Orphans and Orphans: A Sad Bit of History

The topic for 85th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy is Orphans and Orphans; we’re invited tell the story of traditional orphans – children who lost their parents, or “reverse orphans” – those who left no descendents of their own to tell their story.

A branch of my family that represents both kinds of “orphans” has haunted me ever since I first learned of their fate.

About ten years ago, my mother and I visited a cousin in Old Fort, North Carolina.  As she guided us through Old Siloam Church cemetery, where our relatives in that area were buried, she casually pointed to a row of six headstones, saying “That’s Tom Hemphill’s family.  They all died of typhoid.”

They all died of typhoid.1

It was the summer of 1864, and the South was losing the war.  Sherman was marching through Georgia.  Disease was rampant; roughly two-thirds of Confederate fatalities were due to infectious diseases.2 While no major battles took place in western North Carolina, soldiers coming home on leave would surely have spread disease to the civilian population.

When cousin Nina said “they all died of typhoid,” I thought she meant that the whole family died of typhoid.  I’ve since learned that there were children who did not perish in this epidemic.  The six gravestones represent Tom and Rebecca, and four of their younger children.

First to succumb was Thomas “Boot Tom” Hemphill, on July 24, at the age of 57.  Typhoid runs its course in about four weeks.  Tom must have caught the disease first; he may have brought it home to his family, for they began to die about three weeks after he did.

Mary, a daughter, died next on August 15.  She was twelve.3

Next to go was Samuel, the baby of the family.  He died on August 21, three weeks shy of his sixth birthday.4

Their mother, Rebecca (McEntire) died on August 22.  She was 51 years old.5

Three days later, the next-youngest son Columbus, age seven, died.6

Finally, on September 11, Joseph, died at the age of 14.7

Tom and Rebecca had eleven children living with them at the time of the 1860 census.8  Four died in the summer of 1864.  Of their remaining children, John Whitfield would have been 16 at the time of his parents’ deaths.  I don’t know if the other six were still alive, but if they were, they would have ranged in age from nine to twenty-three in 1864.

My mother and I revisited Old Siloam cemetery this summer and, even though it had been ten years, I immediately knew which row held this family.  As I’ve been working on processing my photos from that trip, I realized why it was so easy to identify the location of their graves.  The stones are all the same shape, with the same style of inscription.  I can only imagine the stonecutter, carving stone after stone to mark the passing of this family.

Hemphill genealogy

Hemphill Family Gravestones

  1. Margaret H. Anthony, Hemphills in North Carolina (Collegedale, TN: The College Press, 1981), 29.
  2. Civil War Home (http://www.civilwarhome.com/ : accessed 27 Nov 2009), “Medical Care, Battle Wounds, and Disease”.
  3. Old Siloam Cemetery (Old Fort, McDowell, North Carolina, USA), Mary R. Hemphill monumental inscription, personally photographed by Tonia Kendrick, 13 Aug 2009.
  4. Old Siloam Cemetery (Old Fort, McDowell, North Carolina), Samuel D. P. Hemphill monumental inscription.
  5. Old Siloam Cemetery (Old Fort, McDowell, North Carolina), Rebecca Hemphill monumental inscription.
  6. Old Siloam Cemetery (Old Fort, McDowell, North Carolina), Columbus P. Hemphill monumental inscription.
  7. Old Siloam Cemetery (Old Fort, McDowell, North Carolina), Joseph G. Hemphill monumental inscription.
  8. 1860 U.S. census, McDowell County, North Carolina population schedule, p. 52 (penned), dwelling 348, family 348, Thomas Hemphill; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 13 Dec 2008); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M653, roll 904.

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