In June 1860, Royal L. Potter and his wife Mary Ann Chapman Potter and John D. Flint and his wife Margaret Robertson Flint, all of Ash Township, Monroe County, came together with a purpose. Each couple deeded one half acre of land to the Swan Creek Cemetery Company to establish a public burying ground. The deeds were recorded in Monroe County on February 29, 1864.
The Potter one-half acre comprised the west half acre and the Flint half acre made up the east half of the modern Potter Cemetery, located east of Swan Creek Road west of Interstate 75. Labo Road bounds the cemetery on the south and Sigler Road on the north. Today the cemetery is landlocked by private landowners and it does not have public access. Friends of Potter Cemetery, a nonprofit organization in Monroe County, is restoring the cemetery, and the group has the only access to the Cemetery.
In the Beginning: Burials Before 1860
Royal Potter and his family lived on Swan Creek Road when he deeded his half acre of land for the new cemetery in 1860. Reaching the cemetery half acre involved a trek through the back of the Potter farm over Swan Creek and through the field. Or a hiker could take the east side of the land along the “farmer’s lane” between the woods and the fields.
The cemetery land contained burials even before the Potters and the Flints deeded their land. John D. Flint’s father Roswell Flint, originally owned the land on the east side of the cemetery, patenting the land in 1834. When he died on April 9, 1847, his family buried him on his land, making him the first burial in the future cemetery. His wife Julia joined him on April 12, 1862.
Two years later, Rosella M. Potter, Royal’s first wife, followed as the second burial in the future cemetery. She died in February 1849. After Rosella, burials before 1860 included Anna J. Post, 1852-1854; Amanda R, Potter, 1858-1859; Charles Wesley Potter, January 1, 1853-January 21, 1853; Elmer L. Potter, February 4, 1849-September 11, 1849; Harlow Potter, 1830-1849; and Nile River Potter, 1854-1855.
Some sources say that Royal Potter’s father, Arvin Webster Potter, took out his patent on the west half acre in 1833. Others say that his son Royal took the patent in 1834. Arvin Webster Potter died on February 21, 1861 and his wife Polly Graves Potter also died in 1861. Both rest in Potter Cemetery.
Arvin Webster Potter and Polly Graves Potter
Photo credit: Sue Donavon
Royal Laroy Potter, Farmer and Civil War Veteran
Photo Credit: Darrell Brown
Born on February 12, 1821 in St. Albans, Vermont, Royal Laroy Potter moved with his family to Monroe County, Michigan about 1832. He married Rosella “Rosalie” M. Chapman on December 31, 1846, and in 1848 they had a son they named Elmer. Rosella died three weeks after Elmer was born and a few months later Elmer died suddenly. On August 30, 1849, Royal marred Rosella’s sister Mary Ann who was the widow of Jeremiah Peters. Mary Ann had a daughter, Mary E. Peters. Mary Ann and Royal had a son, Jeremiah Elmer Potter who was born in 1851. They had three other children who died infancy and they adopted a daughter, a Canadian girl named Martha Madilla Smith.
Successful farmers, Royal and Mary Ann’s real estate holdings were valued at $6,000 in 1860 up from their 1850 figures of $800 for Royal and $1,500 for Mary Ann. The Monroe County Historical Museum displays a three-foot painting of their country house which was both spacious and comfortable. In his memoirs, their son Elmer described their life in the country as peaceful, his mother always living her Christian principles, and his father often hitching the horses to an old-fashioned sled to bring a load of children to and from the schoolhouse when the snow reached two feet deep in the Monroe County winters.
Elmer wrote that Swan creek ran through Royal and Mary Ann’s farm and Lake Erie was just four miles away, so fish were plentiful. Ducks came from the marshes near Lake Erie to hatch their ducklings and ducks provided a good source of food.
On August 14, 1862, Royal enlisted in the Army to fight for the Union and he was assigned to the 24th Michigan Infantry, Company F.
In a letter written on September 25, 1862, he told his wife Mary Ann that he didn’t think it would be possible for him to find a Substitute as she had mentioned. He said that he knew she wanted him to come home by cold weather, and he wanted to do so, but “I am not governor. I am willing to Sacrifice comfort, property, home and anything if it could but be instrumental in saving our country, but the way things are carried on, my efforts is like throwing chaff to the wind.”
Royal Potter fought in the battle of Fredericksburg between December 11-15, 1862 while seriously ill with typhoid fever. After the battle ended, he sought shelter in a ravine about 400 feet from the Rappahannock River and the next day the Confederates captured him and sent him to Libby Prison hospital. On December 23, 1862, Royal wrote a letter to Mary Ann and his family telling them that he was a prisoner in Richmond. He said he wasn’t in pain, but was weak and had no appetite. He told them he and his fellow Union prisoners were paroled and would be sent to Washington as soon as the Union Army sent boats for them. On the 29th of December he wrote his final messages to his wife, mother, step daughter, son, and adopted daughter. He told them that “dying away from home is a terrible blow to my heart bleeds for you and he hoped that they would “find the Saviour more precious than you ever found him before now.”
His wife Mary Ann would have found comfort in his words because in a previous letter he had told her that he fully believed in the Savior and he expected to go to heaven.
The attending Union physician at Libby Prison Hospital wrote to Mary Ann on January 9, 1863, informing her of Royal’s death on January 9, 1863. His company commander, Albert M. Edwards, Captain Co. F, 24th Michigan Volunteers wrote her a letter dated January 17, 1863, informing her of Royal’s death. Captain Edwards wrote that Royal was “a brave and gallant soldier and a truly Christian soldier,” and offered his deep and heartfelt sympathy.
On January 22, 1863, the Monroe Commercial announced Royal’s death, identifying him as a well-to-do farmer in Ash, “and in going into the army, could have been actuated by no motives but pure patriotism.”
Family tradition said that Mary Ann Potter traveled South after the war to try to find Royal’s body and bring him back to the Potter Cemetery on their homestead, but she discovered that he had been buried in a mass grave in Richmond National Cemetery. Royal’s family erected a cenotaph in Potter Cemetery in his honor.
In 1993, Dr. Guy Woodward, the only living great grandson of Royal Laroy Potter, donated his letters and diary to the Monroe County Historical Society as well as a painting of his country home, deeds to his land, and his family photo album. In December 1994, the Monroe County Board of Commissioners declared January 9, 1994 to be “Royal Potter Day.” The Monroe News printed many articles about Royal and excerpts from his diary and his letters. On January 9, military units marched to the Monroe Museum for a flag raising ceremony and Royal’s diaries, letters, and other mementoes were displayed in the museum.
Potter Cemetery’s Civil War Veterans
Besides Royal Potter, other Civil War veterans buried in Potter Cemetery include:
Pvt. Benjamin Bulger
Private Benjamin Bulger. Pvt. Co. M, 3rd Ohio Cavalry. He is buried in Potter Cemetery.
Joseph Cackett was born on June 8, 1845, in Pluckley, in Kent, England. He immigrated to the United States and served in the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics Company L, from 1863-1865 during the Civil War. He is buried in Potter Cemetery.
Martin L. Chapin
March 3, 1837-January 11, 1902. Pvt. Co. K, 130 Ohio Line. Son of Luther and Mary Brewer Chapin. He is buried in Potter Cemetery.
Daniel Griffy served in the 9th Michigan Cavalry, Company L, from 1864-1865. He married Sarah Shippee and they had a son Jesse James Griffy on December 8, 1880. He worked as a policeman in Chicago, IL. During his lifetime, Jesse used the last name “Griffith.”He died on July 12, 1956, and he also is buried in Potter Cemetery.
Frederick Manor was born on April 18, 1848 in Canada. He married Margaret Rousson Black on August 24, 1873 in Rockwood. He fought for the Union during the Civil War (possibly in the 9th Michigan Cavalry). He died on July 5, 1891, and he is buried in Potter Cemetery.
Co. K, Michigan 15th Infantry Regiment. The 1880 Census shows Benjamin working as a clerk in a store and living in Marion, Michigan. He is buried in Potter Cemetery.
Although cemetery historians estimate that as many as 200 people buried in Potter Cemetery, in 2016, fewer than 100 stones dot the cemetery. Family names represented in Potter Cemetery include Potter, Chapin, Rousson, Manor, Chapman, Kemnitz, Neidermeier, Southworth and LaBeau. More recent burials are William Wallace Chapin, 1920; Samuel Simon Hawley, 1930; and Jesse Griffy, 1956.
The cemetery was evidently maintained until the early 1940s, but after that its care and upkeep disappear into the mists of history. No one took responsibility for it and it was neglected for years. In 1982 Potter and Chapin family descendants visited Potter Cemetery and found it overgrown with trees, weeds, and vines. They didn’t attempt to restore the cemetery.
Born on January 31, 1806, Ezra Southworth spent his early childhood in New York. In 1820, Ezra traveled to Michigan as a passenger on the steamship Niagara which took only 48 hours, the quickest trip for a steamship to that date. He spent a summer in Ypsilanti which consisted of a log store and a log tavern. He visited Ann Arbor which contained fewer than six log shanties, and Saline in Washtenaw County which at no buildings. That fall, he returned to New York and in 1833 he married Letitia Dansingburg .
In 1840 Ezra returned to Michigan and settled in Augusta in Washtenaw County until 1857 when he moved to Newport in Monroe County. He and Letitia had seven children, including Civil War veteran Benjamin F. Southworth. Ezra died in 1885 and he is buried in Potter Cemetery.
Juliette Potter Chapin
Juliette Potter Chapin
Photo Credit: Darrell Brown
The Flat Rock News printed Juliette Potter Chapin’s obituary on February 11, 1898, which detailed some events in her life and death. Born on May 4, 1834, in Ash Township, Monroe County, she was the daughter of Arvin Webster Potter and Polly Graves Potter. Royal Laroy and Seneca Solon Potter were two of her brothers. She married William Wallace Chapin and they had four children.
Juliette’s obituary spotlighted some of the funeral practicalities of her day. She died on Friday, February 4, 1898 at her daughter’s home in Delray, doctors identifying her cause of death as apoplexy or a stroke. On Saturday, her body was brought to Rockwood where S.S. Potter & Son brought it to her home three miles northwest of Flat Rock. Her funeral took place at the Congregation Church in Flat Rock on Monday which was filled with relatives and friends. Reverend J.W. Dickson preached her funeral sermon and her former pastor, Reverend Parsons gave an eloquent tribute to her as an exemplary Christian. Her body was placed in a vault at Oakwood and she later was buried at the old Potter Cemetery at Swan Creek.
Potter Cemetery’s New Generation of Caretakers
A story in the Monroe Evening News of February 5, 1999 reported the next chapter in the Potter Cemetery story. In the fall of 1998, Mark Armbruster, Royal Potter’s great-great nephew and his girlfriend Shelly Hamilton searched for and found Potter Cemetery. Mark had heard about the old cemetery from his mother and his aunts and he decided to search for it. He and Shelly discovered the cemetery in worse shape than it had been when the family members had found it so overgrown in 1982. Trees, weeds, and vines tangled together in unconsecrated friendship and stones were knocked over, broken, and scattered.
Mark talked to other family members about restoring and preserving the resting place of his ancestors and their contemporaries buried in Potter Cemetery. In November 1998, a group of them decided to form Friends of Potter Cemetery Association. Incorporated in the State of Michigan, the group began with descendants of the Potter and Chapin families, but as word about the new Cemetery Association spread, the group expanded to include descendants of the Rousson, Manor, Chapman, Kemnitz, Neidermeier, Southworth, and LaBeau families as well as other interested people.
The Association began the initial work to revive the cemetery, cutting down trees, vines, and weeds, but since the cemetery didn’t have easy access, people found it difficult to haul away the rubbish they had cleared from the cemetery. Using probes, the cemetery workers found 19 headstones under the ground and another headstone in the woods outside of the cemetery. They cleaned and righted headstones, although some needed professional remounting, and they placed flags on the graves of the Civil War veterans they discovered. Some of the workers discovered remnants of the original fence on the south and east sides of the cemetery, and the Association hoped to get a new fence.
Ash Township supported the Cemetery Association’s cleanup efforts along with the Monroe County Historical Commission, and Dr. Guy Woodward, Royal Potter’s great grandson. The Cemetery Association continued to search for other descendants of the people buried in Potter Cemetery, especially people from the Tear, Bulger, Cackett, Post, Hawley, Griffy, Colburn, Shippee, Ward, Mattison, and McKenzie families. They also sought information about the original Trustees of Swan Creek Cemetery Company and their successors.
The Monroe Evening News February 1999 story concluded with this paragraph: “These old cemeteries and the markers and headstones within them, are bookmarks in the story of Monroe County. They are part of history and as such should be preserved and maintained, not only for the sake of the generations buried in them, but for the benefit of generations to come.”
The Monroe News statement is still true in the 21st Century. According to Bill Saul, a member of the Friends of the Potter Cemetery Association, the group is still clearing and reclaiming Potter Cemetery. He said that Sue Donovan has been a member of the Association since its beginnings and she and other members have worked steadily and diligently for Potter Cemetery since 1998.
Another Potter Cemetery Story
Elizabeth “Eliza” Hertage McKenzie and Her Daughter Emma
Photo Credit: Maureen McKenzie Lueder
Elizabeth “Eliza” Hertage McKenzie was born on March 2, 1817 in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England. She married Hugh McKenzie and they had three children, Clark, Caroline, and Emma. Emma was born in 1858 and she died in 1861. Elizabeth and Hugh were both buried in Potter Cemetery.
Emma McKenzie’s grave was “lost” for 100 years. Her descendant Maureen McKenzie Lueder gave a firsthand account of rediscovering Emma’s grave in Potter Cemetery which she published on Emma’s Find a Grave record on October 27, 2014.
Photo Credit: Sue Donovan, Friends of Potter Cemetery
After pulling weeds and planting grass seed on graves at Potter’s, including Hugh and Liza’s, we started to probe for buried headstones. The cemetery has been neglected for so long that headstones have been buried under ground and need to be recovered. In particular, there was a family in the row behind our two McKenzie’s that were missing two little girls who names were both Ella. I began to poke a long metal rod into the earth and sure enough, in about 10 minutes I had hit something.
It seemed to be long and flat, so it was not a tree root. I looked up and realized that I was at the headstone that was directly behind Hugh and Liza’s, about 5 feet away and three feet over. For some reason it hit me that whatever I found belonged, not to the people who were lying next to it, but to us. I don’t know why. I called John over and he dug until he found a small flat stone about a foot long and 3″ thick. It was about a foot under the ground.
As luck would have it, the headstone restoration people were there today. Not only did I manage to get Hugh and Liza’s headstone grouted, but now they were also available to help clean off this small headstone. John was helping the assistant and the thick skin of dirt was starting to come off the top of the stone. Children weren’t offered a normal headstone and the only maker they got was at the top of the stone, initials only. The letter E appeared. Sue thought I had found the headstone of one of the girls named Ella. I was disappointed because I really had the feeling this was ours, or more accurately – mine. However, that was a long shot and I had no real reason to think this anyway. I was also very happy to find the little girl, no matter who she belonged to.
The next letter that cleaned off was an M. This didn’t match either of the Ella’s. Finally the rest of the grime came off to reveal what everyone else saw to be just a K, reading EMK. But it didn’t read that way to someone who has written McK their entire life. It was faint but I could see the C clearly. And I was the only one to see it. I said, “that is not an EMK but an E McK. That’s a McKenzie! “
Then they all saw it.
Sue then thought it was Liza’s (Elizabeth’s) foot stone. The grave restorer disagreed and said that is a child’s headstone, not a foot stone. I pulled up the ancestry app on my phone and saw that Hugh and Liiza lost 2 children: Emma Elizabeth, born 29, Sept 1858 who died Sept 24, 1861. Poor little girl didn’t even make it to her third birthday. And there was also Elizabeth Ann McKenzie who was only 14 when she died, born 1850 and died 1864. I believe I found Emma. Elizabeth’s headstone I think it is still under the earth.
The restoration guys completely cleaned and set Emma’s headstone in her base, which was above ground waiting for its partner all these years. Hugh was the last to die there in 1891. There was a head count of graves in 1930. There was no record of Emma in that count so they didn’t even know she was buried there. Somewhere in that time frame Emma’s headstone was moved and lost and then buried by time. Today for the first time in over 100 years, her little headstone is cleaned and placed again by her parents. I really hope to come back and find her sister in the spring. What an amazing thing to find, and how amazing that a McKenzie got to find it.