Tony and Todd Durm's home looks out over Oak Grove Cemetery in Marietta, but until this year the father and son never knew that part of that view was the resting place of some of Marietta's earliest settlers, left unidentified and unrecognized.
Since January, the two have found themselves immersed in a research project, determined to find the names of the 26 people who died more than 200 years ago and were not included in local history books.
"This has kind of become an all-consuming quest," said Tony Durm, an engineer with the Ohio Department of Transportation. "These names were lost to history and we want to do what's right and commemorate these early pioneers and veterans."
MITCH CASEY The Marietta Times
Eagle Scout Todd Durm, 15, clears debris from a tombstone at the Unknown Pioneer plot Wednesday evening at Oak Grove Cemetery. Durm is researching just who is buried in the 15-foot by 15-foot plot.
To date, the Durms have identified 16 people who they think are buried in the Unknown Pioneer plot at the cemetery and hope to have historians confirm the finds.
One already confirmed occupant of the plot, which was created in 1871 and filled with the bodies of 26 people who originally had graves at the current site of American Legion Post 64 at Eighth and Wooster streets, is Gen. James Mitchell Varnum, who died in January 1789.
Several organizations from across the country worked together to make that find. It was always known that the general was buried in Marietta but the exact location was unconfirmed.
About the site
The first 26 people to die in the settlement, beginning in 1788, were buried on land at Eighth and Wooster streets. When a home was being constructed there in 1870, bones were found and the remains were reburied at Oak Grove Cemetery. Only two people were officially identified.
The general was one of George Washington's brigadier generals in the Continental Army and he commanded the Army's first black regiment. Later the lawyer and soon-to-be federal judge would be the first to successfully challenge the laws of the new government, having an act of the Rhode Island General Assembly declared unconstitutional.
"I had never heard of any of this until we started this project," said Todd Durm, 15, a freshman at Marietta High School. "Before, when I looked at the cemetery, I thought, 'What makes this different than anywhere else?' And so many other people have never heard of this person or this plot."
Durm embarked on the project with his father in order to become an Eagle Scout, but after months of visits to the Historical Society and Marietta College's Special Collections to dig through old documents, it's become much more, said the teen.
"It gives us a much better perspective on who these people were and the history behind their lives and the history of Marietta," he said. "And I like the research. I'm always like, 'I'm actually holding the papers Rufus Putnam held.'"
The Durms have pored over Ohio Company papers, journals, diaries, early probate records and newspaper accounts to solve the mystery.
"It's truly like putting a puzzle together, with bits and pieces at a time," said Tony Durm. "And he's my 15-year-old son looking at documents that are 230 years old. It's been a remarkable experience."
The first person to die in the settlement and the first to be buried on the old burial grounds was 13-month-old Nabby Cushing, who died in 1788 and was the daughter of Major Nathaniel Cushing. The Durms also believe that buried in the plot are soldier Inglehart Hopper and a number of people who succumbed to smallpox.
"There was one man who was traveling to Kentucky and was so sick he got off here in Marietta and he died here," said Tony Durm. "There were eight others who he appears to have contaminated and they also died soon after. "
The man's wife and children ended up staying and living in Fort Harmar, with the wife eventually remarrying, he said.
The project is expected to wrap up in the fall, with Todd Durm earning his Eagle Scout status. Veterans markers and a plaque paying tribute to those buried at the site are planned.
In July 2010, a ceremony will be held to honor Varnum, planned by the local chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.
If all 26 inhabitants of the grave site haven't been identified then, Tony Durm said the family will likely keep researching on their own.
"We're just following all the different threads of these individuals and families, and it's been wonderful," he said. "We never knew what was truly right in our front yard."