Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Harvesting in a stone orchard: the St. Peter's Episcopal Churchyard

Run a couple of history nuts past an old church and see what happens. If those nuts are Ivan and me, chances are that you’ll be spending some time walking around a graveyard. That’s exactly what happened on the way from the Perth Amboy waterfront to city hall.

The Kearny family, Perth Amboy branch.
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church is nestled in a residential neighborhood, and its current 1852 structure doesn’t quite do justice to its history as the oldest parish of its faith in the state. Starting in 1685, it’s welcomed Perth Amboy residents both notable and obscure, and not surprisingly, its history is reflected in the gravestones that populate the entire churchyard. One of its earliest stones dates back to the 1600s, and its most recent appeared to have been placed just a few days before our visit, as the soil in front of it was freshly disturbed. Set at the top of the bluff as it is, the property must have offered a beautiful view of Raritan Bay before the surrounding homes were built. In fact, it's said that colonists used the tower of the original church as a lookout point to spot Tories across the Arthur Kill on Staten Island.

The church itself is an impressive Gothic Revival structure with stained glass windows that combine biblical and colonial themes, but we weren't focused on the building. We spent a fair amount of time wandering among the memorials, Ivan looking for Civil War veterans as I scanned for any interesting names. We found both, though it appeared that someone on the cemetery committee had confused the Revolutionary War and World Wars for the Civil War and put commemorative medallions in the wrong places.

Very close to the church wall, Ivan found a series of stones marked with names of various members of the Kearny family. Could these be relatives of Major General Philip Kearny, the self-described “one-armed Jersey son-of-a-gun” who led the First New Jersey Brigade through the War Between the States, the hero for whom the town of Kearny, New Jersey was named? It appeared that the family was notable in Perth Amboy, judging from the fact that a street and historic home were named for them, but could it be that he, himself, was born there as well?

Unfortunately, no, he was born in New York City but was related to the Perth Amboy family and a real credit to his adopted state. He moved to a mansion overlooking the Passaic River in New Jersey after having lost his left arm during the Mexican-American War. Between his military exploits and some rather adventurous personal travels, he’s quite an compelling character. He’d make a fascinating blog entry on his own, but for the time being, you might want to check out a quick biography.

Also buried in the yard are Thomas "Mundy" Peterson, the first black voter in the United States under the 15th Amendment, and Rev. Robert McKean, founder of the Medical Association of New Jersey, the oldest such organization in the country. We also found a rather informative gravestone for William Dunlap, playwright, producer and artist, who was born in Perth Amboy in 1766 and died in 1839.

The most interesting finds, though, are ones that have a personal connection, one way or another, to the person doing the search. Not far from the Kearny clan, I found a few markers with the Rutgers and Neilson names, including a few folks who appeared to have “Rutgers” as their middle name. With that pairing, I gathered they might be related to the university, but then that family was largely Reformed Church, to my knowledge. I think that for the time being, it will just be a mystery…

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