Unraveling the mystery of Van Buren's mysterious Mystery Grave in Fairview Cemetery
Does a grave that seems to predate the founding of Van Buren that is located in the historic Fairview Cemetery on Log Town Hill in that city contain the remain of a Viking, a member of Herndado de Soto's party that explored America, the remains of a Native American or is it the merely the final resting place of a member of one of the pioneer family settlers of the region?
A plaque once attached to the footstone of the grave notes the local legend that this is the grave of one of DeSoto's men, also mentioning that the carving on the headstone might be a masonic symbol. That plaque reportedly disappeared sometime before 2010.
Most historians don't think de Soto came this far up river, so the grave probably doesn't belong to a member of that expedition.
That's not the only theory, though. Some say it's an Indian grave, possibly the final resting place of a Christianized Cherokee. The enigmatic mark on the stone is what has given way to possible Viking association. And there is also the possibility it could belong to a member of the Thompson family, which helped settle the area.
The "masonic connection" comes from the fact that prominent Mason and educator Albert Pike lived in the area at about the same time Van Buren was founded. The original Masonic Hall in Van Buren was reportedly built just a couple of hundred yards from the gravesite.
Back in 1925 representatives of the Arkansas History Commission accompanied by a group of masons opened the grave. The Van Buren Press-Argus reported that they found "some well-preserved teeth, indicating a man fully 60 years old, thigh and other bones were found in a splendid state of preservation and some hand-wrought nails" although no records exist of any findings concerning that exhumation.
The website ExploreSouthernHistory.com has a few alternative theories, especially when it comes to the De Soto legend. The site pretty much dismisses the Viking and de Soto legends out pf hand, citing the "Masonic" synbol" on the grave as proving the burial came at a much later date.
The exact route of the Spanish expedition's march through Arkansas is subject to much debate. Anthropologist Charles Hudson of the University of Georgia has speculated that the Conquistadors may have marched far up the Arkansas River valley and some of the various other researchers concur.
Since the surviving chronicles of expedition members are extremely vague, it is impossible to know for sure but it is reasonable to think they weary explorers could have made it as far as Van Buren.
The real story of the Mystery Grave, however, is probably a bit less exotic, but still of great historical interest. A visit to Fairview Cemetery will quickly disclose a few facts about the "unique" grave.
First, it is oriented in a typical East-West alignment with the head of the grave facing east. This has been a traditional Christian burial pattern for many years. The grave is also part of and clearly aligned with other graves in the plot of the Thompson family, one of the pioneer families of Van Buren and Crawford County.
And finally, the "unique stone grave" which is surrounded by and was probably once covered with larger , slab stones-- is not really all that unique. Others of almost identical construction can be found in old cemeteries across the South. Invariably, these date from the 1820s.
It was common practice on the frontier in these days to built enclosures of log or stone over graves to prevent wild animals and even hogs from digging up the remains of loved ones. Such log enclosures eventually rotted away, but ones built of stone and brick still remain.
In view of these facts, it appears most likely that the person buried in Van Buren's Mystery Grave was actually a man who died on the frontier in the 1820s (give or take a year or two).
He was probably a Mason and most likely a member of Van Buren's pioneer Thompson family, who are mentioned as being members of that order in some of the Crawford County research.
Viking, Conquistador, Indian chief or some guy named Thompson?
We can only speculate.