Backstory and Context
The Messersmith Cemetery is located in White River Township, in Johnson County, along Peterman Road. The cemetery itself is small, with only 19 marked graves, although the size of the plot suggests that there are many more unmarked graves, according to Mark Messick, trustee of White River Township and curator of the several small cemeteries there. The graveyard is host to the Messersmith family, of whom not a lot of information could be found, but also home to Abraham Sells, who has two headstones, both of which mark him as an important figure in White River Township. His newest headstone acts as more of a historical marker than anything else, and claims “First White Man to enter White River Township in 1820 as Indians were Leaving.” According to David Damaree Banta’s 1881 book A Historical Sketch of Johnson County, the Sells family, the Sells family faced hardship in their first years in this new land, but ultimately settled here and began a new life: “Sells and his company were driven out of the low valley once or twice by high water. When the corn on the east of the river was in a forward state toward maturity, the hogs broke through the hasty fence and destroyed all. [...] Abraham Sells, Sr., having a large family, built a house near his original camp, and resided there two years, suffering continually from fever and ague. He then moved eastward two miles, and located on a healthy place, and there remained till he died, on the 5th of March, 1846, aged sixty-three years” (Banta, 130). While Banta does not tell the reader his sources, the grandchildren of Abraham Sells were alive while this text was published, and so it seems likely he would have gone to them for family history. This text and the survival of this cemetery shows an importance of the preservation of history, even if in something as seemingly permanent and ending as death.
It seems that small pioneer cemeteries likes this exist purely out of necessity: it cost too much to be buried in the city cemeteries, and so pioneers of the land would bury their families in small cemeteries such as this to keep their loved ones close by. I was unable to find any information regarding how these cemeteries were registered as such.
Banta, David Demaree. A Historical Sketch of Johnson County. Chicago, IL: J.H. Beers and Co., 1881. https://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2078&context=facpub.
Messick, Mark. Interview with Emily Putman. Phone Call. Indianapolis, IN. March 24, 2020.