Class Uses Old Family Cemeteries to Teach Historical Methods

Posted: June 20, 2011 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: June 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Professor T. Mills Kelly leads his historical methods class on a field trip to the Woodyard family cemetery. Creative Services photo

Night was coming on fast, so history professor T. Mills Kelly spoke quickly. His class needed to get some critical field work done in the fading midwinter light.

This Historical Methods (HIST 300) class was standing in a parking lot near Bull Run Marina and Yates Ford Road in Clifton, Va., readying themselves for a walk in the woods. The students were on their way to visit the Woodyard family cemetery as part of a new “Dead in Virginia” course Kelly had devised.

But before they ventured into the woods, Kelly handed out topographical maps of the area, showed the students how to interpret them and explained how to find true north. Kelly had brought along a compass and urged the students to do the same.

Tweaking a Required Course to Make It ‘Click’

Over the past few years, Kelly had been looking for a new way to teach historical methods to history majors, and Dead in Virginia is the result. HIST 300 is a requirement for the bachelor’s degree in history; therefore, Kelly’s 20 students were history majors, mostly juniors and seniors.

“[HIST 300] never clicked for me. It is generally not the students’ favorite course to take, and not the faculty’s favorite course to teach,” said Kelly.

So he tweaked it. Inspiration came from his daily commute through Clifton, where he says he passes four or five family cemeteries each day. He also is a Boy Scout leader and familiar with old cemetery renovations because they are popular Eagle Scout projects.

“I thought this would be a great way for students to experience what it is like to be a historian,” he said. He also wanted to incorporate more technology, which interests students.

Plotting the Plot

Students recorded every detail about the cemetery in preparation for their individual research projects. Creative Services photo

The Woodyard family cemetery sits on park land and was renovated recently by an Eagle Scout Kelly knows. There are more than eight headstones and a large tree in the plot. The wrought iron fence enclosing the space is weathered but mostly intact.

The students were expected to figure out the cemetery’s dimensions, record the information on the headstones and even sketch the layout. This activity was a dry run for recording information about a small family plot somewhere in Northern Virginia that each student would select to be the basis for their research.

Junior Kate Herndon found that the class had an added bonus: shaking up her Facebook friends. “When you put up ‘heading to the cemetery’ as your status, you do freak out your friends,” she said.

And her classmate junior Olivia Green joked, “Why wouldn’t you take a weird class where you look for cemeteries?”

After recording all their information about the Woodyard cemetery, the students entered their findings in a database called Kelly set up, another practice run to prepare the students to input the data and findings about their cemeteries.

As the students worked at the Woodyard cemetery, Kelly directed their attention to the opening in the wrought iron gate and asked what they could speculate about the original layout of the property. He also told them that before there was a bridge, Yates Ford was an actual ford where people could cross the Occoquan River, so some kind of commerce was likely nearby.

These are the things he expected the students to think about and discover when researching their own cemeteries.

Sharing with a Broader Community

Creative Services photo

Later in the semester, the class visited the Virginia Room at the City of Fairfax Regional Library where the group learned how to look up their people using property records and census data with the help of members of the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association.

To aid the students in their fact-finding journeys, Kelly also purchased memberships to genealogy websites. It was possible that somewhere an amateur historian was working on their family tree and needed the data these students were collecting.

At the end of the course, Kelly opened the website to the public to see what kind of information others might contribute. “Cemeteries are things that people care a lot about,” he said.

They are, as evident by the amount of support and interest Kelly has received since first adding the course to the class schedule. Right now, the course is only available to history majors, but in the future, Kelly will consider cross-listing it with other majors and perhaps offering a general section that even members of the community could take in summer 2012.

“This was definitely the most interesting class listed [in the class schedule],” said student Dan Weber. “I know what the students in the other classes are doing. They are reading about stuff and then writing papers. You can take a hundred of those classes. It is far more interesting to apply methods than it is to read about them.”

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Cornerstone, the magazine of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.


Write to mediarel at