An old wooden fence surrounds a small patch of land — land that holds the secrets of the dead.

Grass and weeds have grown up around the headstones there. Time has worn away the inscriptions on some of the markers. Tall trees and brush outside the cemetery protect it from unwanted intruders.

For the Casey and Wiggins families, it’s a site to be cherished as it’s the final resting place for several of their ancestors.

Joy Casey discovered the cemetery a couple years ago. She was surprised to find it right in the middle of Cliffs of the Neuse State Park. The land used to be property owned by Joy’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, J. Wright Casey, who was buried in the Casey-Wiggins Cemetery in 1883.

The sign at the entrance to the cemetery notes that the graveyard was established in 1876.

Cliffs park superintendent Eric Siratt estimates there are about 16 graves in the small private cemetery.

“You can see how the ground is sunk is some spots,” he said. “A lot of times when you had the wooden coffin, whenever it caved in over time, it would cause a depression in the ground. Back then, they didn’t put vaults in the ground first.”

Siratt said family members can visit the cemetery whenever they want.

Joy said the state has an agreement with the family to provide unlimited access to the family and keep up the grounds around the cemetery. The family takes care of the graveyard.

“I was just as surprised to find out about this graveyard as everybody else,” she said. “I was doing my family history and got into wanting to go to the actual graves because when you look on headstones, you can verify dates. And some headstones will have some personal information on them.

“I went to the Cliffs and asked one of the rangers if there was a graveyard there, and he told me there was. He was excited because they had been looking for a family member. He took me out there and I saw it.”

As Joy dug deeper into her family’s history, she discovered that Wright Casey was the son of William Casey and grandson of Micajah Casesy. Micajah was the first Casey in North Carolina for Joy’s lineage.

“Wright was a descendant of Jacques LeCaze, who was the line beginning in America,” she said. “You can see the French spelling LeCaze and the Americanization to Cayce and more Americanization to Casey.”

Joy learned that Jacques was a Hugenot, a French Protestant in a culture where the Catholic Church was the dominant religion.

“On St. Bartholomew’s Day in France, there was a massacre,” Joy said. “Jacques took his family and escaped into England to get away from persecution. Then he was given land by the king of England to settle in the colonies in America. He came on the ship Nassau in the 1700s to Virginia.”

Jacques prospered and had children. One of his descendants was Micajah, who received a land grant in North Carolina and moved from Virginia.

Researching her ancestors, Joy found that J. Wright Casey was a private in the artillery battery of Co. G of North Carolina in the Confederate Army.

“He had a little taint on him because he was married to Mary Ann Harrell, and they had 11 children together, which was normal back then,” Joy said. “But while he was married, he was having a relationship with Mary’s sister, Sarah. And Wright and Sarah had four children together. They had a common-law marriage. But it didn’t seem to bother Mary.”

Along with Wright and Mary, one of their daughters, Louise, and her husband, James Wiggins, are also buried in the Casey-Wiggins Cemetery.

Joy said she can’t read some of the headstones in the graveyard very well, so she may not ever know who all of the graves belong to.

“I would love to get someone to do a DNA sample of those buried there,” she said.

It makes Joy proud to know her lineage.

“I’m proud of who I am,” she said. “I’m proud of how my family and my family name came to America. I’m proud that I’m descended from people who were looking for religious freedom. I’m proud that I’m descended from people who worked the land and took pride in it. I’m proud that my family has soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, War Between the States, World War I, World War II and Korean War.”

Joy said she now takes a lot of pride in herself, too, because she realizes that she is the result of all the work, the beliefs and the intellect of those who’ve gone on before her.

She said finding her ancestors makes her feel like she’s part of a group.

“I never feel alone,” Joy said. “Be part of a group and you’ll never feel like this life is a solitary journey, because it’s not. It gives you a feeling that life is more than just your little shell that you live in.

Part of that for Joy is visiting graves in the Casey-Wiggins Cemetery.

“It’s a combination of somberness,” Joy said. “You want to be respectful, but you also want to enjoy the visit. I will acknowledge Granddaddy Wright and tell him I’m at his grave and ask is there anything he wants me to know. There’s been a couple things I’ve felt inspired to go and see from different graves I’ve gone to.”

When not receiving visitors, the dead lie peacefully in the middle of a state park, surrounded by trees and other nature, unknown to most people who visit the Cliffs.