BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — The large 19th-century tombstone is engraved with only a few lines, but it tells quite a story. The size (and thus expense) of the marker indicates a fairly well-off pioneer family in the area now known as Bowling Green.
The inscription on the tombstone also claims that it marks the burial spot of David Chapman, who was born Oct. 25, 1791, and died Oct. 28, 1884, and who “was the first white child born in KY south of Green River.”
While that claim may be unverifiable, there is no doubt that Chapman and his family were among the pioneer white settlers of the region. Yet Chapman’s grave marker is not found in the city’s historic Pioneer Cemetery.
Instead, it lays broken on the ground in a patch of woods in a Bowling Green subdivision.
Terry Eidson is board secretary of the Cumberland Ridge Homeowners Association.
As the remnants of Hurricane Irma washed down on southcentral Kentucky on Sept. 12, Eidson brandished an umbrella as he offered a tour of the Chapman family graveyard – tucked between two modern houses – that he and other members of the HOA are working to preserve.
“It’s our responsibility to be custodians of the past,” Eidson said as he surveyed the fallen markers amid invading trees and weeds poking through the soil.
A low stone wall surrounds the oldest part of the Chapman family cemetery. Most of the tombstones are eroded beyond legibility, are toppled over or are simply missing – a tell-tale depression in the ground the only remaining evidence of a long-ago burial.
The newest discernible tomb marker dates from 1928.
The cemetery extends beyond the stone wall. How much more is anyone’s guess, but based on a rusted fencepost at one corner and the drop-off leading to Drakes Creek behind the cemetery, a rough estimate is that the cemetery is about 160 feet by 160 feet and contains perhaps 100 graves.
Eidson said the HOA takes care of the cemetery as much as possible but is now seeking to further preserve it in several phases.
The first step is building a fence around the perimeter to keep people, and even an occasional ATV whose tracks are clearly visible near the cemetery, off the property and to mark its boundaries.
To that end, the Cumberland Ridge HOA applied for and was recently awarded $5,500 as one of the city of Bowling Green’s Select Neighborhood Action Program grant recipients.
The money will be used to build the fence, but that is only the first step in preserving the graveyard.
The HOA hopes to reset the fallen markers, place new ones, shore up the stone wall and perhaps put up a sign.
While the city maintains public cemeteries in the city limits, Bowling Green Parks and Recreation Director Brent Belcher said state law mandates that property owners are responsible for maintaining private cemeteries on their land.
So, since the subdivision was built about two decades ago, it is the Cumberland Ridge HOA that is responsible for preserving the cemetery.
Various snippets of information culled from family members, various online sources and newspaper articles paint a picture of the cemetery and the namesake family.
In 1778, Andrew McFadden became the first recorded white settler in Warren County and built a home and waystation near the mouth of Drakes Creek. Thomas Chapman, an Englishman, resettled from Virginia to a nearby plot of land in 1790. It was there that David Chapman was born a year later. The Chapman family then moved into a “stockaded dwelling they had prepared some 4 or 5 miles up Drakes Creek from the station,” according to an 1884 Louisville Courier-Journal article.
“Here every morning and evening, with beat of drum and shouldered musket, (Thomas) Chapman marched around his stockade at the head of his family – 6 boys, his wife and daughter, and a Negro woman – all with guns, hats, coats, and small arms to scare the Indians and therefore discourage attacks,” according to the article. “Indians always lurked just beyond the clearing waiting and watching for one of the Chapmans to show himself alone outside the stockade. David’s brother Abner was almost ambushed one day on the creek when he rode out horseback to look for some stray livestock.”
A 1915 article in the Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society cemented David Chapman’s distinction at his birth, saying he “enjoyed the pre-eminent distinction of having been the first male white child born south of Green River.”
An undated family history reports that David Chapman bore a “striking resemblance” to Andrew Jackson and was “generous and a compassionate man who took in stray animals and needy wayfarers. One wayfarer was a man named Drake, for whom Drake’s Creek was named. Mr. Drake had been wounded by Indians while turkey hunting. He made his way to the Chapman homestead where the family nursed him to health.”
He was a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Bowling Green for more than 40 years “and in his old age he and Judge Joseph R. Underwood would sit near each other on or near the front seat each Sunday. There was one days difference in their ages,” according to another family history.
David Chapman had 15 children with two wives.
Margaret Chapman Adams is David Chapman’s great-great-granddaughter. Though she now lives in Simpson County, she grew up in Warren County, visiting the cemetery on occasion and hearing tales of her pioneer ancestors.
“Daddy would always talk to us about how brave they were. The Chapmans were always very adventurous,” she said.
The Chapman dwelling on the hill overlooking Drakes Creek is long gone, but the cemetery remains.
“I think it tells a historical story of the earliest settlers of Bowling Green,” Eidson said of the graveyard.
While the fence is slated to be installed later this year, Eidson is seeking more information about the cemetery and the family’s wishes before further restoration work is done, as well as any community partners who can aid the preservation effort.
Adams was overjoyed to learn that an effort to preserve the cemetery was underway.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “I really appreciate them preserving some of the history of Bowling Green and Warren County.”
By saving the burial ground, “we can show them some gratitude,” Eidson said of the area’s pioneer settlers. Without such efforts, “the cemetery will just continue to deteriorate,” he said.
As he brushed wet leaves off David Chapman’s toppled grave marker, he offered a final observation: “Bowling Green’s history is easily lost.”
Contact information for the Cumberland Ridge subdivision homeowner’s association can be found at cumberlandridgehoa.com/contact.php.
Information from: Daily News, http://www.bgdailynews.com