Mystery Grave in Arkansas

The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto left Havana, Cuba in May, 1539, and his 9 ships, 620 men, 220 horses and a load of pigs came ashore in Charlotte Harbor, Florida (known today as Shaw's Point in Bradenton). And thus an epic 3-year journey began, becoming the first Europeans to cross the Mississippi River and exploring what would eventually be 9 of the southern states of America. Desoto and most of his men would not survive and the chronicles of the few survivors seem vague due to the passage of time and the disappearance of many of the cultures and native peoples they encountered.

Careful examination of the de Soto journals along with archaeological evidence indicate the expedition crossed into Arkansas in June, 1541 and made it at least as far west as present day Van Buren in northwest Arkansas. Historical note here - as de Soto traveled through Tennessee and Arkansas, a number of the swine escaped and made their way into the woods. These pigs went feral and became the ancestors of the razorback hogs which is now the symbol of Arkansas and the mascot of the University of Arkansas.

During their hunt for gold and other riches, a lot of the meetings between de Soto and the native Indians were peaceful, but he and his mean thought nothing of torturing and killing those who they considered were not cooperating. This led to numerous battles and after spending the second year of their journey in Arkansas, almost half of the men had been killed or died and most of the rest had been wounded at least once. Despondent and feeling the expedition had been a failure as no riches had been discovered, de Soto led his men back to the Mississippi River where they intended to build boats and float down to the Gulf of Mexico. After camping along the river, de Soto contract an illness and died. His death was a problem for his men as the hostile Indians in the area had been convinced to leave the Europeans alone by de Soto convincing them he was a god, the "Immortal Son of the Sun." His men buried him in the middle of the night, but the Indians noticed the disturbed ground and began to doubt their story that de Soto had risen in the sky and gone back home. To keep them from digging up the body and discovering the ruse, the men dug up his body first, again in the middle of the night, weighted it down with rocks, and dumped it in the river.

The entrance to Fairview Cemetery. Straight 
thru this gate a little to the left and all 
the way back lies The Mystery Grave.
A very intriguing legend in Arkansas is known locally simply as "The Mystery Grave." Located in the old section of an old town, the grave is rumored to be that of a de Soto Expedition member. In the oldest section of Fairview Cemetery in Van Buren, the very unusual grave is obviously very old, but could it be so old as to actually be one of de Soto's men?

It is clearly very old and its design is significantly different from the other early graves still preserved in the cemetery. Made of large slabs of stone which have weathered greatly over the years, it definitely looks mysterious. There are some who think it is even much older and may in fact be the grave of a Viking explorer who came through long before Christopher Columbus made his famous voyage.
Mystery Grave on the left next to 
several other old graves.

The actual history of this grave is probably much more sedate. First, it is oriented in a typical East-West alignment with the head of the grave facing east. This has been a traditional Christian burial pattern for many years. Second, the grave is part of and clearly aligned with other graves in the plot of the Thompson family, one of the pioneer families of Van Buren and Crawford County, Arkansas. Third, there is a crude inscription on the stone at the head of the grave that appears to be a Masonic symbol. And finally, this type of stone grave is not really all that unique. Other graves of almost the same construction can be found in old cemeteries in the south. These graves almost always date from the 1820's.

A modern plaque was attached telling the 
story, but vandals stole it. Note the 4 marks 
where it  was attached.
With these facts, it is most likely that the person buried in the Mystery Grave is actually a man who died on the frontier in the 1820s.  He was a Mason and most likely a member of Van Buren's pioneer Thompson family. But the stories continue to be told and who is to say for sure they are not true. Remember, truth is often behind a good story.