There’s a cemetery in Beaufort that’s simply called The Old Burying Grounds. It is undeniably an old cemetery, the earliest marked grave is dated to 1711. Its beautiful, peaceful old tombstones are covered with a shady canopy of moss-covered live oak trees. But there’s one grave in the cemetery that has a story to tell that’s sadder and stranger than most, and it tells it on the simple wooden plaque that marks the grave and reads “Little Girl Buried in a Keg of Rum.”
The story begins in the mid-18th Century when a family named Sloo (pronounced Slow) traveled from England to the North Carolina colony bringing with them their infant daughter. Sloo was a merchant captain who made his living trading in the English settlements scattered across the Atlantic. The family was prosperous, and they soon built a gorgeous house that still stands on the Beaufort waterfront.
But despite thriving in the colonies, the mother was homesick and often spoke of England. As the Sloo’s daughter grew, hearing her mother’s stories, she too began to long to see the distant land where she was born. Whenever her father was about to set sail, she would beg him to take her with him so she could see England for herself.
The father knew that life at sea was difficult. The voyage to England took months, and a sailing ship was no place for a child. But he also wasn’t blind to his daughter’s happiness. After years of pleading, he finally relented and agreed that she could travel with him. The mother consented to the voyage on one condition, that no matter what happened, he would bring their daughter back to her in Beaufort. And so, one bright morning, leaving his wife behind, Sloo and his daughter set sail for England.
And so the young Sloo girl finally got to see the land where she was born. She delighted in the excitement of London and marveled at being in a land where not everything was new.
But on the return voyage, the father’s forebodings proved to be all too true. Just a week or so out of port, the young girl fell ill and died.
It was the custom in those days for anyone who passed away on a ship to be buried at sea. But Captain Sloo couldn’t bear to allow his daughter’s body to be lost in the depths of the ocean. And he recalled his promise to his wife, no matter what happened, he would bring her daughter home to her in Beaufort.
So the Captain did what he could. There was only one thing on board the ship which could preserve a body, something which every sailing ship carried in copious supply, rum. Captain Sloo gently placed his daughter’s body in one of the many barrels of rum in the hold and sealed the barrel shut.
When he returned home with the heartbreaking news to his wife, she wept for her lost daughter. Not wanting to disturb her further by exposing her to the condition of their daughter’s body after being soaked in rum for months on end, Sloo arranged for his daughter to be buried in the cemetery with a barrel full of rum as her casket.
The Legend of the Rum Keg Girl
Today, the grave of the Rum Keg Girl, as she is known, is one of the most-loved tombs in all of North Carolina. Visitors to the tomb will leave toys, flowers, stuffed animals, beads, and other small tokens of affection when they visit the grave of the Rum Girl in Beaufort’s Old Burying Grounds.
But there are some who say that her story doesn’t end there. There are those who say that the figure of a young girl can be seen running and playing between the graves in the Old Burying Grounds at night. They say that the tributes left on the young girl’s grave are often moved about the graveyard at night, often found sitting balanced on top of other gravestones or in places they couldn’t have moved to by just the wind.
The Old Burying Ground
The Old Burying Ground—charmingly ramshackle, laid out in almost no discernible order, and wildly overgrown with more than three hundred years of live oak, vine, and azalea—is anchored on three corners by churches. Its entrance faces Ann Street, this historic seaport town’s loveliest road. Measuring 440 feet by 266 feet at its widest point, the plot was deeded to Beaufort as a burying ground in 1731, and while the earliest date of death legible is 1756, many gravestones here are even older, weathered by the centuries, their epitaphs lost to time.
Established in the early 1700s, its weathered tombstones chronicle the heritage of North Carolina’s third oldest town and the surrounding coast. Used for Anglican church services in nearby St. John’s Parish, the cemetery was later deeded to the town of Beaufort in 1731 by Nathaniel Taylor following the first survey of the town. Today, the Old Burying Ground is owned and maintained by the Town of Beaufort.
Many graves are marked with shell, brick, or wooden slabs because stone markers would have to have been brought from afar by wooden sailing vessels. Others have vaulted markers, which were covered in brick to protect them from high water and wild animals and are characteristic of many historic seaport towns. Uncovered by an archaeological survey in 1992, the seemingly empty northwest corner of the cemetery is in fact its oldest section, with many unmarked graves dating from the early 18th century. A record from September 1711 notes the area had “been depopulated by the late Indian War and Massacre.” It is probable some of the unmarked graves were victims of the Indian wars whose skulls were cleft with tomahawks of hostile Coree and Neusiok Indians.
Move along the sandy paths and you pass through the messy crosscurrents of American history. One magnolia drops its large, dried leaves on the graves of four Confederate soldiers, while only steps away lies Sergeant George Johnson, a soldier in the U.S. Colored Infantry. Nearby is Pierre Henry, a black man born free during the time of slavery. Perhaps the most famous grave in the Old Burying Ground is that of Captain Otway Burns, a naval hero in the War of 1812, who slumbers beneath a cannon taken from his own warship. In another grave rests a British naval officer who died aboard his ship while in the Beaufort port. It’s said that he didn’t want to be buried “with his boots off,” and so he wasn’t: They buried him standing upright and in full uniform, boots and all.
Visiting the Old Burying Ground
Visitors can tour the Old Burying Ground using an app that offers a free audio tour. It can be downloaded to any smartphone. On the app photographs of the tombstones are shown while a narrator gives the history of the cemetery.
The Audio Tours are no replacement for the guided tours provided by Beaufort Historical Association’s many knowledgeable guides. Tours depart from the Welcome Center at 130 Turner Street. A 24-hour notification required for a guided tour. The Old Burying Ground is located on Ann Street within easy walking distance from the Historic Site. Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12. For more information about tours of the Old Burying Ground or other activities offered by the Beaufort Historical Association, stop by the Welcome Center, call 252-728-5225.
Information gathered from NorthCarolinaGhosts.com and BeaufortHistoricSite.org.