Saving the Past
Two Women take Charge in Preserving Roatan’s History

September 10th, 2011
by Thomas Tomczyk


Daine Wood-Etches walks with Albert Watler discussing the history of the Methodist cemetery

Daine Wood-Etches walks with Albert Watler discussing the history of the Methodist cemetery

Saving the past of Roatan isn’t an easy task. The island doesn’t boast the brick and mortar historical vestige that many old English and Spanish settlements in the Caribbean do. Roatan is rich in history, yet it has few monuments and visible artifacts to show for it. The pirate ships have been covered by sand and looted. The wooden buildings have been burned down and stone ones never built.

The few things that are signs of history are forgotten or neglected if known at all. There is the clock tower in Coxen Hole, a couple cannons in the park, and the rammed-earth church in Flowers Bay. The gravestones and names of island ancestors are what make up the island historical identity.

Three islanders, Diane Wood-Etches, a community organizer from West End, Sheryl Norman, a stay at home mother of two and Edgar Bodden, a local accountant, have undertaken the task of creating a complete database of English descendant island families in the Bay Islands. This is the first project of its kind anyone has attempted on the Bay Islands. “We want to bring pride back into the communities,” explained Norman of their motivation. With their work the trio is saving the Roatan legacy from oblivion.

Until early June, Norman says that they identified 31,800 people and 285 island families. The three have done a better job than the census done by ZOLITUR. They have done all that with hard work and a $19.95 software program from

“I could go back 200 plus years on each side of our families,” said Bodden. “I am an eleventh Arch generation born on the Bay Islands,” said Norman, who claims her research shows that one of her ancestors was a secretary to Sir Winston Churchill and another founded the British Labor Party.

The project began in June 2008 when Norman decided to put together her family tree. A few months later she decided to do one for her domestic partner, Bodden. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” said Norman about her involvement in the project. A project that began as a personal journey became an island wide investigation. “Edgar Bodden and I saw the need to what we called ‘saving information,’ ” explains Norman.

Norman has been visiting many old islanders and asking them for any family records they could find: bible notations, wills, notes. “Ninety-nine percent of the people have been very nice and helpful,” said Norman who promised the families a “print out of their family tree in return for their cooperation.”

Sheryl Norman marks off the graves at the Methodist Cemetery in Coxen Hole

Sheryl Norman marks off the graves at the Methodist Cemetery in Coxen Hole

Norman had used several sources to create a database of island family names: Methodist Church records in Coxen Hole, Mormon Church records in La Ceiba, private Bibles with handwritten notes, estate Will documents, oral records, and help of the genealogy yahoo group in Cayman Islands – “Cayman Connection.” The Mormon Church in particular has been preserving the genealogical records for almost a century and, according to Norman, in 1980s they have also created records for the Bay Islands.

Norman and Etches have identified around 285 families that came to Roatan from the Cayman Islands, Utila and Guanaja.

The family names that appeared first in the records were: Jackson, Arch, Norman, Dilbert, Tatum, Bodden, Rivers, Bush, McNab and Dixon. Not all families survived the 150 years from arrival in the Bay Islands. In the French Harbour area alone Norman has identified five family names that have died out: Ross, Coe, Page, Watler, and Waller.

Utilans along side Roatanians register their births and marriages at the Methodist Church in Coxen Hole; the Guanajans, except for a few, did not. It is still not clear if and where records exist for the Guanaja settlers. “They have the biggest file of documents, birth and death records, marriage records,” says Norman about the Methodist Church, who explains that the British Government has paid the Methodist church to keep such files.

Norman has not come across any Spanish, or Garifuna names in the registry at the Methodist Church. The protestant community of the Bay Islands led parallel lives to the Catholic community of the Spanish and Garifuna that preceded the Cayman Islander’s arrival to the Bay Islands in the 1830s.

The Catholic Church has kept records of birth, baptisms, marriages and deaths in its parochial seats. For the Bay Islands, that would be Trujillo in the XIX century and in the XX century, La Ceiba. “We concentrate on the English speaking islanders. We don’t have the resources to track others,” explains Norman who has no plans on adding Spanish or Garifuna to the genealogical Bay Islands tree. “Maybe someone else can do that work.” Norman has also identified some families with Jewish roots: the Fuertados from Jamaica and the Diamonds.

The other part of the project undertaken by the Norman and Etches is the task of documenting, and saving from destruction the island’s public cemeteries. Cemeteries and gravestones are markers of people that lived the island history. The engravings of their names are often faded and difficult to read.

Of the 12 public cemeteries the ladies have identified, most are in disarray and forgotten. “It is filled with a very fast growing weed and passing crack heads,” says Norman about the public cemetery in French Harbour. The Coxen Hole cruise ship dock cemetery is still being used as a public walkway.

Near the Coxen Hole cruise ship dock the “Mount Hole” cemetery has been in continuous use since 1860, now there are only four tombs remaining that date back to that period.

A Bay Islands family tree

A Bay Islands family tree

On a Wednesday afternoon, from onboard their vessel, 200 feet up, several hundred cruise shippers stare down onto the Coxen Hole cemetery, situated just above sea level off the main street of the town. This is one of the prime locations on the island. Albert Zephaniah Watler, 89, has been showing the Coxen Hole cemetery to the ladies. Supported on one arm by a walker, and with another holding on to Etches, Watler walks among the graves and speaks about their occupants. According to Watler the cemetery land has been donated to the Methodist Church by Zephaniah Watler, Charlie Watler and John Duval Webster.

Sheryl, with a can of black and gray spray paint in hand, has been spraying numbers on the tombstones. Each grave will have a number spray painted on it and Mr. Watler helps to assign a name to each number, regardless if it has a name plaque or not. “What we can do is paint the graves. They can’t steel the paint,” says Norman.

Metal grave plaques in particular are a target of theft. They can be sold for a few dollars as scrap metal, but they leave many graves without any markings. “Even the tiles are broken off so the ‘crack heads’ can sell them for a piece of crack,” says Etches.

While the ladies work to preserve the cemeteries, others are working just as hard in destroying and scrapping the heritage of island culture marked in the graves and grave stones.

“There is no longer any respect for the dead,” says Norman. “In other cultures, November 1 is celebrated as All Saints Day, and special foods are prepared and the dearly departed tombs are scrubbed and the loved ones visit. If in our culture this particular day was not viewed as a pagan holiday, then maybe, just maybe the cemeteries would not be in such disrepair.”

The oldest marker of the cemetery is an impressive grave stone of Phillip MacLagan Esq, MD, an assistant surgeon on HM Isarus, who died on Roatan the 27 of June, 1860.

Some of the grave stones on Roatan mark burials of historical figures. When Bay Islands became an important banana and coconut exporter to the US, it received a posting of a US consul. US consul Frank E. Frye died here in 1879 at the age of 33. He is buried at the Methodist cemetery in Coxen Hole.

There is also the gravestone of Sergeant Major John V. Leydon who passed away on the island on 21 October MDCCCLX, or 1860. “Deeply regretted by Wife and Child as a good Husband kind Father and a brave Soldier,” reads the beautiful white stone.

Etches and Norman have undertaken a long process of identifying all the cemetery plots on the island and placing a marker next to each one. At the same time, the two ladies hope to set up a monthly maintenance program to upkeep the graves and cut vegetation.

The exception to these cemeteries is the Gough-Cooper cemetery in Oak Ridge where the tombs are always cleaned and well marked. The community of Oak Ridge has a monthly maintenance program and the one person in charge collects a small nominal fee and oversees the cleaning of the cemetery and each individual plot.

The largest cemetery with most graves on Roatan is “Old Brown” in Coxen Hole, across from Petrosun. Some sandstone graves date back to the 1850s, others are just a few months old. It is likely that other 150-year-old tombstones and graves lie undiscovered, covered up by dirt and grass. “The condition of the cemetery is embarrassing, it’s just sad,” says Norman. “In our culture we don’t celebrate our dead as much.” The two ladies plan to fence off the cemeteries and limit access.

This cemetery [Old Brown] as well as all of the public cemeteries on the island is in an extremely deteriorated state. On any given public cemetery on the island, there are so few plots that are identified either by a formal plaque or the basic information of the deceased that was etched at the funeral in the wet cement.

Overall there is a lack of properly identifying the burial plots. In most island cemeteries there is an obvious disarray of graves and no one has records of who is buried where. The grass around the graves is often knee high and the cemetery serves as a public walkway. “I feel a sense of despair and a lost for the sheer amount of looting and desecration of the remains of our loved ones,” said Norman. There is even one plot that is used to anchor the holding cable for an electrical pole which was done quite a few years ago.

Many private and family cemeteries also exist on the archipelago and are scattered from West End to Santa Helena and Barbarat. On Barbarat, Matthew Harper, a longtime resident of Roatan, found an 1852 grave of Sarah Forrester, a Scottish woman who came to the Bay Islands on a logging expedition. [/private]

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