By Melissa Repko, The Dallas Morning News…
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas—Before the brick homes and shaded yards, the tree swings and the trimmed hedges, before there was even a town, there was a family cemetery.
Daniel Family Cemetery has existed almost as long as Texas has been a state, and its more than 90 tombstones span the changes that have occurred outside its locked gates at Airline Road and Milton Avenue, in this Dallas suburb.
The first burial was for Old Frank, a family slave, in 1850, and the most recent was for Robert Trammell Crow, an heir to a real estate empire, in 2011. His father, Trammell Crow, who married a Daniel descendant, is buried at the cemetery’s center, under the shade of an old tree.
Now, the 1-acre graveyard is surrounded by a residential neighborhood just blocks from Southern Methodist University. It is all that remains of the 640-acre Daniel homestead. It fades into the passing of everyday life, of neighbors pushing strollers, college students chatting on cellphones and cars passing by.
Yet, for one Daniel descendant, United Methodist minister the Rev. Bill Bryan, it continues to be a fascination.
Looking for others
Historical records show the cemetery includes unmarked graves of at least three Daniel family slaves, Frank, Kitty and Rose.
Dr. Bryan would like to mark their final resting place and find their descendants.
Perhaps, he said, they have heard about their ancestors who lived and worked and helped the family survive in the Dallas County frontier.
“It’s sort of a journey,” he said. “There are other people who have grandmothers who told them stories out there that can fit together with this.”
Dr. Bryan, a professor at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, describes himself as a “storykeeper.” As a pastor, he becomes part of his congregants’ stories, participating in some of their highest and lowest moments. As a professor, he helps his students “find their own identity and calling and fulfillment,” he said. The seminary students draw family trees, mapping their lineage and noting ancestral characteristics.
Dr. Bryan grew up learning about the legacy of his father’s side of the family—the barbecue recipe that launched Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse, a well-known restaurant chain in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.
Until he began working for SMU, a short bike ride from the family cemetery, he knew little about his mother’s side, which connected him to Dallas pioneer Frances Sims Daniel. He did not have a cemetery key until 1998.
For Dr. Bryan, the cemetery connects him to his family tree and identity, he said. Though his immediate family has been buried in an Oak Cliff cemetery, Dr. Bryan plans to be buried where his family took root.
He and a distant cousin, Sharyn Pinney of Richardson, have researched together and hope to find more relatives.
Ms. Pinney dreams of holding a reunion of Daniel descendants. “The older I get, the more interesting it is to me,” she said. “When you realize you, too, will die at some point, there’s an effort to make sense of your life and all the people you were related to.”
Just a year after becoming a widow and four years after Texas became a state, Frances Sims Daniel trekked nearly 600 miles from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Dallas. She traveled in a covered wagon with several of her children, their families, her sister and a few slaves and settled in Dallas County.
Daniel may have been eager to flee her loss and a farm she associated with her husband’s death. Perhaps, she saw posters in public squares, promising plentiful land, fertile soil and a place for new beginnings in North Texas.
Whatever the reason, she made her way across the western frontier and was greeted by vast prairies, wild game and a few other families beginning to settle in Dallas County.
She bought 640 acres for 50 cents each and made a home in Texas.
Hers was a life tied to history. She was the daughter of a Revolutionary War soldier and the mother of two Civil War soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. She also was the widow of a Methodist minister.
Cemetery inscriptions document the joys and tragedies of pioneer life, wedding dates and premature deaths. Showing the Methodist influence, the names “Wesley” and “Asbury” are on some stones.
“There are Methodist names all over the place,” Dr. Bryan said.
There are graves for infants and a grave for Daniel’s daughter, Isabelle, who died at age 14 from childbirth. That baby, Daniel’s granddaughter, died a few years later as a young girl.
In 1853, four years after the nearly 600-mile trek, Daniel died at age 57. All that is left from her time are tombstones in the cemetery and a family black teakettle on display at the Old Red Courthouse.
The keys to the Daniel Family Cemetery have been passed from generation to generation. In the 1990s, Max and Bill Daniel kept a cemetery key hanging at Daniel Cleaners in Snider Plaza and lent it to those who asked.
Now, Dr. Bryan and Ms. Pinney have inherited the keys and their story. And they intend to share them.