Billy Joe Point on Colonels Island in Liberty County sometimes is referred to as Billy Harris Point. John Toby Woods purchased the land and was building a house on the property once owned by Dr. Raymond Harris, whose land bordered Maybank, the home of the Rev. Dr. Charles Colcock Jones.
There was a dilapidated grave between a live oak and palm tree on the land where Woods was building a house. The tombstone was in many pieces and complete ruins. It had been neglected for more than 100 years. Woods wanted to restore it.
It was the burial site of W.J.L. (Billy Joe) Harris, who was born May 1, 1841, and died at the age of 18 on Dec. 21, 1859. The burial site overlooked Sunbury Creek and the Medway River. This point of land has one of the most impressive views of Colonels Island.
Billy Joe was the son of a prominent planter and physician, Dr. Raymond Harris, and Mary Elizabeth Law Harris. Dr. Harris attended school at Eatonton and medical college in Philadelphia, even though he never received his certificate. He practiced medicine for more than half a century. Two of his sons also were physicians, Stephen Nathan and Raymond Benjamin Harris. Stephen died at 31 of yellow fever in Savannah, where he had practiced medicine.
Dr. Harris was the father of three more children — Columbus Starnes, Susan and Cornelia Elizabeth Harris. Billy Joe, the youngest son, never was listed with the other children or mentioned in any of the numerous letters written from Dr. Harris’ family to the Charles Colcock Jones families. Dr. Harris, at age 76, got married for a second time to 30-year-old Elizabeth Mary Emma Anderson, who died at age 35.
John Toby Woods contacted David Hurst Thomas, who had done many excavations on St. Catherines Island, to excavate Billy Joe’s remains. Clark Spencer Lauren also helped. Excavation was initiated May 24, 1976. Looking on near the excavation site was John’s uncle, Ernest Youmans, and aunt, Bessie Youmans, along with Dennis O’Brien. Aunt Bessie sat in a lounge chair, while her husband sat on an old sawhorse. They watched each shovelful of dirt that came from the gravesite. It took two days for the excavation.
Maybe the reason the older people were so interested was that there were rumors that a lot of gold was buried in the grave. There were old slave tales that told of a casket that was so laden with an unknown bounty that the oxen strained to pull the wagon, and the slaves who lowered the body into the grave did so with great difficulty. This was a time before the impending Civil War, when people were concerned about saving their wealth in case of an invasion. Burial of gold and other precious valuables was one way to ensure that it was hidden and safe from the enemy. The rumors were so great that many intruders were lured with the intent of robbing the grave. Attempts at clandestine excavation were unsuccessful.
When the excavation began that day in May, there still were possibilities that wealth remained in the grave, not from the Harris family, but from the African-Americans who remained on the island long after emancipation.
At exactly 6 feet below ground level, archeologists reached the burial and removed the remains of the mahogany coffin, the crushed bones and teeth of Billy Joe and the grave goods. They announced they were finished. Aunt Bessie was highly disappointed that no great wealth had been found.
“Keep digging!” she commanded loudly,
In the century since Billy Joe’s burial, natural processes had destroyed most of the coffin, and the weight of the dirt crushed many of the bones. Because the coffin was buried below the natural level of the water, it was assured of some preservation. However, fluctuations in the water level led to periodic soaking and drying of the wood, thus weakening the structural integrity of the casket. When the top of the casket collapsed, the damage was done.
There is abundant evidence that great care was taken in preparing him for burial. The mahogany casket and buttons that were part of the burial clothing were imported from England. These material remains were an indication that the family cared for Billy Joe as they laid him to rest.
A few bones and 17 teeth were found. The remaining teeth showed evidence of an enamel defect, suggesting that Billy Joe suffered from childhood illnesses that caused his tooth enamel to mineralize improperly, leaving a visible line across the teeth. The illness must have occurred in his first six years, as his front teeth had completed development by the age of 6. Alan Goodman and George Armelagos’ research on archeological populations has shown that stress, such as an infection or high fever, that produces these defects in the tooth enamel during childhood can shorten one’s life.
Why was Billy Joe buried on the family’s land and not in the consecrated cemetery with the rest of his family? Some say that Billy Joe drowned and was buried overlooking the Medway River. But John Toby is not convinced that is what happened. He pointed out that Billy Joe was anonymous in his lifetime. He is not mentioned in “Children of Pride,” the most significant history of Liberty County. Even a search of more than 4,000 unpublished letters by Dr. C.C. Jones, described as a compulsive correspondent, did not reveal even a passing reference to Billy Joe in his letters to Billy Joe’s father.
John Toby believes that Billy Joe was “mentally challenged” and was “hidden from view.” Even in death, Billy Joe was denied by his family.
Billy Joe’s brother, Stephen Nathan Harris, died from yellow fever in 1854 and was buried in Walthourville Presbyterian Cemetery. His father and his two wives, as well as brother Raymond Benjamin, also are buried there. Billy Joe is the only one buried on the point of land named in his honor.
A year after the excavation, the bones had been studied by the researchers and were returned to be buried in a new vault that John Toby had built in a reconstructed grave. John asked that the little box of bones be opened so he could put in a bicentennial coin. Dave Thomas reluctantly opened the box revealing a hand of cards tacked to the lid: aces and eights, the dead man’s hand.
With a wry smile, John placed the coin in the box.
Later that day, the final interment was attended by about 40 people, including other archeologists working with Thomas and Larson on other excavations on St. Catherines. It was a celebratory event. Walter Meeks, a friend of John’s, gave the eulogy. John described Meeks as an imposing figure. His 6-plus-feet stature was made more daunting by the black suit and hat he wore for the occasion.
Meeks led the procession from the house to the grave with an open Bible by his side and recited from memory a passage from Ecclesiastes 12. Meeks took his task seriously and began a sermon-like eulogy that soon captured the attention of his audience. As he ended the eulogy, he reached over and plucked a camellia blossom from his wife’s coat and carefully dropped the white petals on Billy Joe’s remains. The whole group was mesmerized by the service.
Thirty years later, Meeks was interviewed about the event. He said that when he was 8, he had memorized passages from the Bible. His uncle, a church elder who viewed the task as more educational than religious, gave Walter anywhere from a nickel to a quarter for each verse he memorized. Walter said that not only did he enjoy learning the verses and getting the money, but that they also came in handy during special occasions, such as the sermon for Billy Joe.
Billy Joe is better known to the world now than he was during his lifetime. The stone that covers Billy Joe Harris’ grave reads: “W. J. L. HARRIS, Son of Dr. Raymond and Mary E. Harris, Born May 1, 1841, Died Dec. 21, 1859, ‘What I do thou knowest not now but thou shalt know hereafter.”
The above story was used with permission from John Toby Woods Jr. and George J. Armelagos, authors of “St. Catherines Island, The Untold Story of People and Place.”