Monday, October 28, 2013

Ann Howard

Writing in the November, 2013 issue of Harper's Magazine, Bee Wilson ("At Death's Door, the Hope and Hokum of Immortality") observes that "In 1840, the longest-lived women in the world were in Sweden; their average age at death was forty-five. As of 2009, Swedish women can expect to live eighty-three years."

This reminded me of one of the most remarkable Ocracoke tombstones in the George Howard cemetery on British Cemetery Road.

Follow instructions on right to enlarge.

Ann Howard's tombstone reads:

In Memory of
Ann Howard
Wife of George Howard
Born ____1724
Died November 24, 1841
Aged 117 Years

Lo! the prisoner is released,
Lightened of her fleshly load.
Where the weary are at rest
She is gathered unto God.

Since Ann Howard's birth month and day are not recorded we may justly wonder if the year of her birth (1724) is correct. Record keeping in colonial America, especially on Ocracoke Island, could not have been thorough or reliably accurate. Besides, Ann's husband George, according to his marker, was born in 1749. It is, of course, possible that Ann was 25 years older than George, but unlikely.

Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that the stonecutter was instructed to include the notation "Aged 117 years" to alert future generations that the dates (1724-1841) were not an error. Clearly, Ann Howard's surviving descendants believed her to be 117 years old.

According to Bee Wilson's article "The oldest person on record remains the Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 aged 122."

Ann Howard's grave marker is clearly visible from the road. It is on the left. If accurate, she "must have been the oldest person ever to have lived in North Carolina," as Carl Goerch writes in his 1956 book Ocracoke.

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is a brief history of the Soundfront Inn, one of the oldest structures on the island. You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous7:57 AM

    I wonder what corroborating documentation the Swedish government used to confirm the 1840s information. Is this not one of the roles of churches. Recording births through christening babies . Certainly there must be a Family Bible or church records would not a record of marriage include the ages of the couple.

  2. Anonymous8:44 AM

    Question, Philip, re. the legibility of the fading etching on the headstone. Has any comprehensive effort ever been undertaken, in the interest of "Ocracoke preservation," to document Ocracoke's various grave sites as well as the messaging on the markers? Just curious, given the historical nature of the island and it's naturally small geographic footprint.

    Thanks for field such queries--as always.

    1. In 1973 Hyde History, Inc. published "In Memory Of..., An Index to Hyde County Cemeteries," edited by Martha Swindell & R.S. Spencer. 46 pages of the book document the graves in 81 island cemeteries. In 1998 an Ocracoke supplement was published thanks to the work of Hazel Garrish and her daughter Jane Garrish, who continues to document recent island deaths and graves.

  3. Anonymous9:19 AM

    Does the book by Goerch have a photo of this headstone as it appeared in 1956?. If so, it would be interesting to see the how the appearance has changed. I know I as able to find on line, info on the grave of my uncle. The Cemetery details , names of those buried were colected and upload on line by a Boy Scout for his Eagle project. How often is this project selected by BSA members?. If they only knew how far reaching and valuable their efforts are to many.

    1. There is no photo in Goerch's book, just a line drawing.

  4. Anonymous10:52 AM

    In reply to Anonymous 7:57 AM:
    >>About Swedish Church Records, 1500 - 1941
    The Sweden Church Records collection contains over 19 million images scanned from microfilm/microfiche of the original church records. The collection features various records from the 16th through the 20th century, including birth/baptismal, confirmation, marriage, and death/burial records; church ledgers; moving-in and moving-out registers; and household examination rolls. These are the main sources of genealogical information for Swedish family history research.
    Many of these records stem from a royal decree in 1686 requiring ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sweden to record births, marriages, deaths, and people who moved in and out of the parish, and to perform household examinations every year.<<
    LOTS more info here:
    I'd say they'd have a pretty good idea of the average life expectancy. :-)

  5. Another problem with 1724 birthdate:
    she had (6) children between her 48th & 58th year -- highly unlikely...?