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Course surrounds graves of earliest white settlers

Lawrence Pierce
A golfer walks to one of three putting greens surrounding French Cemetery, located on a knoll overlooking Berry Hills Country Club.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The final resting place for one of the first children born to Charleston settlers lies on a mound-shaped knoll, shaded by giant cedar trees, and surrounded by three putting greens, two tees and a tennis court.

French Cemetery, a community burial ground, occupies the highest point of ground at Berry Hills Country Club on the southern outskirts of Charleston. At the top of the knoll, small native stone markers with inscriptions obliterated by time denote the burial site of Reuben Daggs, a Davis Creek farmer born in 1790 in -- depending on which records are consulted -- Fort Lee or "Fort Charleston," Virginia.

Col. George Clendenin and 30 Virginia militiamen built Fort Lee in 1788 to protect newly arrived settlers carving out a life on the western frontier near the confluence of the Elk River with the Kanawha from raids by Native Americans.

Surrounded by a log stockade, the main fort building, located at what is now the intersection of Brooks Street and Kanawha Boulevard, was 36 feet long, 18 feet wide and 18 feet high. The fort was named in honor of Gen. Richard Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, an adroit horseman who George Washington quickly elevated through the ranks during the Revolutionary War. Lee was elected governor of Virginia four years after the fort was built.

After the fort was abandoned in 1796, the settlement surrounding it was named Charles Town to honor Clendenin's father, and later shortened to Charleston.

Daggs was the son of Angus and Lydia Daggs, a Delaware-born couple who were among Charleston's early settlers, arriving here sometime in the 1780s. Records show that Reuben Daggs married Catherine Phoebe Cook in Charleston in 1812. The couple had at least six children.

According to an obituary for Daggs' daughter, Margaret Daggs Dodson McClaskey, Reuben Daggs settled on a tract of several hundred acres along the Middle Fork of Davis Creek in 1826.

"Daggs owned land from Middle Fork back toward Loudendale," said Paul W. Hudson of Middle Fork Drive, who helps maintain the cemetery. "He built his home right about where the Berry Hills clubhouse is now." Hudson said that during his childhood, "you could still see the rock foundations of his place, and they would have coon hunts out there in his old fields."

 The hilltop cemetery began as a family plot, "but due to the generosity of the Daggs family, it evolved into a community facility," Hudson said. "It was formerly known as the Daggs burial ground, but the name French Cemetery came into being when a son-in-law named French died and was buried there."

Daggs died in 1873 and is buried near his wife, who died 20 years earlier. Their daughter, Margaret, the widow of a War of 1812 veteran, is buried a short distance downslope.

"The cemetery wasn't kept up well when I was growing up, back before the country club was built," Hudson said. "There were briars and brush and a little path leading through them to the cemetery."

The cemetery was not disturbed by the construction and development of Berry Hills, and the country club has remained a good neighbor through the years, Hudson said.

"It's a unique situation, having an old community cemetery surrounded by a classy golf course," he said.

French Cemetery contains about 450 burials, including grandparents on both sides of Hudson's family, and is approaching capacity..

Hudson set up a bank account in 1991 to hold donations for cemetery maintenance. Contributions can be sent to French Cemetery Maintenance Fund at 1859 Middle Fork Drive, Charleston, WV 25314.

"It's a beautiful place, overlooking the golf course, tennis courts and clubhouse, and in the shade of about 50 centuries-old cedar trees," Hudson said.

"There's a couple from Florida who came up here to attend a brother's service, and loved what they saw there," he said. "They made arrangements to be buried here, too."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

 


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