Vol. IX, No. 3, 1996

Bull Shoals Lake and Cemetery Relocation

by Michael Ellis

Construction of Bull Shoals Dam required the relocation of the dead as well as the living from the area to be covered by the waters of Bull Shoals Lake. By the time the dam was completed and the reservoir began to fill, more than three thousand human remains had been moved from old burial grounds in the White River Valley to new cemetery sites acquired by the Corps of Engineers. While it is impossible to fully assess the cultural impact of this mass disinterment, detailed records kept by the Corps of Engineers do provide insight into the actual process of large-scale cemetery relocation. These records include maps and photographs of both new and old cemetery sites, itemized costs covering all aspects of the relocation, specifications for the boxes which would hold the remains, and descriptions of the contents of each grave after it was opened.

The first step in the process involved the location of all known cemeteries and grave sites in the area to be covered by Bull Shoals Lake. Since there were so many graves to be moved (559 from Milum Cemetery alone) and since the existing cemeteries and grave sites were widely scattered over four counties in Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas, the removal was divided into separate projects to be carried out by contractors selected through competitive bidding. Each of these projects or contracts was designated by the name of one of the new cemetery sites: New Milum, New Peel, New Wildcat, New Friend, New Kissee Mills, New Riddle, New Oakland, New Turnbo, New Cedar Creek. Typically, a new site would receive remains from at least one large existing cemetery, as well as several smaller family burial plots and, in some cases, individual grave sites.

After the remains at the old burial sites were disinterred, they were placed in pine boxes, along with any wood or metal remnants of caskets and any personal possessions found in the grave. Corps of Engineer specifications called for two types of containers, the Type 1 and the Type 2 "Rough Boxes," both constructed of pine and then painted. The Type I box was the smaller of the two (measuring approximately 18"x 18"x 3'), and records suggest that very few remains were complete enough to require the larger Type 2 box (6-7' in length). The report for the New Friend Cemetery, for example, indicates that 275 remains were disinterred, but only one Type 2 box was used. By the 1940s, many of the graves were quite old, and in a fairly large number of cases the identities of those buried at the old sites were no longer known. Entries under "grave contents" often record nothing more than "dust" or "black dirt," and few graves contained more than a few bones, pieces of wood and casket hardware, some buttons, and perhaps scraps of cloth or leather. The descriptions of grave contents also provide a record of the kinds of personal items buried with Ozarkers. As might be expected, rings are the most frequently listed item, sometimes specifically identified as a "gold wedding band" or "signet ring." Other possessions included such things as combs, Masonic emblems, eye glasses, "a watch & fob," "85 cents in money," "a .44 cal. cartridge," "green beads," "a spear head," and a badge bearing the words "American Detective Association.'' Certainly the most pathetic of all the items recorded are the china dolls and other toys found in the graves of children.

After the remains had been placed in the boxes and transported to the new sites, the old graves were filled in and any fences enclosing the old burial plots were removed. Existing gravestones or markers were transported to the new cemeteries, and in the many cases where the graves at the old sites were unmarked, contractors provided new wooden markers. As part of the New Friend Cemetery contract, workers relocated forty-two monuments of various sizes and provided 230 of the wooden markers (three remains were reclaimed by relatives and not moved to the new site). The new markers, like the Type I and 2 boxes, were constructed to Corps specifications and consisted of large pine boards, rounded at the top, painted, and then lettered with the name of the person being reinterred if this was known. Photographs of the new cemetery sites show a large number of these new wooden markers bearing only the word "unknown." After reburial of remains was completed, the new sites were seeded, fenced, and provided with access to public roads.

The relocation to the new cemetery sites was not without problems. In one case, the new site proved so rocky that the contractor had to obtain permission from the Corps to use jackhammers and dynamite to open the new graves. Ultimately, the minimum depth of soil over the reinterred remains at this site had to be reduced from five feet to just under three feet. The type of land used for the new sites and the difficulty of reinterment is suggested by the higher cost for opening new graves than for disinterring the old graves.


Based on the itemized costs for the relocation projects, land acquired for the new sites was perhaps the least expensive item. The acre of ground purchased for the New Friend Cemetery cost $127.60, a small fraction of what it cost to prepare the new site (clearing, grading, seeding, fencing). By way of contrast, the contractor billed the government $215.00 for sowing the new site in grass.

The cemetery relocation for the Bull Shoals project was certainly not unique during the 1940s and 1950s and represents only one of many such relocations carried out during that period by the Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Presumably, cemetery relocation was a sensitive issue for the government agencies involved and an emotional one for many residents of the regions where the removals took place. Public resistance to cemetery relocation was probably mitigated by a combination of factors, including the commonly recognized necessity of flood control and the promise of economic development. To these factors may be added the decline in population in the White River Valley since the early 1900s, the age of many of the graves and the fact that many of the remains were unknown, and finally those distractions of a more global nature, the Second World War and the Korean War. The apparent lack of resistance to the removal may be inferred, in part, by the fact that so few of the remains (fewer than twenty out of 3252) were reclaimed by relatives. After the passage of nearly fifty years, the memory of the cemetery relocation has begun to fade, and few Ozarkers today are probably aware that the cemetery relocation ever took place, let alone the magnitude of the removal or the actual process involved.


Dr. Michael Ellis, native to Tennessee and Associate Professor of English at SMSU, lives and writes in Springfield.

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