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Wyatt Emmerich: Search for graves of ancestors a life-affirming pilgrimage




It was maybe 20 years ago when I got a call from a woman I did not know. She had purchased the house of my recently deceased grandmother, Lyda Will Wyatt Emmerich. 


"Somebody needs to come get this stuff in the attic," she implored. "Some of it is family records, heirlooms. I don't feel right just throwing it out." 


My aunt and sister lived in Texas, as did all the other grandchildren. My father had died just a few months after his mother. My mother was dealing with her own grief. 


"I'll be there tomorrow," I told her. 


And heirlooms it was. A treasure trove of DAR and genealogical records. The thought that it was almost thrown out makes me shudder. 


Possessing those records gave me a burst of genealogical energy. I bought one of the earliest versions of Family Tree software and made considerable headway in properly cataloguing and documenting our family history. I became known as the family genealogist. I scanned photos, uploaded documents, and sent dozens of paper and electronic copies to my cousins lest I get hit by a truck. 


Then life distracted me. Three children were born. Two recessions came and went. My business changed. A huge pile of untapped documents sat in the corner of my office gathering dust. "One day," I thought. 


Flash forward 18 years. Needing to work on Saturdays, I would invite my 15-year-old son John along to the office. He discovered the treasure trove of family history and became enthralled by it. For hours upon end he would read and organize the documents, telling me fascinating bits of family lore. 


One day he announced: "Poppa, we need to go to Charleston and Coffeeville and find the graves of my great-great-great-grandfather William Buntin and his children who moved to Tallahatchie County." 


I put John off, but he persisted. In fact, 15 years ago I had attempted to find the tombstone of my great-grandfather Robert Robson Buntin Sr. in the Charleston Cemetery. I failed. Now it was time to try again with my son. 


On a Monday Columbus Day school holiday, John and I headed north on Highway 51. John wanted to take the back roads and was fascinated by the little towns we passed through: Canton, Sharpsburg, Oaks, Pickens, Goodman, Durant, West, Beatty, Vaiden, Winona, Duck Hill, McQuay. Mississippi is truly a state composed of small towns and villages. 


John being John, he was mesmerized by the crops and vegetation, especially the sole sorghum field we spotted. John's fascination du jour is grain row crops. He's growing corn and oats in our backyard. Go figure. We stopped several times so he could pick samples of various wild oats. 


I let John drive much of the way. There is nothing quite so nerve-racking as being in the passenger seat while your child student driver tackles high speed two lane country roads for the first time. One wrong move at the wrong time could be catastrophic. Yet the test must be passed. Life is fragile. 


After a brief stop at the Winona Times and a classic $8 Southern plate lunch at Two Sisters in Winona, we arrived in Coffeeville, where John's great-great-great-great-grandfather William Buntin was one of the founding fathers of this very old Mississippi town. 


William Buntin was born in 1790 and was an orphan. He was raised by William Cardwell and his wife Elizabeth Hankley Cardwell. He married their daughter, Frances Lockett, and moved his family from Virginia to Yalobusha County near Coffeeville in 1833, "The year the stars fell." He became a farmer and raised nine children. 


I had no idea where to start, so I asked the Great Google about 'Coffeeville cemeteries.' What do you know. The first return was "Buntin Family Cemetery." I hit the navigation button and we headed off with great anticipation. 


The GPS led us to a cow pasture. Surely, I thought, we were about to discover a precious old family cemetery in yon grove of oak trees. Alas, only cow patties and grass. 


We continued on to Charleston, taking the back roads through the beautiful Tombigbee National Forest. John's utter fascination and delight of the back country made me wistfully regret the jaded wisdom of my 54 years. 


It was a beautiful blue 70 degree October sky under which we roamed the Charleston Cemetery. George Caswell Buntin was the youngest son of William Buntin of Coffeeville. Writing to his Uncle John in Virginia in 1860, he wrote about his farming efforts in Tallahatchie County, just outside of Charleston. "The prospect is only tolerably good for a crop this year. We have had some cold wet weather for a week or two. Hogs continue to die. Corn and provisions high. Health of the county good." 


Robert Robson Buntin was the son of George Caswell Buntin. He graduated from the University of Mississippi and was elected to the Mississippi Legislature in 1891. His mother's father was Rob Robson, who at age 60 led Robson's Rebels into the Civil War. Robert Robson died at Shiloh and the governor ordered his body carried home to be buried in Mississippi. 


Robert Robson Buntin, the father of my mother's father, died of malaria in 1899. He was 42. He knew he was dying and instructed his wife and four children to escape the malaria of the Delta, going first to Columbus and then the small community of Days near Nesbit. 


He also made my grandfather Robert Robson Buntin Jr. swear he would become a lawyer and not a farmer. Bob Buntin went on to become the quarterback of the Ole Miss football team, a test pilot in World War I, and later a judge on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I remember him well. I was 10 when he died. "But I wanted him to watch me grow up," I told my mother upon the news of his death. 


We had given up our search when Clay arrived with a detailed listing of the tombstones and their locations, courtesy of Tallahatchie County's chancery clerk. There was the name of Robert Robson Buntin. Even then it was hard to find. 


I heard John shout, "I found it," just as the sun was setting. And there it was. Eight feet high with barely readable letters. His wife's tombstone, Zula Blanche Davie, was right beside. The inscription read, "Earth loses a mortal, heaven gains an angel." 


The setting sun let forth a blast of deep orange glow, illuminating the tombstone as John placed its toppled top back in its place. John's face was radiating with youthful vigor. He was so alive, so young, so fresh - an island of life floating in an ocean of death.



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