Greenlevel Cemetery: Graveyard in the Woods
The rapid development and modernization of Prince William County can challenge even the most astute observer’s sense of history. Shopping plazas, crowded roads and sprawling housing developments dominate the landscape.
Stories of ancient Indian settlement, colonization and frontier communities, slavery and war, early industry and intensive farming permeate our local history, but the past is sometimes hard to see for the present.
At the Merrimac Farm Wildlife Management Area, one rich story could be easily overlooked, were it not for the survival and rebirth of a little graveyard in the woods.
The cemetery was all but forgotten until 2003, when a county-funded project to record hundreds of historic cemeteries led to a visit by a local man named Ron Turner. Turner was guided by the property owner to a small spot in the woods where graves were known to exist though none were clearly visible.
In a subsequent visit a few headstones bearing the surname French were found just below the duff layer of soil. Three massive marble tablet style markers, all broken, were lying flat and buried, oriented at odd angles, clearly misplaced from their original rows. Dates indicated graves from before the Civil War.
Since those early visits by Turner many changes have occurred at and around the cemetery. The property has transferred owners and purpose. The new landowner is the state of Virginia, specifically the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. They have conservation partners - Prince William Conservation Alliance, which provides wildlife watching and habitat improvement projects, and Marine Corps Base Quantico, which manages a conservation easement on the property.
The partners have supported an effort to search for additional headstones, record the cemetery with the state, and improve the cemetery’s condition.This effort has been led by a local man, Bill Olson, who is widely known and respected for his unique and tireless passion and dedication to historic cemetery preservation.
With professional volunteer archaeological support and the blessing of another state agency, the Department of Historic Resources, new stones have been unearthed from their shallow periwinkle and thin soil blanket. Five graves have been clearly defined, including William French, his wife Martha, and their daughters Elizabeth, Susan and Maria, their deaths ranging from 1823-1854.
Fragmented headstones have been unearthed and set in wooden frames that are aligned with their footstones. Several of the latter have been erected in their original positions, and overgrown vegetation has been removed from the area. Visitors walking the Cedar Run trail at Merrimac may now glimpse into the woods and notice the signs of an old, sacred place and the air of history.
Who were the French? The name French and the graves hidden in the woods mark one fascinating chapter in Merrimac history dating to the Early Republic and antebellum eras. Efforts to re-discover the cemetery have been matched by research using documents from county and state archives. As this information is pieced together, a plantation and area called Green Level is being revealed.
Merrimac Farm was known by a different name for several generations, extending back into the 18th century. It was called Green Level, a plantation that was part of a rural agrarian community of farms that formed in the backwoods of Prince William around the time of the Revolution. The area had been targeted as a potential religious haven in a late 1687 land grant, wherein King James II granted 30,000 acres to a handful of men to establish a Bent Town.
Nearly a century later the town had failed to materialize and the land was divided. Several small plantations emerged in southeastern Prince William County, between the little crossroad of Aden and Cedar Run creek. These plantations included Effingham (ca. 1777), Fleetwood (ca. 1775) and Green Level (ca. 1770).
Lynaugh Helm developed Green Level first. Probate and property records suggest a substantial estate in the late 1700s. Helm owned 1000 acres of land, a large amount of livestock (53 horses, 63 sheep, 47 hogs), and a long list of furniture, tools and household items that undoubtedly filled a large farm house. In addition to the Helm family, fifteen slaves lived and worked at Green Level. Some of their names are recorded, including Old James, David, Moses, Ephraim, and Jenny.
After Helm’s death, the farm changed hands a couple of times, ultimately being acquired by Helm’s grandson, William French ca.1818. The Helm and French families not only shared a common interest in Green Level, they were also connected through marriage.
Lynaugh Helm’s daughter Elizabeth married Stephen French, William’s father, and the two were married at Green Level in 1790. Stephen French lived nearby on his own estate. Enough French family lived in the area to warrant the location of “Frenchville” on some birth records.
What was Green Level like? While little evidence of structures remains, we can surmise some things from the existing records and nearby estates that lasted into the 20th century. The plantation likely included a large two story wood frame main house with brick chimneys, farm fields and pastures, slave quarters, a barn and possibly additional structures, e.g. a blacksmith shop. In the late 1700s, tobacco was likely the dominant crop but it was quickly replaced by grains and livestock.
By the time of the French family, if not earlier, a cemetery was established. The restricted area and limited number of stones that survive today suggest a small family plot, however the Helm tenure and the presence of slaves for decades makes one wonder if there is more than we currently see.
One tantalizing reminder of our limited knowledge came when a mysterious marker was discovered in recent work at the cemetery. In addition to the French gravestones, which are clearly the commercial product of skilled masons, a small fragmented red fieldstone marker was found with the initials “CTT” only. The identity and connection of this individual to the French family remains unknown.
Through the rediscovery of a small, forgotten cemetery, Merrimac Farm is better recognized as a place of history. A handful of graves serve as direct tribute to the lives of a few persons, but as indirect clues to the lives of many, the history of a historic plantation.
As Merrimac Farm is appreciated by the public in its new role for recreation and conservation, its part of Prince William County history can be valued as well.