Charles Clark purchased 2-acres of land on the West Side of Austin in 1871 and welcomed his family and friends to move into the area that he called Clarksville (it is still called Clarksville today). It was soon after the Civil War and though African Americans were legally able to own land, it was nonetheless difficult to purchase property in many areas. Consequently, Clark’s 2-acres were soon filled with families and homes. Eventually Clarksville expanded and a church and school built to accommodate the burgeoning society. Most Clarksville residents worked in Austin and when someone died, they were buried in Oakwood, the city cemetery.
Just west of Clarksville, on the other side of the Colorado River, since the 1850’s, another extended family of African American’s had been living together in a similar manner. Unlike Clarksville, this community was isolated from everyday events and influences of the city. They ventured to town infrequently. The individuals living next to “Belle Hill” possessed the skills needed to survive, from midwife to blacksmith. When someone died they were buried in the Jackson-Wood Cemetery, which contains burials of the earliest black settlers in Travis County, and their descendants.
On December 3, 1870 Alexander Eanes sold Frank Swisher, a black man who lived in Austin, 56 acres of his land. Swisher later sold 15.5 acres to the Jackson’s, descendants of Nathan Wood, who had been living on the land for over 30 years. The deed read “ less about one half acre existing at the North end of the tract which is hereby reserved for a graveyard for the use of the neighborhood.” On the same day an additional adjacent 10.5 acres was sold to other members of the Jackson family, and a similar clause was included in the deed, it read “ less about one half of said land set apart for a burying ground for the neighborhood and which lies along the northeast line of the same.”
Both of the 1885 deeds contained the metes and bounds for the acreage, but the specific location of the cemeteries was not mentioned. The only way Espey Huston could determine the size of the lost cemetery was to determine where the bodies were located. A small group, including Ms. Voellinger, conducted a ground survey, which covered 26 acres around the location where the cemetery was initially discovered. The ground survey was a means to locate any visual remains of the cemetery. The ground survey and information gathered by descendants of those buried I the Jackson-Wood Cemetery, concluded that the cemetery was an area of one-acre.
In the Los Lomas Subdivision off of Rollingwood Drive, a well made cement walkway is set between two homes, and leads to the only remaining remnant of that once thriving society, the Jackson- Woods Cemetery. The Jackson family section of the cemetery is a small field scattered with large Juniper, young live oaks and native grasses. An opening on the north side of the encompassing wooden fence leads to a large wooded area, which is the Wood family section of the cemetery. The disrepair that plagues so many small cemeteries is not evident in this lone cemetery with in Westlake’s boundaries. Someone has trimmed the numerous cedar trees, which allows for easy mobility around the cemetery. Neighbors to the unoccupied area seem to respect its presence.
In comparison, the Rodgers and Burleson Cemetery off of Highway 969, is so overgrown, even though many of the gravesites have substantial markers, they cannot be seen. Hundreds of people are buried in this large lost cemetery where the majority of tombstones are unrecognizable through the invasive weeds and thicket. Once Williamson Creek Cemetery, off of IH 35 near the William Cannon exit, was shaded by stately oak trees over 200 years old. When the area was developed the cemetery was vandalized and today only numerous tree stumps remain, the wood long since burned. A broken, falling down chain link fence encloses the remaining headstones, many of which have been broken. These are just two of the numerous small family cemeteries surrounding central Austin. Some of these outlying cemeteries are still I use today, most though, have been forgotten.
As the generation of locals who remembered the existence of the Jackson-Wood Cemetery passed on, its location was soon unremembered. That is, until 1984 when the Manorwood Development Corporation began clearing the land to build a 108-acre subdivision and office park. A few headstones were spotted and Melissa Voellinger with Espy, Huston and Associates was called in to determine where exactly the cemetery began, and ended.
The community came into being when in 1852 Ex-Governor Woods decided to relocate to his home in East Texas. He offered his slave, Nathan Wood, the option of staying in Austin, or traveling with him. Nathan chose to stay, and live independently. Austin was expanding rapidly eastward so Nathan headed in the opposite direction. Rather than working for another, he moved across the Colorado and settled at the base of the pronounced incline, “Belle Hill” that is now in the bounds of Las Lomas. Soon he married an Indian woman who had lived among the limestone hills and dense forest all of her life. Their union and the eventual influx of extended family and friends created a large community that thrived until the 1930’s.
A penetrating radar survey was then conducted. This is an electro-magnetic radio wave which enters into the ground 6.5 feet and when the radio wave encounter a change in the soil and rock composition, such as ground water, buried objects or void areas, it would reflect back to the surface. 46 bodies were located, and it was determined that there were two cemeteries, rather than one, many of whom were related to the Jackson and Wood’s families. The Jackson portion of the cemetery is directly next to the Wood’s portion of the Cemetery. Today they are separated by a wooden fence, which replaced the rock wall, that had once stood for over 50 years. At one time, wood and limestone headstone’s marked the gravesites. Now only two headstones remain; one reading John Woods and the inscription on the other has long since faded due to weather which has cut into the soft limestone, forever blurring the name of the person who lived long ago in Westlake Hills.
Researched and written by Jeanine Plumer
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