Thursday, August 19, 2021

The grave of Narcissa Owen- memoirist, artist, and "Indian Princess"

On the Spring Hill Cemetery website under “Notables,” Narcissa C. Owen (183l-1911) is listed as "’The Indian Princess’ who lived at Point of Honor during the Civil War.” She is also listed as an “artist and the daughter of Thomas Chisholm, the last hereditary Chief of the Western Cherokees [as well as the] wife of Robert Latham Owen, Sr.”  After visiting her grave, I did some research and learned that she wrote Memoirs of Narcissa Owen, 1831-1907, published in 1907.[1] She also was a prominent voice in woman suffrage and the rights of Cherokee people. [2]

While she was a memoirist, she identified as a portrait artist and her most notable works include a notable a self-portrait, and Thomas Jefferson and His Descendants.[3] Her interest in Jefferson was an association with her father, Thomas Chisholm, who received the silver Peace and Friendship medal in recognition of being the last hereditary war chief of the Cherokees from Jefferson in 1808.[4]

Graves of husband and her son.

Born on October 3, 1831 to Thomas Chisholm and Malinda Wharton, Narcissa was the youngest of four children. She was the direct descent of Queen Quatisis, “the lineal successor of the seven original chiefs of Cherokee blood.”[5]

Young Narcissa did not have the easiest upbringing. Her father died in 1834 and her mother was unable to care for all four children so her siblings were sent away to school. She remained with her mother for two years before she was also sent away.[6] When she was nearly 11 years old, she moved in with her older sister. She would go on to a women’s college in Indiana and then attend Miss Sawyer’s Female Seminary in Fayetteville, Arkansas.[7]

The Caney News, (Caney, Kansas: July 21, 1911).

She married her husband Robert Latham Owen, a descendant of George Washington on October 4, 1853, a day after her nineteenth birthday.[8] And since it sometimes feels like all roads lead to Richmond, Charles Dimmock, the architect who designed Hollywood Cemetery’s 90-foot pyramid that was erected in December 1868, was one of the groomsmen at their wedding.[9] This is a complete aside but while researching Narcissa Owen and then falling down a rabbit hole about Charles Dimmock, I learned that the Hollywood Memorial Association sent him to monitor the exhumation of the Southern remains in the Gettysburg battlefield. It was his report about the horrid conditions and desecration of the graves by farmers that recommended that the bodies be moved to Hollywood.[10]  

By the Civil War, Narcissa Owen and her family were living in Lynchburg. Along with five hundred other Lynchburg ladies, she helped provide young recruits with uniforms and hospital supplies. When there weren’t jobs enough jobs for sewing and earning an income, Narcissa Owen collected money from wealthier families to provide for the wives and children of Lynchburg’s soldiers.[11]

In June 1873, her husband passed away. Her son, Robert Latham Owen, Jr. and she moved to the Cherokee Nation. She was offered a position to teach in the Cherokee Female Seminary in 1880 and continued in the position until 1884.

Memoirs of Narcissa Owen, 1907

Although she was always interested in art, she began to focus on learning perspective and oil colors after she left her teaching position.

In 1907, she published her memoirs and then passed away a few years later on July 11, 1911. She was 80 years old.[12]


Epitaph of her son

[1] Narcissa Owen, Memoirs of Narcissa Owen, 1831-1907, 1907, The place of publication is not identified. Amherst College Digital Collections, Archives & Special Collections,

[2] “Mrs. Owen Was Indian Princess,” The Poteau News, (Poteau, Oklahoma: July 20, 1911)2.

[3] Stacie Boston, “Owen's Life Consisted of Love for Art, Music and Her People.” Cherokee Phoenix, March 4, 2021.

[4] Janet Shaffer. "Narcissa and Robert Owen: The Point of Honor Years." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 89, no. 2 (1981): 166.

[5] The Caney News, (Caney, Kansas: July 21, 1911).

[6] Shaffer, 155.

[7] Shaffer, 156.

[8] Shaffer, 157.

[9] Shaffer, 156.

[10] Adrienne E. Robertson,"Charles Henry Dimmock (1831–1873)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia, published 2015.

[11] Shaffer, 159.

[12] Shaffer, 167.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The "Resident Ghost" of the Cemetery

Spring Hill Cemetery, Lynchburg, Virginia

Cornelia Clopton's grave
Spring Hill Cemetery in Lynchburg, Virginia lists Cornelia Clopton (1852-1917) as their "Resident Ghost,” which made me very curious. Cemetery management do not tend to mention ghosts, and they certainly do not list “ghosts” on their website. Yet, here she is listed as one of the Notables.[1] Having taught a course on ghost stories and haunted history, I see ghost stories and ghost lore as another opportunity to connect with our past.

Cornelia L Clopton was born on October 31, 1852, in Virginia, to Rev. James Chappell Clopton and Mary Ann Cottrell Clopton. She lived nearly all of her days in Lynchburg and from the United State Census listings and her death certificate, she remained at home helping to take care of her family.

The grave of William Abner Stuart

Cornelia was one of six children. William Abner Stuart, the oldest child was born on July 25, 1848. Martha Susan was born in 1850, Cornelia was born in 1852, Fannie Fry was born in 1855, John was born in 1860 and Benjamin Ashby was born in 1862 just months before his older brother, William Abner who was part of Shoemaker's Virginia Horse Artillery was mortally wounded near Port Royal by Union gunboats. William Abner died on December 6, 1862. He was 14 years old.

William Abner Stuart and his father Rev. James C. Clopton
Their father, Rev. James Chappell Clopton died on May 18, 1864. I could not find if his death was in any way connected to the war. Her sister Fannie passed away in 1910 at the age of 55 years at the Home and Retreat hospital[2] and her mother died in 1914. Aside from the mother who was 89 years old when she passed away, half of the family died relatively young but still not particularly unusual for that time.

Cornelia passed away from pneumonia on March 26, 1917, in Bozeman, Montana at the age of 64 while visiting her brother and was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Lynchburg, Virginia.[3] Her death certificate lists pneumonia while some newspaper articles from the 1970s read that she died from the flu. Her two remaining brothers lived in Montana and her sister, Susie Ford, lived in Canton, Ohio at the time of her death.

The Times Dispatch, (Richmond, VA: March 29,1917)
State of Montana Certificate of Death

Cornelia Clopton became part of a ghost story in 1974 when an unnamed man whom the newspaper gave the fictious name of Philip Williams lived in the family’s former residence. Williams and his wife noticed “odd noises” and some “undefinable presence.” On the morning of April 5, 1974, he saw a light that he first assumed was the neighbor’s garage door until he realized the light source was not coming from that direction. The light took the shape of a 5 ft tall women with “her hair up and a long skirt and full leg o’ mutton sleeves.” Williams explains, “the woman never looked up [and] never spoke, but moved slowly to another room, out of sight.” After doing some research at the courthouse, they determined it was Cornelia. While historical records are not clear, the belief is that Cornelia Clopton’s body arrived from Minnesota on April 5th just 57 years before. Williams also “learned there used to be an early train from the West, arriving in Lynchburg at 5 or 5:20 a.m.,” which was the approximate time the apparition was seen. The couple continued to feel her presence about the house but noted, “It was terribly frightening to see…but it’s totally benevolent.” He concluded, “It’s a happy house—always has been.”[4]

When visiting Spring Hill Cemetery, Cornelia is buried beside her parents, her sister Fannie, and her brother William Abner. Even without a map, visitors can easily spot the Clopton graves if strolling through the cemetery as they are located near the road. But why wasn’t Fannie considered the ghost? She died younger than her sister. My hunch is that when researching the “ghost” the Halloween birth date stuck out along with dying away from home, and that that makes for a better story. 

[1] “Notables,” Spring Hill Cemetery, Lynchburg, Virginia,

[2] “Deaths in Virginia,” The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland: June 24, 1910), 12).

[3] “Miss Cornelia Clopton,” The Times Dispatch, (Richmond, VA: March 29, 1917), 3; and, State of Montana Certificate of Death, March 26, 1917. 

[4] “A special story for Halloween,” The Bee (Danville, VA: October 31, 1977), 11-B.