This Tiny Austin Cemetery Has Been Here For 162 Years. Will Construction Force It Out?

Apr 25, 2018

In the median of Highway 183 near the Austin airport, there’s a scraggly patch of mesquite trees. The grass around it is overgrown. In the shade of those trees is the final resting place of at least six people — buried more than a 100 years ago. The historical marker at the little graveyard says it’s the Davidson-Littlepage Cemetery.

Now, as the cars zoom by within feet of the graves, a massive construction project looms nearby.

Credit Gabriel C. Pérez

The cemetery is surrounded by a chain-link fence, with another fence around that one. It’s hard to see the gravestones amid the tall grass.

Several people asked about this little cemetery for ATXplained. Lee Bolton, Picheska Marerro and Emily Bain all wondered about the story behind this place, which the highways seem to have grown up around. And now that a new round of construction is underway here, they wonder what will become of it.

Family Tree

As you might imagine, the whole area around the cemetery looked a lot different back in the mid-1800s, when the people resting in the cemetery were interred. This land used to be known as Burditt’s Prairie, named for the family who owned a cotton plantation here.

Then, of course, things changed.

Eventually, roads were laid out. Bergstrom Air Force Base was built on the site of what’s now the airport. Then the traffic came.

At least six people are known to be buried at the Davidson-Littlepage Cemetery. Nancy Beam Pexa, a descendant of one of them, has done a lot of research on it.

“I'm obsessed with genealogy and family history,” she says.

One of the people buried here is Nancy’s great-great-great grandmother, Martha Elizabeth (Burditt) Davidson. She was born in Tennessee on May 3, 1816, and died April 12, 1864. She had two children with her husband, Andrew Davidson. 

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Both of the children — Lavinia Davidson Campbell and James A. Davidson — are also buried at the Davidson-Littlepage Cemetery.  They lived to 23 and 20, respectively.

Then there’s Susan Littlepage, who was 65 years old when she died on Jan. 21, 1870, and Martha Knight Littlepage, who was 30 when she died in 1868.

Credit Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

Nancy comes to visit the graves when she’s in Austin. She remembers going to see them for the first time, as the cars whizzed by along 183.

“It was almost spiritual,” she says. “I said a prayer and thought, I wondered, how many people never knew that they were there all these years. And you know it made me sad in a way, and then it was also very interesting to be able to see that piece of history.”

The cemetery was nearly lost back in the 1950s.

Highway planners came across it as they were laying out a new road to Bastrop — what would become Highway 71 — back then. The gravestones were broken and toppled. The weeds overgrown. According to an article from the Austin American-Statesman in 1967, the highway department tried to find descendants of the people buried there.

“... All efforts to locate relatives of the long-forgotten dead were in vain.

So, the Texas Highway Department made an 'exception' in its right-of-way purchase, put up the chain-link fence, righted the headstones and cleared away the weeds.”

It would be another 30 years before any descendants would discover their link to the Davidson-Littlepage Cemetery.

A Genealogy Jigsaw Puzzle

The next part of the story begins with a mystery that involves some iconic characters in Austin’s more recent history: James and Annetta White, founders and owners of the Broken Spoke, the legendary honky-tonk on South Lamar.

“You know, we got into genealogy in 1969,” James White says. “I always kind of figured, you know, you should know where you came from — maybe it’ll help you figure out where you’re going, you know? It’s just some little simple thing. It’s a clue of some sort.”

Annetta and James White opened the Broken Spoke honky-tonk in 1964.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT

The Whites have spent decades and traveled thousands of miles researching their family history. They’ve compiled everything they’ve learned into a giant book — plus many more three-ring binders — of birth and death and marriage dates, family trees, old photos and details of their ancestors.

“I’ve been hearing family stories about my family forever, since I was a little kid,” James says. “And I kind of knew about Grampy Campbell — who was John Eaton Campbell.”

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Campbell, James’ great-great grandfather, was a rancher in Austin back in the 1800s. Campbell’s Hole, the swimming hole on Barton Creek where he used to water his cattle back in the day, was named for him.

The Whites knew John Eaton Campbell was married to a woman named Lavinia, but they didn’t know what became of her.

“We started asking family members, 'Where was his wife buried?’ And nobody knew anything about it,” James says.

“Everybody we talked to said, ‘Oh, she just wandered off one day!’” Annetta says. “I said, ‘She didn’t wander off!’”

So one day in the 1980s — they’re not exactly sure when — Annetta and James’ dad, Bruce, went to the Austin History Center to look through the cemetery records to see if they could find where Lavinia was buried. They spent hours at it, poring over the old documents.

Finally, they found her: buried in 1857 in the Davidson-Littlepage Cemetery.

James White at the Davidson-Littlepage Cemetery in the 1980s (right). The gravestone of Martha Elizabeth Davidson, James' great-great-great-grandmother.
Credit Annetta White

“You know, I just can’t even tell you the feeling when we finally found that,” Annetta says. “When you do genealogy, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. And you’re so thrilled when you find another piece that fits.”

Annetta and Bruce rushed home to get James so they could all go out to the cemetery together.

“When I finally, you know, got there, it made everything real,” James recalls. “You know, it’s like — this is my great-great-grandmother. And it was just a fulfillment of all of a sudden you’re there, you know? It’s like finding gold — if you’re out there digging in the dirt for a long time. Man, I’ve hit the mother lode!”

Not only did they discover his great-great-grandmother there, but also his great-great-great grandmother, Martha Elizabeth Davidson.

They also came to believe that Lavinia Campbell died in childbirth and that the baby had died, too. They think the newborn is buried with her.

Development Closing In

Now, giant mounds of dirt loom over the cemetery. Flyovers are being built right through the area. So our question-askers wondered what’s next for the cemetery: “Are they building over it? Are they building around it? Are they going to move it?”

“The plan all along has been to leave it where it is and not to impact it and to work around it,” says Steve Pustelnyk from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which is doing construction work at the 71/183 interchange. “At this point, I would assume it will be left there for some time to come.”

In the meantime, the cranes, dump trucks and bulldozers rumble nearby, and the weeds have taken over the cemetery again.

“I hope they leave it just like it is,” James White says. “And when they’re finished with all the construction out there, I hope they put up a real nice fence. A fence that is deserving of them.”

I couldn't help but notice the parallels between James and his ancestors.

In death, the city — with its roads, airports and buildings — grew to envelope his relatives. The lights of the city drown out the stars that once shone down on their graves. It’s kind of the same with the Broken Spoke. James built the music hall in what was once the country — far from the city, in those days.

Not anymore.

“I got all these modernistic apartments all around me. I got a busy South Lamar. It's never been that busy in my lifetime and ever before and it's got all the hustle and bustle of Austin,” he says.

The Broken Spoke in South Austin used to be in the "country." Now, development encroaches on the famed music hall.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

Then I think about his words about family history: “You should know where you came from — maybe it’ll help you figure out where you’re going.” Indeed.

And then: “Once you walk in the Broken Spoke it's kind of like a two-step back in time, and you're walking into a historical place.”

It’s kind of the same with the Davidson-Littlepage Cemetery. At night, when the traffic calms and the airplanes fly overhead less frequently, you can close your eyes and almost feel what it might have been like back when people were laid to rest here.

Alejandra Martinez contributed to this story.

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