Friday, August 8, 2008

It’s Cast In Stone

I was adding to my photo collection a few weeks ago when I came across the Hickory Grove Cemetery, one of the oldest in my home territory of Lackawanna County, PA. I decided to take a stroll and soon became fascinated with the history unfolding before me. One particular grave caught my attention: Deacon John Phillips, "a soldier of the Revolution," the stone proclaimed. I hadn't expected to find a Revolutionary War veteran; I was thinking (mistakenly) that our area wasn't very well settled by the time most of those soldiers had passed on. Before leaving, I found the grave of another Revolutionary veteran, and thus began a history tour in stone.

Deacon John Phillips was not born in our area, but came here during the Revolution. I found a book written in 1994 by an eighth-generation descendent, Jacqueline Lois Miller Bachar, in which she compiled a collection of letters written to John by his sister, Mary Lott, dating from 1826 to 1846. At the time, Mary was living "on the frontier" – which in the 1820s was Delaware County, Ohio, something that should amuse my friend G's Cottage. John was one of the first landowners in Pittston in our neighboring Luzerne County, where he also was justice of the peace. He became a deacon of the First Baptist Church in Abington (a church I pass almost daily in the summertime enroute to Lackawanna State Park). Both Mary and John died in 1846; John was 94 years old.

Harboring the perception that most people in the Revolutionary era were short-lived (and indeed many were), I was stunned to see that Deacon Phillips had reached such an old age. So as I continued my photo travels over the next few weeks, I added another item to my itinerary: cemeteries. I was using a street atlas of a six-county area that conveniently happened to mark cemeteries both large and small, so as I searched for scenic vistas, barns, old advertising signs and the like, I would stop by any cemetery along the route. (No GPS for me; I blew the budget on the camera and lenses. Besides, it was more adventurous this way.)

My best results were in small rural cemeteries, often unnamed and limited to members of an extended family. Although I did find many people who had died relatively young – typhus, scarlet fever, diphtheria and other illnesses claimed many, I found a great deal of septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians and an occasional centenarian. Perhaps it was a stronger constitution fortified by a great deal of hard work just to live from day to day. I found a number of surnames that now grace townships, boroughs or roads; unusual first names, including Urania, Electa, Permelia, Ashketh, Orton, Pardon, Erastus and others; and an overwhelming variety of stone shapes, heights and thicknesses, some absolutely plain, others elaborately engraved with decorative art and flowing script.

I learned to recognize certain types of monuments: any stone with a lamb carved at the top (or a pair of shoes) invariably marked the resting place of a child. Maybe I started getting too familiar with monuments – as I approached one from the rear, I said to myself, "That looks like an 1870s style." Coming around to the front, I looked at the person's date of death: 1875. Now that's a little scary. As for inscriptions, many quoted Bible verses or other religious sentiments, but one was very succinct: "A Good Woman." I suppose the most poignant of the inscriptions I encountered was one on a very plain stone: "Sacred to the memory of Miss Priscilla Basset, who was drowned Feb. 18th A.D. 1806 in the 20th year of her age." I could see the image of a young woman in those words.

Each cemetery was a lesson in military history: in addition to Revolutionary War vets, I found graves of soldiers who fought in the War of 1812, the Mexican War 1846-1848, the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, even Korea and Vietnam, although many of the rural cemeteries I visited stopped being active 50 years or more ago. Some had died in battle, with the heroism appropriately noted, while others survived the conflict (as did Deacon John Phillips) and lived to old age. One Union soldier had died in the notorious Andersonville Prison Camp of the Confederacy. The conclusion I came to: we've fought way too many wars.

Probably the most interesting was the family dynamics played out before me. Men from the 1800s were accompanied in rest by two, three or occasionally more wives, most likely having lost wives in childbirth and to disease. The last wife usually survived the husband, but not by long. One notable exception: a couple where the husband died in 1919 at age 56; his wife, buried with him, lived to be 104, dying in 1978. Their children buried alongside of them sometimes died in infancy or in the first decade of life. But more were begotten, in keeping with the social and physical needs of families living in rural areas in that era. If the children reached maturity, the next generation (and often the one after that) rested nearby.

Maybe this is the real stuff of history: plain, everyday folks living their lives, raising their children, struggling with livelihoods, fighting in wars and finally coming to rest. It may not be the history of great social movements, industry, commerce or technology; but it's the history of us all.


G's Cottage said...

You know I love this stuff. I can and have spent hours in cemeteries doing genealogy work.

I'm a map person too, I like the tactile connection. And yes we're in The Old Northwest Territory out here; The Treaty at Greenville, and all that.

You do realize that if the inscription reads "good woman" she was probably as homely as a barn door.

When we lived near Boston in 1975 we took the walking tour which passes by several cemeteries and I was taken aback at the number of young women, and some including their babies, there were in every row. The sad part is that some of those were due to doctor arrogance, they would go from a postmortem to a delivery and think it unnecessary to wash their hands.

Don't forget that some received land for their Revolutionary Service too. I have several ancestors in different parts of PA who were the first generation of their family to live in those areas because that's where their land grant was issued.

7sky said...

With me, it's part art history, part exploration, part photography and part genealogy.

To me, "a good woman" meant someone who unceasingly did backbreaking work; my grandmother was "a good woman."

I may update this post in a few weeks.

JMillerBachar said...

Thanks for your mention of my book and the photo of my ancestor Deacon John Phillips. I'm saddened to see the condition of the stone and will contact the local DAR to upright it.

7sky said...

Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed your book and the family histories. It gave me a feeling of really knowing your ancestor.

The stone has settled, but still appears firm. I also have a picture of Lydia's stone.

Both original shots are much larger in size and are at a much higher resolution than the one posted. If you would care to have an electronic copy of the originals, let me know at p7sky (at) and I can send them.

bvalco said...

One of the things I love about cemeteries is thinking about the family connections. Many times, I've found multiple members of a family (not mine) and found myself doing genealogical research to see exactly what the connections were. Lots of times I find in-laws, cousins, etc. with different names, all buried near each other.

Since I was raised in a suburban area, I was used to what I call the Mall approach to burials--large fairly new cemeteries where there are no family connections. The concept of family cemeteries fascinates me!

Anonymous said...

I loved your story. I am a for the most part, a genealogist and love to take photographs.When I am in a cemetery and looking for family,it's really hard not to look at other headstones,I like the old style monuments with family names and dates wrapped around them,and the places of where they came from. Sometimes I feel as thou they are lonely souls and are lost, and in some cases their descendants really don't know how to find them.Thanks to you and many others we are beginning to understand our nations history through the eyes of many of our ancestors.I am 43 and never really liked history but as I continue my quest I find myself going back and reading more history books and trying to find old maps of the areas of where my family came from.The oldest headstone I have found to date is that of my Rev War great great great great grandfather Jeremiah Dawson. He was buried in a very small town in Kentucky, and the picture of his headstone and seeing it in person was probably the highlight of my 25 years doing geneaolgy. I saw that he was from the county of Bedford Va on his stone and I knew then that I must go and walk in the general area of where he did. Which s exactly what I did in May 2005, and it was beautiful! I hope to someday go back.I am coming to Pennsylvania and many other states this summer and hope to see the Bailey, Colvin, Bruce family stones in person. How can I find out about where certain cemeteries are in Pennsylvania besides findagrave? Thanks again!!! Lesley Logan