Trailside Talk: The quest to find veterans buried in the Smokies


Joe Emert and his friends are on a mission that has no end.

Emert is one of the leaders of an effort to identify the final resting places of all military veterans buried in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Using military records, newspaper research, family histories, websites focusing on family ancestry, and a lot of footwork, Emert and his colleagues have identified 206 veterans buried (including cremains) in the park.

Primitive Baptist Church cemetery in Cades Cove. Photo by Joel Kramer/Flickr
Primitive Baptist Church cemetery in Cades Cove. Photo by Joel Kramer/Flickr

Like the daily work of many former residents of the Smokies who toiled from “rising to setting sun,” this is an endless task. There are more than 150 known cemeteries in the park, and some are in backwoods locations reachable only by the truly adventurous. And, Emert said, it is clear there are many graves in the park (for example, individuals buried with no markers in the backyards of former homesites) that will never be discovered.

Additionally, many graves in Smokies cemeteries are marked only by fieldstones, with no identification of the individual and, obviously, no notation of possible military service. Other gravestones contain some identification, but many have faded with the years.

“There are a lot of cemeteries in the park that have just stones,” said Emert, whose grandfather served in the military in World War I and was followed by Emert’s father in World War II. “In some, there are very few stones, but we know that there are more people buried there. Who they are will never be known. And there are Cherokee graves in the park, and [graves of enslaved peoples] that are not really marked.”

Emert defines the effort of his group as a “work in progress.” Participants have included Sheila Evans of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Cocke County, Tennessee; Don Casada of Swain County, North Carolina; Frank March, who is co-author (with Bob Lochbaum) of A Field Guide to Cemeteries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, scheduled for publication this summer; and numerous other volunteers.

Here is a detailed list of known veterans.

Emert urges people with more information about veterans buried in the park or those with possible additions to the list to contact the group at “We encourage people to write stories about their veteran ancestors,” he said. Ultimately, the group hopes to link the database to a university computer system so that students can easily join the work.”

In the formative years of GSMNP, some officials voiced the opinion that cemeteries within the park boundary would largely be forgotten as people focused on the area’s new prominence as a part of the national park system. That idea has been disproved countless times over the years as descendants of those buried in the park’s more formal cemeteries gather frequently for ceremonies and visitation.


“I think the people who are most involved still have connections to the land even though the land now is a national park,” Emert said. “Some of these things run pretty deep as far as what they’re doing to keep the memories going.”

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.