Old Mortality

The gate of the Old Burial Ground on Broad Street, Newark, some years after the graveyard was vacated.

NO human lives were lost when fire destroyed Edward Stewart’s United States Hotel. But upon the plight of hundreds already dead, the 1844 blaze cast a lurid glow.1

Stewart’s hotel stood upon ground that the first settlers of Newark had early reserved for common use. Thirty years after their arrival, the dimensions and limits of this land had received confirmation from the Proprietors of East New Jersey as “being seaven chaines in Length and foure chaines in breadth, bounded west by John Treat, south by John Johnson, North and East by highways.”2

These “highways” were to become the cardinal axes of Broad and Market Streets. The tract at their southwest corner, set aside as one of four common lots, held a pond, the original meeting house or church, and the earliest necropolis–what later generations would take to calling the Old Burying Ground.

Here was the intended final resting place of Newark’s “first families,” among them the Allings, Baldwins, Cranes and Wards, and of those that soon followed, the Tichenors, Ogdens, Heddens, Condits and Coes. The town maintained this ground, for as long as it was active, chiefly by leasing it as pasture, either for a fee or in exchange for keeping fences in good repair.3

After 1800, the Old Burying Ground saw few interments. Congregants of Newark’s founding church had started to favor burial across Broad Street, alongside and behind the third and present sanctuary. Some brought over their ancestors’ remains and headstones from the original graveyard.4 Others, having formed or joined newer congregations, were buried in churchyards of their own.

Even as the old ground began to lose its usefulness and to appear disordered and dismal, the neighborhood was becoming the focus of the town’s material progress and ambitions. The ancient burial place, increasingly hemmed in by buildings, saw its margins intruded upon by sheds and stables.

There was official denunciation, as early as 1802, of encroachments “constantly” made on lands the founders had set aside “to preserve the Health of the People, and to adorn, beautify, and render commodious the Town….” The “narrow and selfish dispositions of some of their Descendants” were condemned, as was the “shameless avarice of more modern Settlers….”5 And while no explicit mention was made of the burying ground, conditions there steadily deteriorated.

The tract’s complicated legal status didn’t help. The state legislature made a change in 1804, vesting title in the inhabitants of Newark Township, but this gave no right to depart from the uses detailed in the original patent. The authorities nevertheless began to review their options, resolving to raise funds for a new burying place, and in 1829 forbidding further interments in the old.6

In the 1830s, pressure mounted to do something about the ancient ground. Its conditions were acceptable to no one. “The old yard is neglected and encroached upon,” lamented one of its more measured critics; “the tombstones are falling down, and the whole field presents a disgusting spectacle.”7

Public meetings took place in April 1835 at the very hotel that would succumb to fire the following decade. From these meetings emerged a scheme to run a street through the ground, and to remove all remains and headstones from the north of it to the south; the southern part would then be securely enclosed “with the expressed determination of the public that the same shall remain undisturbed forever.”8 Later that year, the East Jersey Proprietors relinquished all interest in the tract, clearing the way, or so hoped the editor of the New Jersey Eagle and numerous others, “for its being handsomely improved and more appropriately occupied than at present.”9

In 1836, officials of the newly incorporated city of Newark rejected the proposed street, opting instead to “improve” the tract with a public walkway, gates and plantings, and to remove encroachments on the grounds rather than the burials within them.10 It’s not clear what parts of this plan were attempted or realized, but the actions that followed, especially cutting a “highway” through the middle of the site and “levelling” part of the terrain, provoked vehement reactions, and only made the degradation of the Old Burying Ground more visible.11

Lithograph of Samuel H. Congar’s map, “Home lots of first settlers of Newark, N. J.” The circle marks the site of the Old Burial Ground.

Above the pseudonym “A Newarker,” William A. Whitehead shared his experience of the place “while on a visit recently to the home of my youth.” In a “hasty communication” for the Daily Advertiser, he wrote of stopping to see once more “the graves of a household from which I am in part descended,” namely the burials of his mother’s family, the Coes. What he saw filled him with “a sensation of horror.”12

“Can it be possible that similar emotions are not felt by others?” Whitehead exclaimed. “A voice speaks from the ground, asking in accents of warning, ‘if you thus neglect our resting places what treatment will yours receive? Think you that your grandchildren will follow your example?’”

Whitehead implored the Advertiser’s editor to take up the cause of the Old Burying Ground, confident that its timely protection and preservation could yet save the ancient yard “from the assaults of ‘ungodly men’.” This plea to the residents of Newark, from one who thought his remaining years would likely be “passed far away from its neighborhood,” may have struck a chord, even if there was less policy than poetry in it. “Let the ground be enclosed,–walks laid out,–trees and shrubs planted,–and the humble memorials of the dead properly arranged”–all seem little different from the city’s noble but ill-starred intentions a year and a half before.13

In 1843, contrary to his prediction, Whitehead came back to reside in Newark, just a year before fire ravaged Stewart’s Hotel and drew attention to the still deplorable state of the Old Burying Ground. But while he continued to lament its condition, he was not the most strident critic of the neglect and abuse to which it was subject.14

Samuel H. Congar.

Enter Samuel Hayes Congar, who could claim kinship with several founding families and probably, through his coach-painting business, connections with descendants of the rest. Nominally, Congar continued in the coach-painting trade for decades, but his life’s work proved to be documenting the traces of Newark’s first citizens, and fighting for their preservation. For his antiquarian habits he was eulogized as “a veritable ‘Old Mortality’,” after the character in Scott’s novel of that name. It was a sobriquet he may even have donned himself.15

An early member of the New Jersey Historical Society, in charge of its library for twenty years, Congar developed an unparalleled command of Newark’s remote past. His labors and interests frequently overlapped with Whitehead’s, and in 1864 the duo published a still indispensable edition of the early town records. Whitehead used the introduction to acknowledge his colleague’s “intimate acquaintance with names, localities and circumstances …, enabling him to solve doubts and correct errors, where another person would have been entirely at fault.”16

Congar’s scrutiny of ancient documents generated a “map of the Town as first laid out,” of which a large version “with colors and figures designating the owners of the different lots” was shown at the bicentennial commemoration of Newark’s founding in 1866.17

For Congar, Newark’s “indefatigable antiquarian,” the resting place of the first Newarkers was holy ground. He couldn’t excuse or ignore its defilement, but neither could he accept any further alteration that would risk dishonor to the ancestors. Counting over 400 markers still standing in 1844, “where respect and affection placed them,” he insisted through the pages of the Daily Advertiser that they must remain where they stood. Damage already done in the burying ground could not be reversed. The grading and opening of a “highway” through the site had displaced and destroyed much: it had “changed ‘Here lyeth’ into a lie.” Congar’s bitter reproaches of “the powers that were” would never soften into acquiescence.18

Whitehead felt similarly, and said so in print. “Let them remain where they are,” he wrote of the tombstones still in place; “let the work of devastation be stayed–remedy the evil wrought already as far as may be practicable–and the ‘Old Burying Ground’ may yet be rescued from the utter destruction that inevitably awaits it, if the plans at present contemplated should be carried out to completion.”19

Gravestone of Abigail Coe (here spelled “Coo”), the great grandmother of William A. Whitehead.

In its degraded state, the Old Burying Ground outlived both Congar and Whitehead. But the hope that so ancient a site could survive at the heart of a modernizing city was a vain one. The removal of interments was ordered in 1888, and by the turn of the 20th century law and progress had obliterated all that was visible.20 The stones and possibly bones of at least six members of the Coe family, whose graves William Whitehead had sought out many years before, found refuge in the bucolic setting of Mount Pleasant Cemetery, just over two miles further north.21

Copyright © 2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “Destructive conflagration,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 12 March 1844 2:1. Stewart’s United States Hotel, formerly known as Chandler’s, and before that as the Roff House, “was a large double three story frame building, … a great part of which was very old.” It stood on a lot leased to Stephen Roff by the First Presbyterian Church.

[2] Records of the Town of Newark, New Jersey, from its settlement in 1666, to its incorporation as a city in 1836 (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 6. Newark 1864. Hereafter “Records of the Town”) 282-283.

[3] Records of the Town 132-144 passim. Lease of pasturage appears to have ceased after 1815: see ibid. 211, 217.

[4] See “Inscriptions from Newark’s oldest burying ground,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, n.s. 10:2-4 (April-October 1925) (193-201, 321-332, 424-435) 193-194.

[5] Records of the Town 185-186.

[6] Acts of the twenty-eighth General Assembly of the State of New-Jersey, at a session begun at Trenton, on Tuesday, the twenty fifth day of October, One thousand eight hundred and three, and continued by adjournments. Being the second sitting (Trenton 1804) 255-259. Records of the Town 200, 220-226 passim, 243-248 passim, 250. The front of the Monument to the First Settlers of Newark, erected in Fairmount Cemetery in 1889 (see note 20 below), reproduces the text of one of the 1829 resolutions, “that a Committee be appointed to consider the feelings and wishes of the inhabitants of the Township, whose friends and relations had been interred in the Old Burying Ground, on the subject of changing the use of said Burying Ground and having their remains reinterred in some other place, at the Town’s expense, with suitable mementoes.” The site purchased in Newark Neck for a new burial ground was soon found to conflict with the demands of the growing city: see “Special town meeting,” Newark daily advertiser 25 May 1832 2:1.

[7] Newark daily advertiser 26 March 1835 2:5.

[8] Newark daily advertiser 1 April 1835 2:2, 2 April 1835 2:3, 7 April 1835 2:5; “Old Burying Ground,” Newark daily advertiser 11 April 1835 3:1.

[9] “The Old Burying Ground,” New-Jersey eagle (Newark, N.J.) 9 October 1835 3:1. Cf. “The Old Burying Ground,” Newark daily advertiser 9 October 1835 2:3.

[10] “Old Burying Ground,” Newark daily advertiser 18 June 1836 2:3.

[11] “It has for many years been the depository of all filth and nastiness. And that these might be more conspicuous to the passing stranger as well as to the citizen and regale them with their odors, a public avenue is opened to publish more extensively our disgrace; along which on either side are strewed the defaced and mutilated monuments which have been removed to facilitate the passenger. Dessolation [sic], as it were, has been made more desolate, and the feelings of relatives and friends rendered obtuse by familiarity.” A Citizen, Newark daily advertiser 11 December 1838 2:3. Other writers testify to stagnant pools of filthy water, hogs rooting among the graves and other despicable sights: see Newark daily advertiser 28 May 1838 2:3, 11 June 1838 2:3, 31 May 1839 2:3. According to Samuel H. Congar, almost $400 in public money was spent on grading and monument removal between 1836 and 1838: S.H.C., “The remains of our fathers, again,” Newark daily advertiser 12 April 1844 2:4. Within a few months of its opening, the avenue cut through the burying ground was again closed, so that the “sacrilegious desecration of the grave was worse than in vain.” T., “Stroll through the Old Burying Ground,” Newark daily advertiser 11 April 1844 2:3.

[12] A Newarker, “The Old Burying Ground,” Newark daily advertiser 13 November 1838 2:2. The article is subscribed “New York, Nov., 1837.” Whitehead isn’t known to have left his home in South Florida in 1837, but he had settled in New York, at 84 Barrow Street, by November 1838. I therefore take the date to be a misprint. Whitehead appended the initials “G. P.” to his “Letters from Havana,” published in the Advertiser in August-September 1838, and as “The Old Burying Ground” appears on the first page of one of Whitehead’s scrapbooks, headed “Contributions of G. P.,” I regard the identification of “A Newarker” with him as secure. Scrapbook Collection, Manuscript Group 1494, SB 10, New Jersey Historical Society.

[13] In “The Old Burying Ground,” Whitehead, a devoted Episcopal churchman but descended from Presbyterians on his mother’s side, wondered pointedly how the Presbyterians of Newark could “regard without shame” the graves of their first ministers, which, as he elsewhere wrote, had been rendered “undistinguishable from the common ground.” G. P., “Glimpses of the past in New Jersey. No. XVI. First English settlements in East Jersey,” Newark daily advertiser 17 May 1842 2:1. (See the remarks of “A Traveller” in Newark daily advertiser 28 May 1838 2:3.) Sometime between 1844 and 1849, the remains of three early pastors, with their grave markers, were transplanted to the rear of the First Presbyterian Church. The removal was executed “in haste” according to Samuel H. Congar, but “with pious care” according to the pastor at the time, “and for the sake of greater security”: S. H. C., “Sacred to the memory, &c.,” Newark daily advertiser 19 August 1844 2:3; Mount Pleasant (a pseudonym of Congar’s), “Our first meeting house–No. VII,” Newark daily advertiser 31 August 1849 2:4; Jonathan F. Stearns, First church in Newark. Historical discourses, relating to the First Presbyterian Church in Newark; originally delivered to the congregation of that church during the month of January, 1851 (Newark 1853; hereafter “Stearns, First church”) 106, 110, 118. The markers of John Prudden (d. 1725), Jabez Wakeman (d. 1704) and Nathaniel Bowers (d. 1716), the third, fourth and fifth pastors, may still be found in the memorial garden behind the church.

[14] Among the voices of denunciation was that of Whitehead’s friend Samuel I. Prime, who used his New York newspaper to highlight “the long series of outrages which the old grave yard had suffered,” including the alleged encroachment of the hotel’s “saloon” and dance hall upon the graves. For “intermeddling” in a local matter, Prime, although a Newark resident, was assailed by Stewart, the hotel’s proprietor. Irenæus, “A ball in a grave yard,” Newark daily advertiser 24 April 1844 2:5; S., Newark daily advertiser 6 May 1844 2:5; cf. C., “Scenes in a grave yard,” Newark daily advertiser 11 May 1844 2:5. See also: Iota, Newark daily advertiser 22 March 1844 2:4; Be Admonished, Newark daily advertiser 29 March 1844 2:3; T., “Stroll through the Old Burying Ground,” Newark daily advertiser 11 April 1844 2:3.

[15] Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, ser. 2, 3:2 (1873) 50-51; n.s. 13 (1895) 252-253; ser. 3, 4:2 (1902-1903) 98-99. William Nelson, “Fifty years of historical work in New Jersey,” reprinted in Semi-centennial celebration of the founding of the New Jersey Historical Society, at Newark, N. J., May 16, 1895 (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 8. Newark 1900) (15-152) 66-67.

[16] Records of the Town x.

[17] Proceedings commemorative of the settlement of Newark, New Jersey, on its two hundredth anniversary, May 17th, 1866 (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 6 Supplement. Newark 1866) 170. See “Our Town on Passaick River,” ibid. facing 41. The origins and evolution of Congar’s map would repay a detailed study. It existed in manuscript at least as early as 1851, when he donated to the Historical Society a map of the town “as allotted off to the first settlers”: Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society [ser. 1] 5:4 (1851) 163. This was soon lithographed and published in Stearns, First church (“Home lots of first settlers of Newark, NJ.,” facing 317]. Then, the first home lots were drawn over a facsimile of “A map of the town of New-Ark in the state of New-Jersey published in 1806” by Charles Basham (for which see my earlier post, The seeds of industry), becoming the frontispiece to the Historical Society’s 1864 publication Records of the town of Newark.

[18] Stearns, First church ix. S. H. C., “The Old Burying Ground,” Newark daily advertiser 10 April 1844 2:5; S. H. C., “Sacred to the memory, &c.,” Newark daily advertiser 19 April 1844 2:3. Mount Pleasant, “Our first meeting house–No. V,” Newark daily advertiser 2 August 1849 2:4. Another correspondent, equally dismayed at the state of the grounds, opposed leaving them “in ruins and neglected, through false or assumed notions of respect for the memory of their occupants.” Congar, however, insisted, not that the work of “improvement” be abandoned, “but that it may be executed in such a manner that the spot may be known and recognized as the old burying ground…” T., “Stroll through the Old Burying Ground,” Newark daily advertiser 11 April 1844 2:3; S.H.C., “The remains of our fathers, again,” Newark daily advertiser 12 April 1844 2:4.

[19] G. P., “Title to the Old Burying Ground,” Newark daily advertiser 19 April 1844 2:3.

[20] Officially, final removals took place by the end of 1889, with dedication of the Old Settlers’ Monument in Fairmount Cemetery, beneath which were entombed all known gravestones and remains. Still, as late as 1935 excavations for new buildings were still bringing ancient gravestones to light. “3 old tombstones dug up at Broad St. corner,” Newark (N.J.) star-eagle 24 August 1935 1:1, with photograph 3:6.

[21] Mount Pleasant records show that the transfer coincided with condemnation of the Old Burying Ground in 1888, but John S. Condit’s transcriptions of epitaphs make plain that the Coe graves were among those removed to First Presbyterian churchyard decades earlier, prior to 1847. Inscriptions from monumental stones in the Newark cemeteries 1847, Monumental Inscriptions, Essex County, 1:212-213, New Jersey Historical Society (REF 929.017 M815 v.5); “Early inscriptions in First Presbyterian burying-ground, Newark, N. J.,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, n.s. 11:2 (April 1926) 199-204. Whitehead may well have overseen the initial removal, as he had arranged for the transfer to Trinity Church burying ground of the “plain stone” that marked the grave of his father’s first wife and oldest son, victims of the 1799 yellow fever epidemic. “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” transcription held by the Florida Keys History Center, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; page 3 of the transcription contains the reference.

Images: 1) Gate: New Jersey Picture Collection, Newark Public Library. 2) “Home lots of first settlers”: Jonathan F. Stearns, First church in Newark. Historical discourses, relating to the First Presbyterian Church in Newark; originally delivered to the congregation of that church during the month of January, 1851 (Newark 1853), facing 317. 3) Samuel H. Congar: Semi-centennial celebration of the founding of the New Jersey Historical Society, at Newark, N. J., May 16, 1895 (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 8. Newark 1900), facing 66. 4) Gravestone of Abigail Coe: author’s photograph, 2023.

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