I first noticed this when we made our trek to the Promised Land with Glynda and Houston. At Cedar Springs ARP Church several of the more elaborate headstone slabs in the cemetery had the carver/artist’s name inscribed at the bottom.
Then, when Dwight and his family traveled with me to Kingsville in Lower Richland County we stopped by the historic Congaree Baptist Church. There, on one of their headstones, was one of the names I had spotted at Cedar Springs – W. T. White.
Then, last Saturday on our way back from the Edisto River, Alan and I stopped by the old Pon Pon Chapel of Ease near Jacksonboro. There, at the bottom of one of the old slab stones, was the signature of J. White.
I began to wonder if W. T. White and J. White were related, and also wondered how their work became so wide-spread across South Carolina’s historic churches. Turns out they were part of a dynasty of stone carvers that did much, much more than just carving headstones.
The tale begins with Thomas Walker, a master stone carver from Scotland who came to Charleston shortly after the American Revolution. Walker was active as a stone carver from about 1790 to 1836. Walker was known for the “winged souls” motif, similar to the one in the image at the top of this post. However, he also incorporated floral and architectural images into his carvings.
Walker established a carving business in Charleston, and enlisted his family in the enterprise. His sons, David A. Walker, James E. Walker, Robert D. Walker, and William S. Walker, were active carvers up until the Civil War.
Walker’s son-in-law was John White, one of the first signature names I encountered. John White went into business with James Rowe, starting their own stone carving business. The firm of Rowe and White not only carved headstones, but was also involved in building construction. They are listed as the primary stone carvers for Robert Mills’ Fireproof Building in Charleston. Rowe and White were active from about 1819 until 1825.
John White’s son, also named John, and his grandson, William T. White, also got into the family business. John, Jr., was active from 1822-1850, and William was active from 1850-1870. Also active about the same time as William were his two brothers, Robert D. White and Edwin R. White.
Headstone carving changed to match the popular funerary art of the times. During the mid-19th Century forms other than the thin slab came into prominence, such as the broken column and obelisk. Manufacturing processes were also mechanized and streamlined. William White was listed in the census data of the time as the owner of the “Steam Marble Works”, which indicates that steam machinery was in use.
According to the Historical Marker Database…
The Walkers’ and Whites’ stones—usually cut from high-quality Italian marble, and carved with a grace and sophistication surpassing most other gravestone art in South Carolina and the rest of the region for this period—have been noted by several historians, art historians, and other scholars of historic funerary art in the Southeast. Relatively little in-depth research, however, has been conducted on the Walkers and the Whites; most of what is known is based on census records, listings in city directories, newspaper advertisements, and similar sources, and assessments of their standing are based on scholars’ familiarity with surviving examples of their work as viewed in context with the typical gravestone art of their day.
Headstones signatures were often carved with first initial and last name, but occasionally “Rowe & White” appear on some stones. Especially if the stone was intended for the Upstate, or someplace other than Charleston, the word Charleston or some form of abbreviation would be used to indicated the point of origin.
Headstones were a point of pride for a family, and an indicator of status. It’s not surprising that stones from one of the finest carving firms in Charleston would be ordered for burial sites throughout the state. Stones with one of the White signatures can be found throughout the Midlands and Upstate, as well as throughout the Lowcountry areas, with some examples even in North Carolina.
So, if you happen to find yourself in a historic church cemetery, look at the base of one of the older headstones. Chances are that it was carved by one of the Walkers or the Whites.