INDIANOLA – Red flags pepper the landscape at Calhoun County’s historic Indianola Cemetery.
Though the cemetery still has standing grave markers and even a rare — for the area — mausoleum, many of the markers have been lost to the sands of time since the final burials in Indianola in 1886. Between 75-80 stone markers are still in the cemetery, but over the years some have been stolen and wooden markers have deteriorated to nothing, said Gary Ralston, treasurer and marker chair of the Calhoun County Historical Commission.
The flags, which sprang up last week, are meant to rectify that.
“We suspected there were unmarked graves there just because it was so long ago,” Ralston said. “Nature and everything takes its toll on a cemetery.”
A ground survey conducted at Indianola Cemetery last week revealed unmarked graves that more than doubled the size of the cemetery.
The survey was conducted because the historical commission suspected there was more to the cemetery than the eye could see, Ralston said. Though Indianola itself is now nothing more than an unincorporated fishing village, it was the second-largest port of entry into Texas at its height and has a rich history.
Surveys of this nature are becoming more common, said Benton Smith, a surveyor with Sentry Mapping, a company that specializes in mapping cemeteries across the U.S. and has even conducted surveys in Victoria’s Memorial Park.
Before the survey was conducted, there were just 75-80 marked graves, Ralston said.
“There were approximately 110 unmarked graves that were found,” he said. “It’s adding to the history of Indianola itself.”
Many of the unmarked graves appear to be bodies that were buried in single graves and in shrouds instead of in caskets, Ralston said.
A suspected mass grave was also found during the survey, Ralston said. Hurricanes swept through and destroyed Indianola in 1875 and 1886, and the bodies in the mass grave could be unidentifiable victims of one of the storms.
The survey was conducted using ground penetrating radar, Ralston said.
“It doesn’t disturb the soil, and it doesn’t cause any harm to the cemetery,” he said. “It just indicates what’s in the ground, what’s been disturbed.”
The radar is capable of detecting changes in the soil which can then be mapped out, Smith said.
“Even a body that decomposed 100 years ago, most of the time we’re still going to be able to see a change.”
The data collected from the survey will be used to create an updated map of the cemetery, Ralston said.
“You’re going to be able to see the existing markers and information on them as well as the locations of the unmarked graves,” he said. “It’s something we’ll have for perpetuity, and there’s other cemeteries in that area that we’ll probably do in the future, too.”
The other cemeteries Ralston said they were looking at are Zimmerman and Cemetery on the Ridge.
The town of Indianola has a rich history, Ralston said.
“(Indianola’s) a very important town to Texas history,” he said.
In its heyday, Indianola was the second largest port in Texas, second only to Galveston, Ralston said. The town was initially founded by German settlers who arrived by boat in the 1840s.
The settlers expected to be greeted by wagon trains that would escort them to Central Texas, he said. When the settlers landed and no one was there to meet them, they instead settled where they landed and established a frontier seaport town.
The hurricane in 1875 destroyed Indianola and was the primary cause for the inhabitants to leave, Ralston said.
“It pretty well destroyed the town,” he said. “Some people stayed and vowed to rebuild. In 1886, another hurricane came, which was really the final blow to Indianola.”
No bodies were buried in the cemetery after 1886, Ralston said.
According to a historical marker at Indianola Cemetery, Union soldier and Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. William H. Barnes was buried in the cemetery. Barnes was a Black soldier and member of the 38th United States Colored Infantry Regiment during the Civil War and received a medal of honor for his actions in the Battle of New Market Heights. He was stationed in Indianola during Reconstruction, where he died of consumption.
Barnes is no longer buried at Indianola, however, having been reinterred in San Antonio National Cemetery in 2012.
Sentry Mapping conducts surveys at cemeteries across the country, Smith said.
“My company probably maps three or four cemeteries a month,” he said.
Smith said often times at older cemeteries, it becomes difficult to know where it is safe to dig, and his company can provide maps that ensure graves remain undisturbed.
Sentry Mapping conducted a survey at Victoria’s Memorial Park in November or December, said Jason Alfaro, director of Parks and Recreation.
“We knew that there were unmarked graves there,” Alfaro said. “We just don’t know where, right? That (survey) provided us the information, and we now have that available for future projects that me may have coming up down the road.”
Alfaro said he believed the survey may have revealed 98 unmarked graves.
Cody covers the business beat for the Advocate. He can be reached at (361) 580-6504 or firstname.lastname@example.org