ELIZABETHTOWN — If historical records are correct, Bladen County came within a breath of modesty of having the 10th president of the United States.
That’s merely one of the “factoids” found while researching Owen Cemetery, which sits atop Owen Hill overlooking the valley, Cape Fear River and Hwy. 53 — and is currently in a sad state of forgotten ruin.
The cemetery, by most standards, is small. It contains just 12 known graves, though only four have been pinpointed. Those four are the final resting place for Col. Thomas Owen (1735-1806), his second wife, Eleanor Porterfield Owen (1754-1835), and two grandchildren — Eliza Bradley Owen (1817-1819) and Charles Porterfield Owen (1815-1824).
There are eight other known graves in the vicinity, and five have not been identified — though one is thought to be for Col. Owens’ youngest son James. The other three belong to Mary Grady Owen, the first wife of Col. Owen; Gen. James Owen, the first son of Col. Owen; and Prince Omeroh (1770-1864), also known as Prince Omar Ibn Said and Uncle Moro, who was John Owen’s slave.
“Some people say that Prince Omar is buried in Fayetteville,” said Melrose Lomax of Elizabethtown, whose husband is a descendant of the Owen family, “but that isn’t true. He’s on Owen Hill.”
Prince Omar has an interesting background. He was born in present-day Senegal in western Africa to a wealthy family. He became an Islamic scholar who spent 25 years of his life studying with prominent Muslim scholars in Africa. In 1807, he was taken prisoner during a military conflict, enslaved and brought to America.
Once there, he escaped a cruel master in Charleston, S.C., and ventured to Fayetteville, where he was recaptured and eventually sold to James Owen.
It is claimed that Prince Omar was taken to Owen Hill, where he served the Owen family on the plantation. He lived well into his 90s and died a slave before the end of the Civil War. It is also claimed that he converted to Christianity in 1820.
Back to the potential for a U.S. president coming from Bladen County …
John Owen, the eldest child of Col. Owen, was born in 1787 and went on to serve in the House of Representatives and the state Senate between 1812 and 1827. In 1828, he was elected governor of North Carolina and was the president of National Whig Convention in 1840 — which nominated William Henry Harrison as its candidate for president.
During that convention, John Owens’ name was bandied about as a vice-presidential running mate for Harrison, but John Owens immediately declined because it would not be proper since he was serving as the convention’s president. The name of John Tyler was accepted, instead.
Harrison won the election and became the country’s ninth president, but died one month into his presidency. That meant that Tyler became the 10th president of the United States, which could have been John Owen of Bladen County.
Other interesting facts about the Owen Cemetery include:
— It was once the site of an Indiana reservation.
— Col. Owen, a hero at the Battle of Camden and Battle of Elizabethtown, was given the property by the king of England.
— The original cemetery plot, located several hundred yards from the Owens’ plantation home, was encircled by a wrought-iron fence. That fence became decayed and destroyed before being replace more than 50 years ago by the current brick wall.
— Former Gov. John Owen is not buried in the Owen Cemetery. He died in Pittsboro in 1841 and is buried there.
— As recent as the mid-1990s, two structures remained from the Owen Plantation — one of which may have been a slave quarters.
It’s current state
Barney Fergus said it took he and his wife quite some time to find the Owen Cemetery. And when they found it, they were immediately saddened by its run-down state.
“We spoke with Edd Nye (a former state senator and representative) about it,” said Shirley Fergus. “He said something should be done, but he would have to get back to us.
“It’s just a real shame something like this has been allowed to happen.”
Lomax, too, thinks something should be done. After all, she says, there is a former state senator buried there.
“To see ANY cemetery in that condition — but especially one with this kind of history behind it — is just a shame,” she said.
Lomax took photographs of the cemetery in 1998 after vigorous attempts to clean it up had been taken. Though all of the headstones were broken into many pieces, the vegetation had been cleared.
“But today, it looks as bad or worse than it ever has,” Lomax said.