PLEDGER - A Matagorda County family believes they have uncovered more than thirty unmarked graves on their property.
From FM 1301, it's a quick ATV ride to the spellbinding discovery in Pledger, Texas.
"We witnessed some stuff that was not of the natural," says Brenda Sandling, a descendent of the original landowners of the property. "I could tell you some stories. We have some family members with special gifts. Some wouldn't go out there because they knew something was there."
On more than a hundred acres passed down through generations, the Jones-Jackson family walked and sometimes drove around a small graveyard where the roots of their family tree lie: slave owner A.B. Jones, his slave Susan, and descendants of their four daughters.
Another relative uses the Bible scripture Joshua 4:6-7a to drill home the significance of keeping this particular plot of land.
"We will use these stones to build a memorial. In the future your children will ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ and you can tell them," she says.
On October 31, 2020, the family started using pandemic downtime to clean up the overgrown gravesite.
"We had tree limbs fallen, weeds, plus it was almost a natural habitat for wild animals, bobcats, alligators, deer," explains Sandling.
Family rumor had it, there were more bodies buried where grave markers no longer stood.
"They used the little sticks, little peg sticks, and that got washed away over the years. We just couldn't tell," says another descendent Harold Morgan.
The family formed a graveyard cleanup committee and decided to bring in a dowser who uses metal rods to find unmarked gravesites. The unscientific process is often called "witching" and is also believed to determine the gender of the deceased. The Texas Historical Commission website describes the practice as illogical and rooted in Old English and German folk beliefs. "One common folk belief is that the two rods will converge if the grave is of a male, and diverge if it is female," it explains.
In early November, 27 haphazard plots were discovered using the practice. They were marked blue and orange for males and females. Two of the graves supposedly belonged to children.
"Anybody buried from the '40s on have tombstones," says Jimmie White-Luthuli, "We are suspicious that many of them are ex-slaves who lived on the plantation because it was a plantation in the beginning."
In March, the family brought in another dowser who they say verified the original findings and detected six more burials, totaling 33 unmarked graves.
Their cleanup also uncovered the grave of Richard Armstrong whose tombstone was outside the original fence line. According to family records, Armstrong was one of four children Susan had before she was purchased by A.B. Jones. He was able to locate his mother and help her fight to keep the land that was left to her after Jones died.
After community claims to the property and offers to sell, the current owner, Luthuli is grateful to help keep the burial ground in the family.
"If four Black women could hold the land right after slavery, what excuse could I give?" she says.
With a new sign and freshly-cut white crosses for the unmarked graves, the descendants are also adding a historic Texas cemetery designation to the land.
The awarded designation, received via email on May 10, 2021, was not based on the dowser findings, but the marked graves along with two centuries of documentation compiled by the Matagorda County Historical Commission provided the necessary proof to receive the title through the Texas Historical Commission’s Cemetery Preservation program.
From San Diego, Washington, D.C., and other parts of Texas, nearly 75 descendants gathered Saturday afternoon at the Pledger Community Center to celebrate the designation, holding a ribbon-cutting and releasing a handful of balloons in honor of their ancestors.
Their ages ranged from 93 years old to seven months young, and they wore tags brandishing the number of their generation underneath their names. The ceremony was moved from the graveyard after overnight rains made the roads impassable by regular vehicles. The family felt it was appropriate to gather during Memorial Day weekend because of some of the graves in the cemetery.
"A World War II, a Korean War, and a Vietnam War vet are all buried up there," says Morgan.
They are also clearing room for more family plots within the graveyard which some members say has a renewed sense of peace.
Sandling believes the previously disturbed spirits have sent them a new message. "Thank you, we're aware of you caring about us," she says, believing the discovered souls can finally be at rest on the hallowed family grounds.
For more information on the Jones-Jackson Cemetery, visit the Jones-Jackson Cemetery website.