Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Stories Behind the Graves at Hackensack's First Dutch Reformed Church

The Stories Behind the Graves at Hackensack's First Dutch Reformed Church

Grave markers can sometimes tell you a lot about the person who has passed away and the people who wished to remember them. At Bergen County's oldest church congregation, The First Dutch Reformed Church on the Green in Hackensack, New Jersey, the silent graveyard surrounding it tells stories of the young and old, the brave, and the obscure. This week, we will take a brief walk through the cemetery and highlight a few of the notable (and not so notable) who are buried there and how their grave markers enlighten us.

The congregation at Hackensack was organized in 1686 with thirty-three congregants and met in various locations until the original church was constructed in 1696 on the Green. The Green has served as the center of Hackensack, originally New Barbadoes, since 1696. The church was rebuilt in 1728 and the current building constructed in 1791. It was enlarged in 1847 and once again in 1869. The front walls of the building incorporate several carved stones from the original 1696 church building erected on the site, bearing the names of several founding families and dates. Family members of some of the founding church members buried in the cemetery include Zabrisky, Terhune, and Brinkerhoff.

The cemetery surrounding the church holds over 1,400 individuals using a variety of stones and markers, from simple sandstone, to Victorian-era zinc, to modern granite and marble. The cemetery is home to a number of veterans from various wars: eighteen Revolutionary War Soldiers, twenty-two from the Civil War, and one from the Mexican War.

One of the most notable stones is that of Revolutionary War General Enoch Poor. Poor, born in Massachusetts and later lived in New Hampshire, was commissioned a Brigadier General in 1777. He fought in the Saratoga Campaign, the Battle of Monmouth, and the Western Expedition of 1779. In May 1780, the Continental Congress selected Poor to train a brigade of light infantry. Poor died September 8, 1780 near Hackensack at the age of forty-four from typhus. There is some speculation that it resulted from him being wounded in a duel. His burial was attended by Generals Washington, Lafayette, and other senior military leaders. The raised slab tombstone indicates that Lafayette returned to the gravesite in 1824 and "...turning away much affected, exclaimed, Ah, that was one of my Generals."

Other notable officials include Richard Varick (b. 1753 - d. 1831), a Revolutionary War Continental Army Officer and New York City Mayor and Adam Boyd (b. 1746 - d. 1835), a U.S. Congressman, who had previously served a number of roles in Bergen County including Freeholder, Judge, and Sheriff.

Grave marker for Brigadier General Enoch Poor.
In stark contrast to Poor's stone is that of H.B., which is the cemetery's oldest stone, dated 1713. Tradition and legend says that H.B. was a female Indian slave, although that cannot be fully substantiated. However, this roughly cut sandstone marker features crude lettering and a number of Native American symbols, including a canoe carved below the date, a tobacco pipe above the initials, and an arrow through the initials. Although we will most likely never discover who H.B. really was, we must not forget the Native Americans who inhabited and lived in the Hackensack Valley during the Colonial era.

Other early, small, and roughly cut sandstone markers, some written exclusively in Dutch, dot the cemetery, surrounded by larger, more formal sandstone markers with full inscriptions, dates, and names.

Grave marker for H.B., a female Indian slave.
Graves also represent how individuals are to be remembered. One fine example of that is the grave marker of Albert "Bertie" Romeyn Harris, son of Charles (a Wall Street broker) and Lizzie, who died May 13, 1879 at the age of 4 years, 9 months, and 27 days. Bertie's parents must have been devastated by the loss of their son at such a young age and in his memory erected a zinc marker in 1880 which features a delicately carved granite toy horse and wheelbarrow filled with blocks atop it. Below the toys the marker says "Bertie's Jim Horse." This monument was so unique that it was featured in a small article in the January 1906 issue of The Reporter, a journal devoted exclusively to the granite and marble monument trade.

Grave marker for Albert "Bertie" Romeyn Harris.
Toward the rear of the cemetery along the back fence is the tall obelisk dedicated to the Van Beuren family. One side of the stone is dedicated to Edward B. Van Beuren's memory, which indicates that he died January 16, 1862 at the age of twenty-three as a member of the 55th N.Y. Volunteers. He was killed at the battle of Seven Pines in Henrico County, Virginia during the Civil War. However, while researching, I found that the Battle of Seven Pines occurred May 31 – June 1, 1862. So how could Edward die before the battle in January 1862? Well, sometimes mistakes do happen and go unnoticed. According to my research, Edward enlisted at New York City to serve three years in the Civil War and mustered in as private, Co. B, October 14, 1861. He was killed in action on the first day of the battle, May 31, 1862. The top of the stone features a carving of two crossed swords and the words "N.Y. Vol." carved at their intersection. Above that is a scarab, indicating that this is an Egyptian Revival stone. Along with Edward, his mother Ann and father Joseph are buried in the family plot, in addition to five other family members.

Grave marker for Edward B. Van Beuren.
Walking through a cemetery can tell us a great deal about the people who once lived among us, and inspire us to learn more about them. The stones, as we saw, can represent through symbols and images, what was important to them. The symbols may also represent their bravery as a soldier or their cultural identity, For many, grave markers are the one object in which you identify with a person after they have passed. Thus, placing items and symbols on them that remind you of them is an important part of the healing process. Other times, grieving relatives are swayed by trends, such as zinc markers or Egyptian Revival styling. But whatever the reasons or influences may be, they tell an important part of American history, one that cannot always be found in history books - the emotional and human side of history, our social history.

Additional photos of my trip to the First Reformed Dutch Church on Pinterest

For More Information
First Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery - Find A Grave

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Excellent article! I was especially pleased to see you have found a 1713 gravestone. I am not aware of any older in North Jersey, unless you count Perth Amboy (Helen Gordon, 1687) as being in North Jersey. If you know of any, let me know!

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