The original settlers of North Texas began arriving from Kentucky, Arkansas, and Tennessee in the early 1840’s in response to an empresario (land agent) grant from the Republic of Texas in 1841. William S. Peters was the land grant agent. He established Peter’s Colony which covered much of today’s Collin, Denton, Grayson, and Tarrant Counties. The land grant system awarded the early settlers a maximum of 640 acres per family or 320 for a single man.
The land grant system lasted through the years that Texas was a Republic. On April 3, 1846, Collin County was created by the Texas Legislature. The county was named after Collin McKinney, a land surveyor, pioneer, and legislator who was born in New Jersey and later lived in Virginia and Kentucky until moving to Texas. Vast amounts of free land brought pioneers west, and upon arrival in North Texas, they built log houses on the Blackland prairies and began subsistence farming and ranching.
Life was difficult for the early settlers. Practically every aspect of life was froth with danger and as a consequence early Texans were intimate with untimely death. Mourning and memorializing death was a large social activity. Almost morbid attention was paid to the crafts of preparing, displaying, transporting, and burying the dead. Memento mori (def. Remember to Die) are mementos of death that were very important during the Victorian era. People had a much more direct and visceral contact with death than we do today. This was not only reflected in the architecture of the family home, but it was reflected in our cemeteries as well.
Before 1831, America had no cemeteries as we know them. It’s not that Americans didn’t bury their dead—just that large, modern graveyards did not exist. Two important precedents influenced the birth of the (Rural) Cemetery movement: New Haven’s New Burying Ground constructed in (1796) and the (seem, tea, air) Cimetière Pere Lechaise constructed in (1804) in Paris. Both promoted the idea of a non-sectarian burial space free from church and municipal oversight in a park-like setting. The new cemeteries introduced a deliberately designed landscape for mourning through the incorporation of English romantic landscapes of varied topography, picturesque curving drives, separated pathways, classical monuments, and a series of carefully constructed scenes. The designs were purposeful in order to remove the urban dweller from the noise and congestion of the city. The pastoral environment allowed for both a period of reflection on the dead and a place of relaxation and enrichment for the living. With the construction of Mount Auburn Cemetery, a large burial ground in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the movement to build cemeteries in America began.
Materially, the cemetery is a speciﬁc type of socially bounded space where funerals and Memorial Day celebrations ritually order relationships between the spiritual dead and the secular world of the living. The funeral symbolically removes the individual from linear time and translates the profane person into the eternal sacred realm. The material signs of the cemetery the graves and markers owned by speciﬁc families locate these transformed dead in living time and ordered space, and so symbolically help to maintain their on-going individual identities and afﬁrm their continued social existence through memory.
The cemetery is the appropriate sacred space where the living and the dead are separated and symbolically joined as one people through the performance of transition and memorial rites. The annual Memorial Day rituals and Decoration days serve as a modern cult of the dead, integrating the various faiths, associations, ethnic and class groups of the city into a uniﬁed community; and as a sacred collective they confront and triumph over anxieties about death through common action. These annual remembrances deﬁne the sacred purpose of the cemetery as a site where the living confront the reality of their own death and possibly receive comfort.
American cemeteries evolved from small family plots into these very first “rural cemeteries” and, later, they became either the scenic “memorial park”, or they mimicked American gridded cities and thus became cities of the dead.
Cemeteries we built for ourselves, increasingly after 1830, were places with roads and picturesque vistas. The idea being that you leave behind the mercantile world outside the gates and enter into the space where you can meditate, where you can come into contact with spirituality and concentrate. They were quite important spaces for recreation as well. Keep in mind, the great rural cemeteries were built at a time when there weren’t public parks, or art museums, or botanical gardens in American cities. You suddenly had large pieces of ground, filled with beautiful sculptures and horticultural art. People flocked to cemeteries after church for picnics, for hunting and shooting and carriage racing. These places became so popular that not only were guidebooks issued to guide visitors, but also all kinds of rules were posted.
Pecan Grove Cemetery sits at the corner of State Highway 5 and Industrial Boulevard and stands as a testament to America’s Rural Cemetery past. The cemetery was founded on part of the 57 acres that was granted to Samuel McFarland by the Republic of Texas in 1845. Officially established as a cemetery March 19, 1870 when McKinney businessmen, I.D. Newsome, E.R. Stiff, Isaac Graves, G.A. Foote, and Thomas J. Brown purchased 21 1/3 acres however, there are numerous burials which occurred prior to the purchase of the land. In 1870, George White was engaged to survey the newly purchased cemetery land and divide it into lots and lay out the walks and streets. Five hundred lots were laid out in the first survey. These lots were sold to cover the cost of the land and fence around the cemetery, and maintenance of the grounds. A second tract of land adjoining the original purchase on the east, 42.40 acres, was purchased by J. H. Jenkins, acting as agent for the corporation, on February 12, 1892. The cemetery was incorporated and a charter was granted by the State of Texas on August 10, 1889 to Pecan Grove Cemetery Association Inc., a private corporation. Additional land was purchased in 1892 and 1960.
Pecan Grove is a sacred place of communal meaning. The markers serve as a repository of local history and shared memories. Pecan Grove’s history reflects the very ideals that emerged from our mid-19th century understanding of death. The earliest stones in the cemetery record the death of William, son of J.M. and Eliza Bounds who died December 8, 1853. William F. is buried in Space 3, Lot 5 Block 29. His brother Charles passed three years later in 1856 and is buried in the same lot. Both boys were under the age of 2 and their untimely deaths reflect the high infant mortality rates of the 19th century.
I hope you spend some time to walk the sacred grounds today. Be aware that the markers you see are a roadmap to our past. There is more information than just a name and date of birth and death. The markers provide us a glimpse of a person’s past that is a part of our shared history. The shape of the grave marker, the symbols and words carved on them all serve to tell us a story. By looking at the markers in Pecan Grove you will discover that there are 782 veterans from various wars; starting with the War of 1812 and continuing through the wars of today.
On your journey through the cemetery you may see a group of markers with similar death dates. We might surmise that a tragic event or major epidemic may have taken the lives of so many. Such would be the case of the years 1918-1919 when the flu pandemic hit. 675,000 Americans died during those two years. Pecan Grove is like a book and the grave markers are the pages of that book. So today, this Memorial Day I want to leave you with a thought from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. The scene opens with a conversation between the mother packing to leave the Dust Bowl and a close friend. She is placing small mementos into an empty cigar box when her friend asks her: What are you doing? Why take that with you? And the mother responds: How will they know it is us without our past?
Pecan Grove is our past.
Contributed by Mr. Guy Giersch, Historical Preservation Officer
City of McKinney, Texas