Westchester County: Religion, Gravestones and Archaeology

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1(2)Gravestones represent some of the most valuable evidence available to archaeologists currently working on the St. George’s/St. Mark’s Church site in Mount Kisco, New York. Once occupied by two Episcopal churches – St. George’s (1761–1819) and St. Mark’s (1850–1916) – the site is also the final resting place of over 400 people, all buried between the 1760s and 1940. The area where the churches once stood was excavated this fall. The artifacts and information they uncovered is now undergoing analysis, and the excavation is planned to resume in the spring.

As co-directors of the excavation, Laurie Kimsal and I have discovered just how essential gravestones are to our understanding of the site. To begin with, gravestones offer clues to the location and orientation of the 18th-century St. George’s Church. Secondly, the gravestones provide insights into the values and beliefs of the people who erected them, as well as the social, religious, and economic worlds of the 18th and 19th centuries.

2(2)Locating St. George’s Church

The assumptions we held about the location of St. George’s Church at the beginning of the excavation were quickly proven wrong. A map created long after the demolition of the church placed St. George’s near the present entrance to the cemetery. When a test unit placed in this spot yielded nothing suggestive of a structure, we decided to reevaluate the historical evidence. St. George’s is featured on several maps of the 18th century, including a 1779 map of Bedford, Louis-Alexandre Berthier’s 1781 map of the French encampments at North Castle, and several maps created by Colonel Robert Erskine during the Continental Army’s travels through Westchester County; however, none pinpoints the location of the church building within the site. Historical accounts are similarly imprecise; they place St. George’s “nearby” or “a few rods from” Kirby Pond, which was located within the limits of the present-day Leonard Park. Even a 1762 letter written by Reverend Thomas Dibble, which gives a description of the building itself (“They have erected a very decent church for public worship, forty foot by thirty, with galleries, covered and closed it with cedar, and only laid the ground floor”) provides no help in locating St. George’s.

Finding nothing useful in the documentary evidence, we decided to look for clues at the site itself. While no trace of St. George’s is visible on the surface – even in satellite images – more than a dozen gravestones that date to the time of the church are still standing. The majority (about 13) are red sandstones of a high artistic quality, carved in the distinctive tradition that originated in 17th-century New England and lasted until the early 19th century. The earliest of these stones was created by New York City carver Thomas Brown and marks the grave of Isaac Lounsbury, who died in 1773. The handful of unshaped fieldstones in the graveyard may be even older.

The first general observation we made about the pre-1820 stones was that they are all located in the same area: the southern part of the half acre of land that Charles Haight, a carpenter and vestryman of St. George’s, donated to the church in 1761 (a third of an acre was added to this plot in 1850 for the purpose of building St. Mark’s Church, and in 1854, the Methodist Church bought an adjoining half acre for its cemetery). Within this quarter of an acre, the sandstones are arranged in small clusters, with unshaped fieldstones scattered between them.

Our second observation was that all but one of the inscribed stones face west, towards the back of the cemetery. In contrast, the majority of the post-1820 stones face east, toward the entrance. This abrupt reversal in gravestone orientation, and the fact that it occurred at the time that St. George’s was dismantled, seemed to be an important clue.

Before we could make any conclusions as to what these patterns implied about the location of the church, however, we needed to conduct more research on 18th-century churchyards. Earlier, we had learned that Colonial churches adhered to a fairly regular design, consisting of two stories with an inner balcony on three sides (the “galleries” described by Dibble). We wanted to know if similar standards had governed the placement of gravestones in Colonial cemeteries. In addition to consulting written sources, my co-director Laurie and I decided we should identify and visit as many 18th-century graveyards in our area that were associated with an extant 18th-century church. What we were looking for was a site that represented an alternative history: one in which St. George’s Church had never been torn down.

The Other Churchyards

3(1)Laurie and I visited seven churchyards in Westchester County in October and November 2013. Of these, St. Peter’s Church in Van Cortlandtville represents perhaps the closest equivalent to St. George’s. Like St. George’s, St. Peter’s was established as an Anglican church in the Colonial Era and re-established as an Episcopal church after the Revolution; and like St. George’s, it served as a military hospital during the war. Built five years after St. George’s, St. Peter’s has slightly smaller dimensions (about 28′ x 36′ versus 30′ x 40′), but the same basic layout. The 18th-century gravestones in the two churchyards are not only similar; some of them were produced by the same carver, the Massachusetts-born Solomon Brewer. Furthermore, St. Peter’s would have shared St. George’s function as a country church, serving a small population in an area that was still largely undeveloped by European standards.

The oldest inscribed gravestones at St. Peter’s all face west, as does the church itself. Contrary to an assumption I had held for years, the bodies were buried behind these early headstones – not in front of them as most are today – with their feet facing away from the stone (the feet were typically marked with a matching footstone, though many of these footstones are missing today). Thus, the bodies faced east, in keeping with a tradition of more than a thousand years that associates the rising sun with resurrection. Brought over from England in the 17th century, this tradition seems to have been followed at all the 18th-century graveyards we visited. However, starting in the 19th century, bodies began to be buried in front of the stone, so that the inscription could be viewed above the head of the deceased.

This change presented a problem for 19th-century people: Now that the bodies were buried in front of the stone, which direction should the stone face? This was a question that the parishioners of St. George’s and St. Peter’s addressed in different ways, reflecting, perhaps, the different priorities of the two parishes. At St. Peter’s, parishioners continued to place their gravestones facing west, even though this meant that the bodies would no longer face east. At St. George’s, the parishioners continued to bury their bodies facing east, even though this meant that new stones would face in a different direction to the old.

Clearly, both St. Peter’s and St. George’s wanted to preserve some degree of continuity in spite of the changes, but opinions differed as to whether that continuity should be expressed above or below the ground. For the parishioners of St. Peter’s, it was more important that all of the gravestones face the same direction; for the parishioners of St. George’s, it was more important that all of the bodies face the same direction. One might say that the practices adopted at St. Peter’s privileged the living over the dead, creating a graveyard that looked consistent on the surface, but was in fact an illusion masking the inconsistency underground. In contrast, the practices at St. George’s privileged the dead over the living, and the spirit of continuity over the outward appearance of continuity.

Thus, 19th-century parishes that chose to bury their dead in the new way – in front of the stone – were presented with a paradox: one in which disjuncture on one level was necessary to preserve continuity on another.

A Rift in Time

4What factors might have caused St. George’s and St. Peter’s to take opposite approaches to the issue of gravestone orientation? The similarities between the churches have already been discussed; the greatest difference between them is that St. Peter’s is still standing today, while St. George’s was dismantled in 1819, just around the time when burial practices were in flux. Equally important as the fact that St. George’s was dismantled is the reason why it was dismantled. During the Revolution, the church was abandoned by its parishioners, used as a hospital by Washington’s army, and served as a campsite for 5,000 of Rochambeau’s troops. The demolition of St. George’s was not a cause of disjuncture; it was yet another effect of the greatest disjuncture in American history – the one in which the United States was born.

After the war, the question of what to do with the dilapidated church persisted for decades. In the first years of the 19th century, the parish offered the building to the local Methodist congregation, but the Methodists found it unusable. Finally, in 1819, the frame of St. George’s was sold to a farmer who used it to build a barn on the current site of the Northern Westchester Hospital. In the meantime, the Episcopal parish had used funds left by benefactor St. George Talbot (namesake of the first church) to build St. Matthew’s Church in Bedford. Another thirty years elapsed, during which the Episcopal congregation of Mount Kisco worshiped in private homes and the local schoolhouse, before St. Mark’s was built.

I have suggested above that the decision at St. George’s/St. Mark’s cemetery to bury the dead facing east, and to place the gravestones in the opposite direction of their 18th-century counterparts, may have reflected parishioners’ dedication to an ancient tradition, rejecting the more aesthetically congruous option taken by the parishioners of St. Peter’s in favor of a deeper harmony. But there may be another, more prosaic explanation for the parishioners’ decision. When St. Mark’s Church was built in 1850, it was built facing east, toward what is now Route 117. This is the same direction that the later gravestones face, which suggests a strong sense of the eastern wall as the front of the churchyard on the part of the 19th-century parishioners. In contrast, the orientation of the older gravestones, paired with our observations of 18th-century churchyards, suggests that the churchyard was not originally organized in this way.

In all of the churchyards that we visited, the 18th-century gravestones either faced the church itself, or faced the same direction that the church faced. In no instance did the church and the stones face in opposite directions, that is, face to face with each another. St. George’s Church is therefore unlikely to have faced east when its stones faced west. It also seems unlikely that the church faced west, given that the main road ran along the east side of the churchyard. Therefore, we believe it most likely that the church faced either north or south, and that the gravestones were arranged with their faces toward the church.

At some point in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, the organization of the churchyard changed. Due to the scarcity of gravestones from this period – only eight stones can be dated to the years 1780–1820 – it is difficult to pin down exactly when this change occurred. It is also difficult to say whether the decision to continue burying bodies facing east influenced the 19th-century reconfiguration of the cemetery, or whether, in fact, the preservation of the ancient tradition was an unintended consequence of the decision to reorient the cemetery toward the main road. If the latter is true, then the parishioners of St. George’s/St. Mark’s may have been just as aesthetically-minded as their counterparts at St. Peter’s; the differences between their graveyards may reflect only the differences in the landscapes that each church had to work with.

5The results of the archaeological excavation add a new dimension to our theories about St. George’s Church. A single 20” x 20” test unit, placed randomly in an area of the cemetery where there have been no burials, uncovered a stone foundation wall strewn with 18th-century artifacts, including a French gunflint, a stone hand pestle, and square nails. Could this be St. George’s Church? The evidence does seem to fit. First of all, this would place St. George’s within the property of the church as it existed in the 18th century, before an additional third of an acre was purchased for St. Mark’s. Secondly, it would place St. George’s to the west of the 18th-century gravestones, nearest to the graves of noted benefactor Charles Haight and his wife. This location also corresponds with the statement of Reverend Robert Bolton in The History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the County of Westchester that St. Mark’s was built “a few yards” from the site of its predecessor. And lastly, this would place St. George’s, as a military hospital, at a safe but not convenient distance from the mass grave in the southeast corner of the cemetery that Washington’s army created for its dead.

The evidence is suggestive, but not conclusive. Further investigation is necessary to answer the basic question of where St. George’s Church was located. Meanwhile, the work we have already done has led to more complex questions concerning differences in mortuary practice across time and between different parishes. These questions serve as links between our site and larger issues, and situate the St. George’s and St. Mark’s Churches within the 18th- and 19th-century worlds they inhabited.

Photos (from above): 1) Madeline Kearin and John Phillips standing between groups of 18th-century gravestones during this fall’s excavation, with Angelika Mattoni in the background; 2) The gravestone of Isaac Lounsbury, carved by Thomas Brown, is the oldest inscribed stone in the cemetery and is seen here in the process of repair; 3) St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Van Cortlandtville; Sketch map of St. George’s/St. Mark’s Church Site representing our current theories on the location of the two churches; and 5) Foundation wall unearthed in the fall 2013 excavation that may belong to St. George’s Church.


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