Cavalry in the war. A coal miner, he married Ann Eliza Payne in 1868. They had five children before she died in 1879. A brass star identifies another grave as belonging to a Union Army veteran, but the initials "L.N." carved into another headstone make him an unknown soldier. There is so much more to know.
In compiling oral histories of the cemetery site with current residents, Barnes has found no ill feeling toward the cemetery or its people.
"The feeling I get is that these people were very well respected people," she said. "They were wealthy. It seemed like in a very formal way they were respected, but they knew their place and their place was outside of town. They had to have their own cemetery."
Local residents say the Paynes and the others may have sold their land when coal mining boomed in the area in the years after the war. It was the mining operations that erased much of the archaeological evidence of Payne's Crossing. Some stories say the blacks were cheated. Others say they did well in the sale. All just know they are gone and the cemetery has been left behind.
"We spent a whole day doing archaeological work at the cemetery, digging up headstones, finding headstones intact with sunbursts on them," Barnes said. "I started to feel for the people, and the vandalism that has occurred out of no respect for people buried there. My heart went out to them. They had a right to their sacred burial ground."
Someday, Barnes and Dailey would like to meet descendants of the people who lived and died in this place so they can learn another chapter in the story.
"That would be my dream," Barnes said. "I hope that someone will come along and say, 'I'm related to that person who was buried there.' I just wrote an article on the cemetery. I wrote that would be one of our goals - that on the day of the dedication ceremony, when we get the repairs finished, that it will be attended by descendants."