Digitizing the Historic Cemeteries of Fort Drum, N.Y.

Posted on: April 15th, 2013 by Special Contributor 1 Comment

by Michael Sprowles

If you have ever found yourself driving along in the remote training areas of northern New York’s Fort Drum, you have likely noticed the random cemetery or two. This observation is often followed by a simple question: What is a cemetery doing so far removed from, well… everywhere?


Lewisburg Cemetery at Fort Drum as seen from the training area trails. | Credit: Michael Sprowles

Hundreds, if not thousands, of cemeteries can be found on numerous military bases across the county. Many date back to early towns and villages and hold the graves of early settlers, later followed by burial sites of military personnel. Through the Directorate of Public Works (DPW), the Army works to maintain these cemeteries and to minimize military impact to these sites. Although these responsibilities are carried out by the Cultural Resources Program (CRP) of Fort Drum’s DPW – Environmental Division, the process of stewardship can, and does, differ widely from one post to another. This stewardship has involved marker repair, grounds keeping, and fence replacement to ensure that the cemeteries stay safe and the graves are respected in the midst of intensive military training activity.

The Fort Drum Military Installation is home to 13 historic cemeteries; many of them miles away from modern infrastructure. However, these cemeteries were not always so isolated. At one time they were associated with numerous bustling villages and several small hamlets that dotted New York’s North Country. Although these cemeteries are still owned by the various townships, today they are surrounded by thousands of acres of active military training land. As a result, accessing the cemeteries can often be difficult and downright dangerous if not done properly.

Recently Fort Drum acquired a specialist, through Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE),  to inventory and “digitize” the historic cemeteries of Fort Drum to create a geo-referenced database. The database would allow for more effective resource management and, more importantly, grant the public access to a suite of “virtual cemeteries.”

Some History

The area of Fort Drum has been occupied as long as there have been people around to occupy it. From Paleo-Indian-Boat-Builders, to French Fur Traders, to French Aristocrats, to Industrialists, to General Grant (Jr.)’s Mounted Cavalry, to today’s 10th Mountain Division Light Infantry, this part of New York has had a rich history. The population of this area really skyrocketed, however, following the advent of the iron industry in the early 1800s. According to the cemetery database, from 1830 to 1870 the area’s population (at least, of interments) increased by 1,100 percent (excluding Civil War veterans). Many of these people settled into villages, living on the same land for generations. They built homes, farms, kilns, shops, schools, churches, and cemeteries.

All attributes for each cemetery were recorded, including enclosures such as this bar and chain link fence. Credit | Michael Sprowles

All attributes for each cemetery were recorded, including enclosures such as this bar and chain link fence. | Credit:  Michael Sprowles

Fort Drum was founded in 1908 as the New York Army National Guard training camp, Pine Camp. With the threat of World War II, Pine Camp expanded to include an additional 84,000 acres, the largest use of eminent domain in New York state history. Some 2,000 people were displaced from their homes located on what is now Fort Drum. Even though the inhabitants had to leave, their cemeteries remained.

Interments continued under government ownership, accepting those who once occupied the nearby villages and farms, and interring soldiers from the World War II, Korea, and Vietnam next to those who fought in the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War I. Fort Drum Civilian employees, family members and volunteers, such as Eagle Scout candidates, continue to tend the grounds, repair stones, and mend fences. Although many of these cemeteries are currently difficult to access, there are still occasionally interments.

Creating “Virtual Cemeteries”

The cemetery digitization project was initiated by Fort Drum’s CRP to fulfill the need of enabling descendants and other concerned parties to easily access the information associated with the historic cemeteries. Other project goals were to ensure that military training had not affected the cemeteries, to assess overall marker conditions, to establish a system to quickly and accurately locate markers of interest, and to identify cemetery landscape use patterns and apply them to suspected areas of unmarked burials.

The digitization project centered on the study of the plot markers and their inscriptions. This process is complicated, however, as one marker does not necessarily equal one individual burial plot. Many individuals could share one marker, or one individual could have many markers. So the developer created two tables--one for individuals and the other for markers--and unique identifiers were given for each. Relying partially on the University of Pennsylvania’s Historic Cemetery Plot and Marker Survey Form, some 90 different, quantifiable attributes were selected, with some attributes (i.e., name, death date) employed into both tables. Attributes included birth year, death month, gender, age, last name, associated individuals, orientation of individual, marker type, marker height, other associated markers, grade slope, marker exposure, marker material, evident repairs, biogrowth condition, staining, cracking, foundation exposure, and erosion level among others. Surveyors recorded each marker in the field on a two-sided form. Surveyors used multi-directional lighting and shading to decipher the wording carved on the older, and more difficult to read, markers. At least two high-resolution photos (with optimum lighting) were taken of each marker to exhibit as many design features as possible.


High resolution photos were taken of each marker and its setting in order to create a visual record of each cemetery. | Credit: Michael Sprowles

The data from the field was then added to the database in two separate (but linked) tables. Each marker was then geo-referenced using high-resolution aerial photography and occasionally aided by surface measurements. After an estimated 2,080 hours of work, 1,802 individuals and 2,178 markers were entered into the database. The data gathered from the cemetery markers allows the Army and cemetery volunteers to identify the markers that need repairs. This information can also be used to create a reasonable copy (if not an exact duplicate) of any marker, allowing for damaged stones to be replaced in the future.

By sectioning out so many attributes, this database provides a variety of information that can easily be referenced and cross-referenced. Users can search by birth dates, death dates, associated individuals, environmental conditions, marker conditions, script orientation, military service, family plot identifiers, and much more.

Future Uses for the Digital Records

Even with the most meticulous maintenance, winter, rain, sun, and wind will eventually damage stone grave markers over time. But thanks to the new digital cemetery records, the Fort Drum CRP can replicate all of Fort Drum’s interment information, marker information, and accompanying photos in only a few minutes.

Currently, the portion of the database pertaining to the individuals’ information has been made available to the public in the form of a SharePoint list.

These cemetery listings are fully searchable and provide all of the information that we have for the individuals buried in any of the historic Fort Drum cemeteries, including military history, associated individuals, additional individual information, and even geographical coordinates of their burial marker. In addition, individuals may contact the Fort Drum CRP for specific marker information, higher-resolution photos, maps, and visitation coordination. Information from both tables has been formatted for use by visitors, and the volunteers and cemetery associations who maintain the cemeteries. Further innovations are also being explored through Colorado State University’s Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands (CEMML). CEMML is currently organizing the geo-referenced cemetery data into a fully interactive virtual cemetery map for public use.

This method of digitizing cemeteries will work for other historic cemeteries as wellBefore you get started, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, determine all possible intended uses of the database prior to design.  Second, when selecting attributes for marker definition account for an extremely large degree of variation. It is imperative that attributes are clearly defined and quantifiable to maintain consistency. The definitions of these attributes should also be included directly in the database, so that users are aware of the attribute definitions when out in the field. Third, study the basic layouts of the cemeteries in your area. For instance a headstone may not always be the primary marker, individuals tend to be organized into rows, and, when they are associated with Christian burials, they also tend to be buried with their feet facing east (toward the rising sun). And most importantly, patience and respect for the deceased are absolutely necessary for completing such a project.

You may never make it to Fort Drum, but thanks to the cemetery digitization project, you can easily search the cemetery listings for The Iron King of New York, members of the Union’s 20th NY Cavalry, or the Irish Immigrants of Lewisburg. By digitizing these historic cemeteries, they have become exponentially more accessible, manageable, and referable.

Michael R. Sprowles, RPA, is the ORISE Cultural Heritage Intern with the Fort Drum Cultural Resources Program. This project was made possible, in part, by Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).

Landscapes, Rural

One Response

  1. Karen Van Etten

    April 17, 2013

    Thank you for bringing a very important and overlooked subject to everyone’s attention. These brave veterans deserve recognition.