Ancestors reconnect with family history at lost skull gravesite

By Joe Beck

The above ground crypt in the Edinburg countryside where Isaac Hite was laid to rest in the late 19th century stands well hidden on a brushy hilltop that several descendents recently climbed for an inspection of their ancestor’s gravesite.

Ed and Dick Hite, both in their 70s, have seen their great grandfather’s grave several times before, but their latest visit is likely to be especially memorable after the discovery of Isaac Hite’s skull a short distance from the crypt a few months ago.

The four-wheel riders who noticed the skull didn’t know what to make of what they had found. Neither did Shenandoah County authorities. After a few weeks passed, the state medical examiner’s office and an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institute reported their finding: The skull belonged to Isaac Hite, born June 28 1809, died Feb. 16, 1891.

Ed, 73, of Edinburg, and Dick, 70, of Bridgewater, trudged up a hillside off of Barbershop Road to take another look at the gravesite on a sunny, brisk January day.

The brothers passed through a sturdy, but ornate arch rising out of a stonewall surrounding the compact gravesite. They found a crypt with a sharply sloped roof that appeared to have been disturbed by something or, more likely, somebody.

“This is the place the skull was taken from,” Ed remarked, echoing the findings of the medical examiner and anthropologist.

A hole in one side of the crypt appears to have been the only way that the skull could have been separated and removed from the rest of the remains. The cement covering the rest of the crypt was showing the effects of normal wear and tear on a structure left exposed to the elements for so many years. Ed Hite noticed a bird’s nest in a place once occupied by a piece of glass.

“You can’t hardly take care of something like this regularly,” Dick Hite said.

The crypt was covered in decorative seashells that appeared at one time to have been blue and other colors.

“You can see the color was here, here, and here, and eventually it faded out,” Ed Hite said.

David Hunt, the Smithsonian anthropologist who linked the skull to the entombed remains of Isaac Hite, said the seashells and glass artifacts decorating the crypt fascinated him. Hunt estimated he has performed hundreds of forensic investigations for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia and not seen anything quite like the folk art of the Hite crypt in this region.

“I’ve seen something like that, but it’s way over on the Eastern Shore,” Hunt said, adding that seashell-decorated crypts in that part of the state are flat roofed, not sloping.

“That’s why I was wondering whether there was some kind of connection with the Eastern Shore,” Hunt said of the early Hite family. “Those aren’t the kinds of shells you find in the Shenandoah River. Those are the kinds of shells you find on the Eastern Shore.”

At least eight other headstones bearing the names of family members were lying about on the ground. Headstones bearing the names of Isaac Hite, several of his children and Lucinda, the first of his two wives, gave a clear indication that all of them were also buried at the site.

Ed and Dick Hite said they were more familiar with 20th century family members than those from Isaac Hite’s era. The gravesite is on land that was once part of a 150-acre farm that the family owned up until the death of Ed and Dick’s grandmother in the 1980s. The farm has since been subdivided, and they are unsure who now owns the land where the crypt stands.

Ed Hite said he believed it was common in the 1890s for farm families to bury their own on the land where they lived and worked.

“I would submit to you the family did this themselves,” Ed Hite said of the elaborate gravesite design.

Indeed, another great grandson, Quentin Simpson of Cumberland, Md., said Ira Hite, whom he identified as one of Isaac Hite’s sons, built the crypt.

“He built it all,” Simpson said of Ira Hite, adding, “Where he got those sea shells, who knows?”

Hunt said the skull was found 200 to 400 yards down the hillside leading to the crypt. The lack of severe signs of weathering led him to conclude it had been outside the crypt between five months and two years.

“It did not have any major exposure features such as . . . sun and rain, cold and hot,” Hunt said, adding, “It was probably a more recent removal than one for a long period of time.”

Hunt said a defect on the side of the skull gave the only hint of an injury, but he quickly concluded it came from something much more recent than Isaac Hite’s death.

“It probably took place when whoever was fishing it out of the crypt dropped or scraped it,” Hunt said. “We had to clarify that it was a post-mortem rather than a pre-mortem injury.”

Hunt first inspected the skull to confirm it came from a male of European ancestry, which would fit Isaac Hite’s description. The discovery of signs of arthritis in two upper leg bones removed from the crypt was another significant piece of evidence.

“It was evident this individual had quite a bit of arthritic changes to the hip and knee, which would indicate an elderly individual, which is what this individual was supposed to be,” Hunt said.

A match between the lower jaw found in the crypt and the rest of the skull found on the hillside provided the final piece of evidence for authorities to determine the skull was part of Isaac Hite’s remains, Hunt said.

Ed Hite said Thursday he picked up Isaac Hite’s skull from the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office a few days ago. He plans to eventually return it to the crypt, but wants to make sure the hole in the crypt is repaired before doing so.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com