FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

Grave Witching

I’ve heard from a number of folks who read my earlier posts about Grave Witching to find lost or unmarked graves in cemeteries, farms and other locations.  All of them are active ‘witchers’ using the craft to locate lost graves of loved ones, military burials and lost graves in old cemeteries.

As noted in the earlier posts, I’ve used ‘witch sticks’ to locate buried water and power lines for decades as a matter of need, without thought that the activity may seem strange to folks who haven’t seen it done.

Growing up, I frequently saw people bend a couple of metal rods or lengths of wire into short handles and then find the water lines to their corrals, homes, churches, etc., and then toss the sticks and start digging.  The rods were just a tool so they could dig in the right spot and not waste any time and effort, without any more thought than grabbing a circuit locator to find wiring in our walls today. 

I never thought of using witch sticks to find lost graves until articles started to show up in smaller news publications around the world in recent years. 

Wondering if I could locate ‘bodies’ – alive or dead, I made a pair of sticks and then did a search for the giggling bodies of some of our granddaughters scattered across the living room floor.  Sure enough, every time I came to one of them, the sticks crossed and then opened again after I passed by the wee lasses, so the ‘alive’ part of the question was answered.  What about finding the ‘dead’ in their burial locations?

Knowing that I still have the ‘touch’, I’ll take a set of sticks up to the old burial grounds of my ancestors this summer and find the exact location of their graves.

Jack Robinson told me that he frequently uses sticks to find the lost graves of veterans in his efforts to clean up their burial locations.  He also brings and buried tombstones up to the current level of the soil.   Read about his project on his site, Resurrection Mission ~ Protecting Endangered Cemeteries

No all folks use witch sticks to locate lost graves.  Robert Nichols, cemetery sexton of the First Presbyterian Church of Rockaway, New Jersey, enlisted the high-tech help of Ithaca College to search for unmarked graves.  Read the article here.  (It loads slowly.  Be patient.)

If you haven’t seen someone using witch sticks to find lost graves, you’ll enjoy the three videos below.  They are followed by a video of the folks from Ithaca College using their ground penetrating radar equipment with the same goal in mind.

Are you going to give it a try yourself?  You may find the burial spots of some of your ancestral family members on the old homestead too.   Good Luck!



  Click on this link to view the video of Ithaca College students using ground penetrating radar to find unmarked graves.  

25 June 2010 Posted by | Cemetery | , , , | Leave a comment

The Santa of Gold Hill – A Find-a-grave HERO

Recently, a television program showing current day scenes of the famous towns and locations from the “Old West” caught my eye.  A couple of scenes featuring the cemetery in Gold Hill, Nevada reminded me of my visit there.  We were in a hurry to reach our destination in California, so my desire to stop and patrol the cemetery was shelved.

I love stopping at cemeteries that I spot when driving and reading the tombstone inscriptions.  They frequently educate me far more completely than reading a history of the area.

Of course, I always take photos of tombstones in these locations.  How can you miss an opportunity like that?

Gold Hill Cemetery.  Has someone stopped and taken photos of the tombstones already and posted them on Find-a-grave?  Yes, indeed and in this case, the Santa’s name is Herbert Rickards.   I call him ‘Santa’ because of the masterful work he has done in capturing not only photos of the tombstones, but his superhuman efforts in finding their respective 100+ year-old portrait photos.

Descendants of anyone buried in Gold Hill will certainly call Herbert “Santa” as well when they find his postings.  Check them out for yourself.

Singing praises of Herbert is easy when you see his work …. but wait … there’s more!

Look at his postings and you’ll also see that he has also researched the life history of each person and posted it on their memorial.

Above and beyond?  Way beyond.  Find-a-grave_logo

There needs to be a “Find-a-grave Hero” award created for folks like Herbert. I don’t have artistic skills, so my contribution to his award can only be in words.  Perhaps some of you can add your talents and create a graphic award for folks like Herbert.  If so, let the folks at Find-a-grave know.  Who knows?  Maybe they’ll think it is a feature worthy of adding to their site.

5 December 2009 Posted by | Headstones, Tombstone | , , , | 1 Comment

Grave Dowsing ~ More Stories

In a recent post, I briefly covered an article about dowsing for graves that I’d stumbled upon.  The article was the first that I’d every heard of anyone using dowsing for that purpose.

dowser The response to my post was surprising.  Apparently, there are a lot of folks who engage in this activity to locate lost graves. 

The University of Iowa has a good treatise on the subject found here.  The document will download as a .pdf file.

In 2005, Dick Eastman posted about a grave dowsing experience by Tom Corey on the Oregon Trail.  As usual, his readers have posted some interesting comments in response to his post.

Linda Bell wrote about dowsing methods used to find county graves for the North Forty News.  Dowsing plays a key role in finding graves on the Roberts Ranch in Livermore, California.

The Archer Cousins Genealogy website has an article that covers their experience in dowsing to find the graves of family members that includes photos of their efforts.

The Hughes and Related Families site has a detailed article that covers the theory, tools and methods used to dowse for graves.

Jay McAfee posted an article written by Thomas A. Markham about dowsing to find old graves in a GenForum post in 2004.

Glenn Adams wrote an article on his blog about his use of dowsing rods in the search for the bodies of a murdered couple.

Wendell Culberson of the Mississippi GenWeb site wrote a great article on his experiences in finding lost graves in Shelby County, Illinois.

Chris Dunham of The Genealogue blog quoted an article about grave dowsing that was published in the Wichita, Kansas Eagle newspaper.

Brenda Marble wrote a detailed article for the cemeteries.missouri.org site about grave dowsing and the tools and methods used in this activity.

The list of articles about Grave Dowsing is surprising long.  A Google search for “dowsing for graves” produced over 1,200 hits.   Needless to say, I was surprised by the number of results given the fact that I’d never heard of the subject before finding the “Old Ways Help Women Find Old Graves” article two weeks ago.

Are you familiar with these efforts to find lost graves?  Personally, I don’t have interest in the occult or entities that use dowsing to tell fortunes, the sex of unborn children, etc.  As I noted in my first post on the subject, I’ve used dowsing rods to find water and power lines as simple convenience.  I’d witnessed dowsing to find water lines as a youth and as a young man working for a electric utility.  Simple tools.  Simple needs.  Quick and accurate results were produced followed by putting the hastily constructed wire wire rods in the trash or bent back to their normal shape for use in construction.

Reflecting on it, I suppose I always thought the metal dowsing rods simply reacted to gravitational disturbances created by buried metal pipes full of water or energized power lines.  Tenuous reasoning I know, but who cared.  The job they were used for got done faster with them than without.  I gave the dowsing rods no more thought than I would a tooth pick at a restaurant.

headstone 2But dowsing for buried bodies?  What is that all about?  How does it work?  Is the power of the human mind greater than we’ve been able to measure thus far?  

Apparently so, or at least it is so for some folks. 

You’ll note that the people writing or quoting the articles above have had success using dowsing to find graves.   It’s just an example of folks having a small need that can be difficult to impossible to resolve via normal means, yet by exhibiting a little faith in oneself followed by the use of simple tools focused on a specific subject seems to bring results. 

Whether you decide to dowse for graves or not, research of the subject provides interesting reading.  I probably won’t use my bent up old galvanized tie wire rods for this activity, but who knows, maybe the need will arise for some unforeseeable reason in a future day.  If so, I wonder if it will work for me?  I guess I’d shouldn’t think about it too much and cobble up the works.

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9 June 2009 Posted by | Research Tips | , , | 1 Comment

Dowsing For Graves And Other Wives Tales

If you are like me, there are graves of your extended family that have either lost their grave markers or were never marked for a variety of reasons.

In my family, three of my great aunts and uncles died as youngsters and were buried on the family farm in Fort Canyon, above Alpine, Utah.  I made a post about them called “Little Ones Lost” earlier this year.

Today, I found an article titled, “Old ways help women find old graves” that describes the efforts of Cate Culver, who is using dowsing rods to find old unmarked graves around the Pioneer Cemetery in San Andreas, California.

dowsing As expected, scientists say that dowsing doesn’t work and that her efforts are a waste of time.  Unfortunately, the soil in that area is less ‘soil’ than rock and has a fairly high copper and other mineral content.  The article notes that ground penetrating radar won’t work in the area due to the terrain and of course, officials aren’t going to grant permission to open the suspected locations for ‘no’ reason other than to prove that the dowser can find old graves.

Long ago, I was surprised when I was first told that dowsing didn’t work and that it couldn’t be proven.  I’d grown up watching people dowse for water, power and other buried lines with great success.  In fact, when I was told that dowsing was bunk, I had actually dowsed for a long lost water line that was leaking the weekend before.  Running water could be heard in a pipe that entered the basement of our home but wasn’t attached to anything inside.

Curiosity got the better of me one Friday evening, so I pulled out the dowsing rods, marked the location of the pipe on the lawn and started digging with a shovel.  The location was about 100 feet away from the city water line feeding our home.

While dowsing, I had flagged a couple of 90 degree turns in the route of the line.

A few hours later, my wife was less than happy to find about forty feet of five foot deep trench winding its way through our north lawn.

Yes, the water line was exactly where I’d marked it and at the depth the rods had indicated.  No surprises.  The trench was so long because I had to follow the line to find the leak and then to clear enough length of pipe so that it could be lifted, cut, spliced and tested for new leaks.

As it turned out, the water originated three hundred feet south in the basement of the neighbors home.  They had owned our home before building their new home.  The water lines to the chicken coops that used to be on the back properties had originally fed from our home.  When they built the new house, they simply capped the water line in the basement of the old house and fed it from the new house.  Finally, decades later, the old water line deteriorated and began to leak.

Being on the end of the shovel doing the digging, I’d long ago decided that the dowsing rods had better work or you were only involved in a less than satisfying way to exercise.

We often used dowsing rods to find buried power lines when I worked for the power company.  The younger generation had to use the expensive tools that semi-find electrical fields, but the old hands just grabbed a pair of iron tie wires, bent one end of each long enough to use as a handle and marked the line.  No big deal.  Fast, accurate and easy.  And because the fellows were doing the digging by hand, the marks had to be accurate due to the seemingly never ending layers of river rock or they’d never use their dowsing sticks a second time.  Inevitably, the dowsing marks were always more accurate than those created the using multi-thousand dollar buried line identification equipment.

I’ve continued to use dowsing rods to find the dozen or so telephone drop lines that cross our orchard when I’ve installed fence posts, sprinkling systems and other buried features in our landscaping.  Thus far, they’ve always provided 100% accuracy.  I guess that I need to read the scientific reasons why the rods don’t work but really don’t want to.  If I do, I may believe the scientific reasons and then the rods won’t work any longer.  After all, scientists are rarely wrong.  Right?

Over the years, I’ve chatted with folks from all over the world who have dowsed to find water and other buried features for all of their lives with great success.  They grew up using them and apparently, none of them had been taught that stringtheorydowsing doesn’t work either.

My ancestors dowsed.  Their ancestors dowsed.  Maybe you have to have a naive faith that dowsing works for it to work for you.  Maybe it is tied to string theory or quantum mechanics.  Maybe you have to acknowledge that the laws of the universe are a lot stranger and more elastic than all of us whiz kids realize.

Maybe the old healing and ‘wives tales’ medical remedies that my mother, grandmothers and great grandmother taught and practiced don’t work either.  I guess you’d have to convince the almost invisible scars on my body that the old remedies didn’t work though.  While in that discussion, maybe you could tell the adjacent scars from wounds that were ‘healed’ by doctors that they shouldn’t be so big and ugly because they were treated by highly educated men who convinced me that my ancestors old remedies didn’t work.   But that topic is a whole other discussion.

I wonder how many of the old remedies and ‘ways’ have been relegated to the pit by us as we’ve become more ‘educated’ over the generations?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m absolutely delighted to be living when so many medical, technological and other advances have been made to make our lives so much physically better than those of our ancestors, but I wonder what we’ve lost in the process of worshiping our scientific ‘Gods’.

What commonly practiced old ‘Ways’ and ‘Remedies’ in your ancestral history have been lost?  Post a note and let us know.

Don’t necessarily expect us to believe them though.  Maybe you can ascribe our unbelief to our being taught that they don’t work and hence our faith in them being literal is missing.

Remember, my dowsing rods ’don’t work’ either and most readers will probably assign me to the group of ‘characters’ of a past age.  That’s ok.  We’re relatively happy in our ignorance….. and, before you ask, no, I don’t dowse for water or power or telephone lines for anyone else.  Who’d believe that it worked in today’s world anyway?

5 June 2009 Posted by | Ancestors | , , , , | 4 Comments