Hoskins Island Creek Cemetery, where pioneers, Indigenous Natives rest, is hotbed of controversy

By Lyn Hacker
NKyTribune correspondent

There was a Memorial Day service in a small cemetery on top of a forested hill buried deep in the hills of Clay County. For 125 years, American soldiers, Indigenous Natives, white settlers, and pioneers have rested there, but their rest might soon be interrupted.

This cemetery, the Hoskins Island Creek Cemetery, has become a hotbed of controversy because it lies on a hill near two schools – Clay County’s high school and elementary school. The Clay County School Board apparently has a great deal of money to burn and is desperate for the school closest to the cemetery to have a new ball field, with a big grandstand and maybe a new tech center. The Clay County Board of Education, which purchased the land in 2008, thought it might be a good idea to just move the interred remains of those buried there to another cemetery and to develop that site for sports. It includes flattening the area.

Unlike West Point, where the third-year students meet with the tactical office and spend time learning about West Point’s cemetery and the people interred there, (See “Inspiration To Serve,” on Youtube from West Point), the board doesn’t think the history of those interred means a lot to the students who are in those schools. And they don’t think it might be better to spend all that money on things like higher salaries for the teachers, better health considerations for the students and employees of the school, other needs of the area, or even maintenance of their current buildings.

Some are wondering where all of this money is coming from. It seems it would have to be millions after one looks at the costs of moving all of those bodies, with or without caskets. All military burials, especially, must be linked with a next of kin who decides where the body will be interred next. The bodies are to be treated with military protocol including flag-draped caskets and the like. Because of the proposed expense, some members of the county now, and of the “Friends,” are saying it is time to get an open records request and find out just “how much money they are taking in, how much is going out, the budget for this year and the projected budget for coming years.” This is, after all, tax money and so is subject to open records requests.

All of this follows a year-long battle in the courts for the rights of those interred to remain in that cemetery, regardless. There are countless written opinions in many states and areas decrying the desiccating of graves of veterans, Native Americans, and other special people in our modern society – actually for disturbing cemeteries altogether, especially historical ones. The group fighting this particular encroachment, the Friends of the Hoskins Cemetery at Island Creek, have fought to the federal level and back again, pleading with anyone who will listen. The Clay County school board is now asking for a $1.5 million dollar injunction against the “Friends,” of which they would have to pay 20% upfront. Needless to say, they are a small group of simple people who are simply related to and fighting for those buried in the cemetery and have no means to come up with that kind of money.

To add insult to injury, the Clay County School Board has now refused to allow admittance to the cemetery to any of the descendants of those interred, period, except for Memorial Day weekend. They are not allowing flowers or any other means of decoration. So the Memorial Day service this year was held amid small orange flags marking graves for disinterment. A few huge pieces of heavy ground-moving equipment lurked at the edges of the grounds standing ready to rip up the coffins, as well as the bodies who were buried without coffins, unceremoniously from their resting places. The single-chain that draped between two fence posts blocking the drive up the hill indicates the cemetery is now closed to visitors.

This is absolutely wrong, according to the Kentucky Attorney General’s office which has issued an opinion, stating that property owners who have a cemetery on their property cannot deny descendants access to the cemetery. Descendants must be given ‘ingress and egress’ at reasonable times to visit the cemetery.” – (see Appendix 7, Attorney General’s opinions). If the Clay County Board of Education gets their way, it will be the last service before the whole area is cleansed of its graves and special history and developed into good old-fashioned real estate.

Legal action started back on May 12, 2021, when the Clay County Board of Education (CCBOE) published its first legal notice in the Manchester Enterprise announcing intentions to relocate the cemetery. Three months later, on July 8, 2021, Stella B. House, counsel for the Friends of the Hoskins Cemetery (FOTHC, the plaintiffs), spoke at a Clay County Fiscal Court meeting opposing the relocation. The application for relocation had not been filed at that time, but four days later it was filed and two days after that it was heard and passed by the Fiscal Court. After that, the CCBOE applied for Disinterment and Reinternment Permits with the Department for Public Health. On July 20, 2021, the Commonwealth of Kentucky issued the permits (Exhibit 2 of Response in Opposition to Emergency Motion for Temporary Injunctive Relief filed by the plaintiffs). Currently, the federal action has been dismissed, and the “Friends” have a pending civil action in state court.

The defendants, the Board of Education, still assert that the Sizemores, many of whom are buried in the cemetery, are not a registered tribe with the U.S. government, and therefore are not proven Native Americans, but that doesn’t have a thing to do with DNA. And actually, there are two other Native tribes in Kentucky, who are also not federally recognized. That they are not just means they don’t have a “government-to-government relationship” with the United States.

However, they are the Southern Cherokee Nation of Kentucky and the Ridgetop Shawnee Tribe of Indians and they are both recognized by the state. The Sizemores came into what is now Leslie County before Kentucky was a state, moving there from Whitetop in Tennessee. Their descendants cover mostly Leslie, Clay, and Perry counties. According to several genealogical sources, they were and still are, Natives. It is believed some avoided the Trail of Tears the Cherokees were forced to take to Oklahoma by slipping off the trail and into the hills and hiding. The DNA proving the heritage is the final authority in this matter.

The previous status quo order ended when the federal action was dismissed. Now the Friends have a pending civil action in state court. House and others feel they must set a precedent because they are extremely concerned that considering the plethora of these family cemeteries in Eastern Kentucky, the possibility of people just coming and developing them is becoming great. She said, “the precedent being set by the Clay County Fiscal Court and Clay Board of Education is a bad omen for all family cemeteries throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Apparently, no ground is hallowed or scared. Progress takes precedence over the sanctity of the grave.” They are asking for those who want to and can, to please contribute to their Go Fund Me page to help pay the bills for the legal action, and of course, to please contact your representatives. The Go Fund Me page is located here.

The names of those interred in this graveyard are as follows: Mae Abner, Billie Gale Adams, Earnest Adams, William Afred Adams, Jennie Asher, John Asher, John E. Asher, Mrs. Winnie Asher, Mattie Baker, Rachel Hacker Baker, Robert H. Baker, Ula Mae Britton, Alabama Mae Sizemore Burns, Leslie Burns, Luther Burns, Nellia Ruth Burns, Robert Cody Burns, Virgil Burns, John Buttery, Walter Edwards, Dewey Finley, CPL Edward Finley, Howard Finley, Polly Mitchell Finley, TJ Finley, Gilbert G. Gibson, Isabell B. Godfrey, Martin Godfrey, Margaret Hobbs, Polly Hobbs, Infant Daughter Holcomb, Elizabeth Hoskins, Emily J. Hoskins, Hiram Hoskins, Howard D. Hoskins, Martha Asher Hoskins, Jesse James Jewel, Henry Jones, Jennie Jones, Bessie B. Baker Lewis, David Y. Lewis, John Lewis Jr., Rev. John D. Lewis, Joseph Lewis, Joseph Lewis, Lucy Sizemore Lewis, Mahala Jackson Lewis, Sarah Honeycutt Lewis, Thomas Franklin Lewis, Virgil S. Lewis, Eliza Jane Evans Marcum, Isaac Marcum, Henry Martin, Homer Martin, Stephen Martin, Belle Hensley Merideth, Sherman Merideth, Susannah Chadwell Minton, Nancy Jackson Morgan, Yuel Murrell, Belle H. Hoskins Parker, Charles H. Parker, Cecil Stewart Rice, Edmond Spencer Rice, Elizabeth Coldiron Rice, Jesse Rice, Roy Potter Rice, Sally Lewis Roberts, Ollie Lewis Robertson, George Rogers, Irvin Rogers, Lucindia Roberts Rogers, Luther Rogers, Wilson Rogers, Birty Singleton, Anna Vera Sizemore, Charlie Sizemore, James Sizemore, John “Fox” Sizemore, Kash Sizemore, LM Sizemore, Margaret Lewis Sizemore, Martha Burns Sizemore, Linda Marie Valentine, and Isabell Helton Wilson.

If any of these are your surnames and you have a mountain heritage, you might check with the “Friends” to see if you are a descendent of one or more. Their Facebook page is: Friends of the Hoskins Cemetery at Island Creek (Clay County), Ky, and is here.

If you are in interested in small, historical graveyards, there is good information at heritage.ky.gov.

“Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you have.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

Lyn Hacker is a Lexington native raised by Appalachian parents to be not only educated but proficient in the living arts – working very hard, playing music, growing gardens, orchard management and beekeeping. The UK graduate is an award-winning writer and songwriter and has been a newspaper staff writer and production manager, a photography lab manager, a Thoroughbred statistics manager, a registered respiratory therapist, a farmer, a horsewoman, and a beekeeper. She lives on a farm in Sadieville.

See an earlier NKyTribune feature on family cemeteries in Kentucky by Lyn Hacker.

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