Big South Fork’s tragic cemetery, where farmer buried seven of his children

One by one, Wesley Owens buried his children.

A farmer by trade, Owens dug their graves, built their coffins, and lowered their small bodies into the ground on a small knoll overlooking his home along Station Camp Creek in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

On that knoll, now hidden deep in the forest unless you know where to look and what you’re looking for, there is a single-file row of graves: seven of Wesley Owens’ children, and then Wesley himself. You see, after Wesley was tasked with burying his kids, he was laid to rest beside them. And so completed one of the most heartbreaking tragedies that you’ll find record of in the harsh and unforgiving backcountry of the Big South Fork.

Actually, it might have been Owens’ wife, Susanna, who was most heartbroken. You see, by the time Wesley Owens took his spade in hand and climbed the hill to dig the first grave, Susanna had already experienced heartbreak.

George Owens was the last of seven Owens children to be buried on a small knoll overlooking the family’s home | Photo: Ben Garrett

July 10, 1872. That’s the day Susanna’s first husband, Daniel Pennington, died. He was murdered. And not by just anyone. It was Susanna’s own brother who pulled the trigger.

The motive? Who knows. But, for one reason or another, 26-year-old Pennington got into a fight with his brother-in-law, Elias Meshack Slaven. During the fight, Slaven fired a gun at Pennington. Pennington returned fire, and struck Slaven in the shoulder.

Maybe Pennington knew retaliation would be swift. He left the home he shared with Susanna and hid in the underbrush nearby. But he wasn’t hidden well enough. It wasn’t long before another of his wife’s brothers, Steward Riley Slaven, approached and shot Pennington. He died the next day.

Both Meshack and Steward were indicted for Pennington’s death, but both of them fled the Big South Fork region and never stood trial. Another man, Anderson Lewallen, was also indicted, but he was acquitted.

So Susanna — the granddaughter of Revolutionary War veteran Richard Harve Slaven, who was the first white man to settle the region — was widowed. Her brothers were implicated in her husband’s death. She was just 20 years old. And she was five months pregnant.

Over the next 30 years, Susanna would bury seven of her children, and then her second husband, before finally leaving Station Camp Creek for good.

We know the lineage of Susanna Owens and how she wound up in Big South Fork country. Less is known about Wesley Owens and how he wound up here. But what we do know is that he was a Civil War veteran, and that he owned and operated a large grist mill along Station Camp Creek. It was one of eight mills in operation in the Station Camp-No Business region at the peak of settlement in those communities.

At some point after Dan Pennington was murdered and buried in the Chimney Rock Cemetery on the other side of the river, Wesley Owens married Susanna. There are government records showing that they were married in July 1877. That is likely an error, however, because their first child was born in 1874.

Samantha. That was the name Wesley and Susanna gave to their baby girl. She was the first of 10 children they would have together. And the first of seven of those children that they would bury on the small knoll above their home.

Feb. 22, 1888 was the day Samantha died. She was 13 at the time, and she died just four days before her 14th birthday.

What did Samantha die of? That’s not clear. Certainly, child deaths weren’t uncommon in those days, especially in the remote wilderness that was cut off from advanced medical care. But very few families saw deaths sweep through their children like Wesley and Susanna Owens experienced.

The late Tom Des Jean, first archaeologist of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, once pointed out that there were epidemics of yellow fever and other illness that swept through the region in the late 1800s. It was a horrible way to die. Spread by mosquitoes, it caused typical viral symptoms like fever, headache, chills and muscle pains. But just as its victims seemed to be improving, the virus often turned toxic. The second phase caused liver damage. It wasn’t uncommon for people suffering from yellow fever to first experience jaundice and vomiting, then begin to bleed from the mouth, eyes and gastrointestinal tract. Delirium would follow, and then death.

Samantha was buried on the hill overlooking the Owens farmhouse. Ironically, she died on the day the family was celebrating the first birthday of her baby brother, James Owens.

Then, just five months later, on July 19, 1888, James also died. He was buried alongside his sister. The sadness felt by Wesley and Susanna must have been almost unbearable.

Soon after — we don’t know exactly when; the field stone on which his epitaph was chiseled is too eroded to be legible — Ebbin Owens died at around the age of nine.

The tragedies just kept coming. In 1889, four-year-old Sarah died. It is her stone that gives us a clue as to when Ebbin died. Like Samantha and baby James, Ebbin’s headstone was chiseled from the field stone that was found around the Owens farm. But when Sarah died in 1889, Wesley and Susanna purchased a commercial stone. “Sweetly resting,” it read.

In a span of just over a year, four of the family’s children had passed away.

There were brighter days ahead for the Owens family. The deaths of the children stopped after Sarah was buried. William and Susanna worked the farm and the mill. Their oldest surviving child, Lawrence, was seven. Willis was three. And in 1890, just a year after the four children died, a new arrival came to the farm. Baby Electa was born.

The happier days would not last. In 1892, little Lawrence — who Wesley and Susanna fondly called Larry — died at the age of 10. Four years after that, Electa died.

Susanna had been pregnant again in 1892, the year Larry died. Their son, George, was born that same year. But in 1900, eight-year-old George died as well.

Finally, in 1903, Wesley died at the age of 78. We don’t know what he died of. It may well have been that he grieved himself to death. He was buried on the knoll overlooking the family farm, alongside his seven young children.

After that, Susanna and her surviving children — including 17-year-old Willis, 15-year-old Cordelia and nine-year-old Baily — left Station Camp Creek. The farm was sold to Jacob Blevins Jr. — known as “Uncle Jake,” and the person for who “Jake’s Place” near Charit Creek is named after — who continued operating the grist mill.

Susanna wound up in Mt. Pisgah, near the Little South Fork in Kentucky, where she died in 1935 at the age of 82.

Cordelia — also known as Cordie — lived until 1970, when she died at the age of 81. She is buried in Opossum Rock Cemetery.

Willis married Maudie Davis and they had eight children, the last of whom — James Owens — died in Oregon in 2020. Willis died in 1973 and is also buried at Opossum Rock.

Finally, Baily — who married Cora Mays and had two children — died in 1975, at the age of 80. Like his two siblings who survived to adulthood, he was buried at Opossum Rock.

And so ended the incredibly sad story of the Owens clan from Station Camp Creek.

Today, the cemetery has faded into the wilderness. At almost two miles from the river and almost two miles from Charit Creek, it’s about as deep into the backcountry as you can get in the BSF. The nearest road is actually Hatfield Ridge Road, and it’s almost within shouting distance. But the terrain between Hatfield Ridge and the old Owens farm is, as the old-timers who settled these creek valleys would’ve said, “rough as a cob.” So the few who venture in usually park at the trailhead above Charit Creek and hike in that way.

The cemetery is actually a stone’s throw from the horse trail connecting the Station Camp river crossing with Charit Creek Lodge more than three miles beyond the river. But unless you know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it. In the winter months, when cold weather has killed off the seasonal undergrowth, you can look for cedar trees growing on the hillside and use them as guideposts to lead you to the graves of Wesley Owens and his children. For whatever reason, these old cemeteries often have cedars growing among the graves (that’s actually true of cemeteries throughout the South, and is a story unto itself). During the warm weather months, the new growth virtually hides the headstones unless you nearly stumble over them.

But if you find yourself riding along the banks of Station Camp Creek on your horse, or if you’re hiking in the vicinity of Charit Creek Lodge, you owe it to yourself to look for the bend in the trail where the stream bottom widens. It’s here that Wesley Owens established his 19th century farmstead. And if you look close enough, you’ll be able to pick out the margins of the old fields between the road and the creek. And on a bench overlooking the foundation stones where Owens’ house once stood are the line of graves. Visit this site of heartbreaking Big South Fork tragedy. Run your fingers over the epitaphs that are fading from the stones. You’ll feel the story. And it’s a story you won’t soon forget.

GC Staff
GC Staff
Go Cumberlands is the premiere source of information for visitors to Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains and Cumberland Plateau region.

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