It’s hard to know what the place where you live looked like more than two centuries ago, but there’s little doubt for most people that one good way to describe it would be “unrecognizable.”
But there’s at least one piece of Sanford from 1810 (well, a piece of this place anyway — Sanford wouldn’t be a thing until decades later) hiding in plain sight at the historic Buffalo Cemetery. Even more curious, this piece of local history has only been in its current location since 1989.
We don’t know much about the life of Roderick McIver, but even centuries after his death, his story continued.
To this day, occasional burials still occur in the oldest section of Buffalo Cemetery, which is situated at the intersection of Firetower Road and Carthage Street in Sanford. But most of the of the interments in this area are older — dating back 40, 60, even 100 years.
And even among these old markers, one small group of stones stands out among the rest. They mark final resting place of a Roderick McIver, a Scottish immigrant who died in 1810. He was 83 years old and had lived the last several years of his life on a plot of land in what’s now the Royal Pines subdivision off Cool Springs Road.
1810. It’s hard to get your head around just how long ago that was. James Madison was the fourth president, there were only 15 states, and the country was just 34 years old. The Civil War was still more than half a century off. Sanford wouldn’t be formed at the nexus of two railroad lines about three and a half miles from McIver’s home for another 66 years. Lee County wouldn’t split from Moore County for another 98.
McIver’s death even precedes that of Jacob Gaster, purported to be Lee County’s only Revolutionary War veteran and whose grave is now located on the grounds of the Lee County Courthouse, by 45 years.
It was a long time ago.
But there were people here even then, many of them Highland Scots who arrived at Wilmington and began settling further and further inland along the Cape Fear River. Such settlers in this area eventually formed the Buffalo Presbyterian Church, adjacent to the cemetery where McIver’s remains are interred today, in 1797.
A small cemetery just behind the church, while fenced off and difficult to see, is apparently the location of the congregation’s earliest burials in the mid 1850s, according to information gleaned from the U.S. Department of the Interior (the church and cemeteries are included on the National Register of Historic Places). Another cemetery just through the woods to the west is a reminder of some of the country’s uglier racial history — it’s said to be where African American slaves, and after the Civil War’s end, freed men and women, were buried, including W.B. Wicker, a locally-renowned educator for whom the Wicker School is named. A third cemetery, also owned by the church, sits in the traffic loop in front of the church.
But it’s at the 21-acre Buffalo Cemetery — transferred from the church to the city of Sanford in the 1940s, and then reorganized as a nonprofit in the 1960s — that McIver and some members of his family are buried. His hand-carved brownstone marker is one of a handful on the site which are listed by the National Register as historically significant.
And even though McIver died 207 years ago, he’s only been at Buffalo for the last 28.
In August of 1989, the same plot of land McIver made his home at two centuries ago — today classified by the Lee County Geographic Information System as Royal Pines Lot 12 (it’s on Pine Lake Drive in west Sanford) — had been sold by a developer for the purpose of building homes. The first houses in the subdivision had gone up one street over a few years prior, and the double ended cul-de-sac was now starting to fill up.
And it was on Lot 12 that tombstones marking the burials of McIver and his family in something of a family cemetery were apparently discovered by developers in the process of clearing the wooded area.
The only contemporaneous account of the discovery and the relocation of the remains comes from the Aug. 18, 1989 edition of The Sanford Herald. It reported that a Mrs. Orus Sutton, identifying herself as one of McIver’s great-great-great-granddaughters, led an effort to have the rediscovered remains moved to Buffalo after she was unhappy with a proposal to move them elsewhere on the Royal Pines property. Sutton was quoted in the Herald’s coverage as being concerned about preserving her family history, as well as about children in the area being “made emotional cripples” over the prospect of living and playing on top of a cemetery. On the day of the second burial, the Herald reported that Mrs. Sutton wore a red plaid skirt representative of the McIver family.
“I figured this was the day to wear it,” she was quoted as saying at the time.
That second burial came and went. Sutton appears to have passed away in 2008 and is today buried no more than a few dozen yards from her great-great-great-great grandfather. Given the thousands of burials at the Buffalo site, it seems unlikely to ever to suffer the same fate as the old McIver family cemetery and become a residential neighborhood. So this is likely it — the McIver family’s final resting place.
But standing among the stones and looking down at them today evokes a seemingly-endless string of questions. Who was Roderick McIver? How did he make his living? Why did he leave the Isle of Skye for what was then a yet-to-be-born nation? What was his opinion of the American Revolution? What was his life like? What was life in general like in what wouldn’t become Sanford for the better part of a century? Do any of McIver’s descendants remain in the area?
Some of these questions are probably more answerable than others (here’s a handy primer on the history of Highland Scot immigration to North Carolina in the 1700s, for example), and some are addressed in the Herald’s story from 1989:
For example, former Herald reporter Michael Esposito’s coverage indicates that McIver arrived here in 1775, the year of the American Revolution’s first hostilities. And his was apparently a family of some means and consequence in the formation of Sanford, since the story includes that McIver’s daughter “inherited enough land from her family to deed out rights of way for First Street and Second Street, and Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Streets, as well as North, Midland and Charlotte avenues.”
But even having read the Herald’s story, knowing the answers to all of these questions is of course impossible. Just the presence of these old markers, though, is enough to keep a person wondering.