On a cool October afternoon in 2021, a crowd of about 40 people gathered at Riverside Cemetery in Noblesville to honor wartime veteran George Dale. Seven of his descendants were there, but none of them knew Dale. In fact, they didn’t even know he existed until recently. No one did.
Nonetheless, there was a new bronze plaque attached to a new headstone, and a bugler and bagpiper played in Dale’s honor. The Honor Guard of the Hamilton County Navy Club performed an eight-gun salute.
But most telling, two men in wide wool hats and long jackets from the Indiana Sons of the American Revolution Color Guard stood by, resembling perhaps most closely what Dale looked like as a patriot serving in the Revolutionary War.
Since early 2020, the Horseshoe Prairie Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution has been working to locate every Revolutionary War patriot buried in Hamilton County as a project of the chapter’s 50th anniversary in 2021. The Dale family members who were present at the graveside ceremony found out there was a patriot in the family thanks to the DAR’s work.
As of May 2023, five patriots had been identified and honored with graveside services. Ten other men’s names were in various states of identification to verify if they served, where they might be buried and if they have a headstone. The DAR has requested that the official patriot names be added to a plaque at the Veterans Memorial on the Courthouse Square in Noblesville.
Shirley Smith has been a member of the DAR since 2003, is an incoming Regent of the Horseshoe Chapter and holds a PhD in history. She says that to locate soldiers, the DAR team of volunteers have worked from a couple of lists that appeared in local newspapers from 1976 when Joe Burgess, who was chairman of the Hamilton County Cemetery Commission for 30 years, also wanted to locate patriot graves. He had published names and some brief biographies of 12 or 13 veterans buried in the county. Another primary source is the Indiana DAR records.
“We set out to commemorate those we can find,” Smith says, “but they also must have a record at the national DAR site that says they served. And if there is no record, we must prove they served.”
It’s no small task, but the internet makes accessing records — and going down rabbit holes — much easier than it used to be.
“There is a lot of research necessary to verify their service records, to find their burial locations, and then to complete the necessary paperwork required by DAR in order to accurately commemorate each man,” Smith says.
Once they do confirm a patriot and plan the public commemorations, they send press releases to generate interest and attempt to find living descendants to attend. David Bechtel serves as bugler and Don Vermillion plays bagpipes. There is the gun salute and the men in Revolutionary War uniforms. Someone takes photographs for posterity.
During the same time the Horseshoe Prairie Chapter project has been underway, the Hamilton County Cemetery Commission has been working to secure deeds to the burial sites and take care of mowing and upkeep, including cleaning stones and plaques according to exacting standards using specific cleaning agents in just the right weather. The total cost to honor each patriot is about $400, paid for through donations.
But these men lived and died centuries ago. The American Revolution took place between 1775 and 1783. Why does the DAR spend so much time and effort researching these men? Why Smith would spend eight hours tracking down the Dale family in Wabash, Ind., to come to George Dale’s commemoration?
“I love history,” she says, nourished by what she knows of her own genealogy. Abraham Clark of New Jersey was one of her fifth great grandfathers and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Smith also seems to love introducing living descendants to their ancestors. On the day we spoke, she had just uncovered a name she thought might be a new patriot to add to the list. Within hours, she was in contact with a relative of the man, excitedly researching him to verify his military service and connection to Hamilton County.
“If you have one patriot in your family, you can have as many as 64, because you have as many as 128 5th great grandparents and 64 4th great grandparents. I love genealogy. You’re always trying to find these stories — and they are out there,” she says.
Of course, another reason to spend time honoring these men is because they provided our independence. The American Revolution was an epic political and military struggle waged when 13 of Britain’s colonies rejected its imperial rule. The protest was initially about unfair taxation but grew to become an open rebellion against the British. With the help of France, the American colonies defeated the British, achieved independence and formed the United States of America.
“Once these patriots signed the oath of allegiance to the new United States, they had committed treason and no matter what their role was, it was as good as serving in the military,” Smith says, offering the example of a 63-year-old blind fiddler who followed troops into battle.
Another so-called traitor was Davis Whelchel, buried near 116th Street and Olio Road on a wooded site on private property. Whelchel was a Major, Lieutenant, Private, Ranger and Spy with the South Carolina Militia who moved to Indiana after the war. He and his wife, Nancy Barnes, had 14 children before he died in Fall Creek Township in 1833 at the age of 81.
His descendants had worried that the couple’s side-by-side graves had been swallowed up by Geist Reservoir, but they located them and with the DAR’s Horseshoe Prairie Chapter’s help, they properly honored Davis Whelchel on August 14, 2021. Guests of the event were instructed to park in the public lot near the Ace and Goodwill stores, a directive that would have sounded like a foreign language to the man they were there to revere.
The three other men whose graves have been marked and commemorated are Williams Cutts, John Hair and Levi Holloway. But the search is far from over.
Smith and her colleagues are looking out for military service pension claims and following up on clues from obituaries, including that of Lawrence Willison. He was the first person buried at Riverside Cemetery, and although there is no official record of his service in the American Revolution, an article in the Republican Ledger from 1884 mentions that he fought at the 1781 Battle of Yorktown, when British General Lord Charles Cornwallis and surrendered to General George Washington.
“They are lost to memory unless they do have a stone, and people are aware of it,” Smith says. The Hamilton County Surveyors Office has agreed to plot where the graves are on the county map so they won’t be lost. And the search for patriots continues.
If you would like information on the DAR’s project or have information to share that might be useful to their cause, email Shirley Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Hamilton County Bicentennial is proudly supported by Duke Energy, Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, Hamilton County Tourism Inc., and Hamilton County Historical Society.