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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales of Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

A Branch of Old Bethel: Hidden History of Apple Creek Baptist Church

Wilson Cemetery Sign.jpg
Bill Eddleman
Sign for Wilson Cemetery, originally Apple Creek Baptist Church Cemetery, near Oak Ridge, Missouri.

East of Oak Ridge in Cape Girardeau County is an old cemetery beside a county road. The inscription on the sign marking the cemetery is “Wilson Cemetery.” However, Wilson Cemetery illustrates how present-day names for locations and features can hide or blur history. The place has gone by three different names over the last 202 years.

The cemetery is on a land parcel originally purchased by James C. Wilson on November 6, 1823. In June 1820, Thomas Parish Green was instrumental in forming a Baptist Church near Oak Ridge in the northern part of Apple Creek Township. The church formally organized in September 1820. Apple Creek Baptist Church was one of eight churches consisting of members dismissed from Bethel Baptist Church to form eight new congregations. Old Bethel was the original Baptist church in the Cape Girardeau District, organized in 1806.

The Cape Girardeau Association of Baptist churches formed in 1824, including Bethel, Barren, Dry Creek, Tywappity, Clear Creek, Apple Creek, Ebenezer, Big Prairie, Hebron, and Shiloh. Of these, Bethel, Apple Creek, Ebenezer, and Hebron were in Cape Girardeau County.

James C. Wilson allowed Apple Creek Church to use a parcel of his land to conduct services. At some time between 1820 and February 5, 1824, the congregation built a meeting house, or building, on the site and established the cemetery. The congregation had 15 members in June 1824. Thus, the first name for the cemetery was Apple Creek Baptist Church Cemetery.

Wilson deeded a little over 2 acres to the commissioners of the Apple Creek Meeting House on February 5, 1824. The deed delineated the boundaries of the cemetery and church, and stated the land included “a good spring, meeting house, and burying ground.” It also stated the site was on the south boundary of the land tract where Wilson resided. The deed stipulated that if the congregation ever decided to move or disband, half the land was to remain as a cemetery and not subject to sale.

Unfortunately, the church book for the congregation failed to survive, so details of the congregation and its eventual disbanding are unclear. Possibly the final dissolution of the congregation occurred in the wake of the Civil War. After the war ended and enslavement of African Americans ended, many of those freed formed a community less than a mile south of the cemetery. Concord was the name of the community.

A section of the cemetery served as a burial site for enslaved peoples because Baptist churches in the area accepted the enslaved as members. At least one family from the area, the Wilsons, continued to inter deceased loved ones in the cemetery while fewer white families were doing so. James C. Wilson enslaved no one, so the connection to the later family, if any, is unknown. Because Concord was nearby and knowledge of the old Baptist church faded from memory, the cemetery came to be called Concord Cemetery.

Residents of the Concord community began to move away over time, and eventually the settlement also passed into history. However, the Wilsons and their relatives continue to bury family in the cemetery to this day, and the name “Wilson Cemetery” has become the dominant name for the cemetery.

Apple Creek Baptist, Concord, and finally Wilson Cemetery. All the same location, but all part of the history of an old cemetery.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.