T. J. Rigsbee Family Graveyard

Selections from the University Archives.
Writer: 
January 31, 2009
The Riggsbee Family Graveyard

Chrissy DiNicola

It's easy to miss if you're not looking—rushing from your car to class or to a football game at nearby Wallace Wade Stadium—but tucked into one of the Blue Zone parking lots on West Campus is a small cemetery.

Though it's now hemmed in on all sides by the Duke campus, the elevated quarter-acre T.J. Rigsbee Family Graveyard, which dates back to the Civil War era, remains private property today.

Throughout the 1800s, the Rigsbees, a prosperous Durham family, owned and farmed much of the land that now makes up West Campus. Patriarch Jesse Rigsbee and his wife, Mary, lived on some 200 acres that are now mostly covered with parking lots and athletic facilities.

The couple had eight children. Their eldest son, Henry Jackson "Jack" Rigsbee, died fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War and, based on the dates on grave markers, appears to have been the first buried in the family plot.

Another son, Thomas J. Rigsbee, returned to Durham after the war. Living in a log cabin on what is now the site of Duke's medical center, he expanded the family's property significantly.

After his death in 1917 and that of his son Thomas J. Rigsbee Jr. in 1924—they would be the last two family members buried in the graveyard—the heirs sold approximately 600 acres of family land to representatives of James B. Duke.

Duke, who was looking for an affordable plot on which to establish the university, paid the Rigsbees $1,000 "and other good, sufficient and valuable consideration." (He had originally considered expanding outward from East Campus, then the site of Trinity College, but hints that the college was in the market for land had caused prices to escalate quickly.)

In addition to price and exact dimensions, the deed, signed on February 25, 1925, specifies that the cemetery remain the property of the Rigsbee family. Over the years, the plot has sometimes fallen into disrepair. A Chronicle article from the 1950s describes overturned stones and damage to the low wall that surrounds it.

But in the 1980s, Rigsbee descendents created a fund to provide for the continued upkeep of the graves. Today, it is overseen by Thomas J. Rigsbee's great-granddaughters.