Historic St. James Graveyard
Introduction to Colonial Wilmington
The Market Street gate into the graveyard today is very close to where the west door of the first St. James Church opened directly into the nave. One entered under the gallery, where the choir sat, just as one enters the present church, looking east up the aisle to the reading desk and pulpit.
The curb here is the best place to look down to the Cape Fear River and imagine the town as it was when the oldest memorial stone in the graveyard was placed here. The year was 1757. The Wilmington Town Bill had been passed in 1740, largely through the machinations of the second Royal Governor chosen by King George II to oversee the running of the crown colony of North Carolina. He was Gabriel Johnston, a Scots Highlander. His sponsor was Spencer Compton, a prime minister of England and the Earl of Wilmington, hence the town’s name.
Governor Johnston wrote promotional tracts about the Cape Fear area, as well as letters to his friends in Scotland, encouraging them to join him here. By 1770 more than seventy thousand Highlanders are estimated to have immigrated to the Cape Fear Valley - on the coast and in the sandhills. After their rout on the Culloden moor in 1745, the clans were outlawed and the wearing of family tartans, the playing of bagpipes, and even the speaking of Gaelic were considered criminal offenses by the British. Emigration was a chance to start anew. Among the owners of pews in the 1771 church and families filling the pews at St. James today, Scots names predominate. Industrious, entrepreneurial, thrifty, and fiercely independent, Scots have positively influenced the quality of life in Wilmington.
The brick walls of the first church stood 12 feet high with door and window openings, but there were no doors, windows, or roof in 1757, and even when finished it had no steeple or tower. The structure looked much like the ruins of St. Philip’s Church in Brunswick Town. One third of the building was on its lot, while two thirds stood on what is today the sidewalk and out into the street. So much of the half-acre tract donated for the church had been sold for burial lots, to raise the funds to build it, that the commissioners permitted the church to extend into the right of way designated for Market Street, then just a white sand path that ran east to the coast and turned north to New Bern. The church would not be in use for another fourteen years. When the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts could supply a clergyman, religious services were held at the courthouse already built in the center of the intersection of Front and Market streets.
To see the town as did those who brought their loved ones here for burial in the decades just before and after the Revolutionary War, mentally clear away all the nearby buildings. Imagine walking here from the block that ran from Princess to Market between Front and Second streets. Most of Wilmington’s 60 or so houses were there, although a three-story brick house at Front and Orange streets was the oldest and finest residence in the town. A planter from Charleston, S.C., had built it in 1739 in the style of a single house, facing Front Street. It is known today as the Smith-Anderson House and faces Orange Street. All the surrounding houses burned in fires that periodically raged through that area near the docks, where so much pitch, tar, turpentine and lumber were stored.
Only the ballast stone goal stood at the corner of Third and Market streets. In this intersection were the stocks, pillory, whipping post, and an iron cage where any Negro appearing in town without a letter of permission to be there was held until his owner claimed him. Down on the riverbank was a ducking stool, which must have produced many a confession, true or false.
Market Street dipped much more precipitously to Second than it does today. That intersection was the site of the Mud Market, so named because the ground was always wet. A spring emerged from underground and ran southwest across the block to Dock St and on to the river. Small boats could come up the stream bringing fresh produce from outlying farms to be sold in open stalls. There was also a large flower and vegetable garden in that block, one of twenty shown on C.J. Sauthier’s 1769 map of Wilmington.
The town wharf ran up Dock Street almost to Front, allowing boats to load and unload goods to and from the shops and warehouses doing business alongside. The naval stores so vital to Britain’s sea hegemony were shipped out from there, as well as locally-distilled rum and other spirits. Two rival periwig makers had shops on Dock, and mercantile stores offered eagerly-awaited imported goods. The riverfront was the business center of the growing town. Lawyers and agents handling sales of half lots, quarter lots, and even smaller ones were prospering, often in later years signing themselves ”Esq.”.
Beneath the courthouse was another market selling meat and goods of all kinds under cover of the meeting hall on the floor above. An old woman was paid to ring the town bell there daily at 8 AM, noon, and 6 PM, and whenever the townspeople needed to gather to hear important news. Word was circulated to the nearby bars and taverns requesting quiet during religious services and when court was in session.
Wide sandy streets ran only from the river up Market to Second Street, along Front to Dock, up to Second, and, completing the square, back to Market. The rest of the town was traversed by narrow paths leading out in all directions. At the top of the hill above the church another path, labeled Boundary on Sauthier’s map, ie., the boundary line of the town - now Fifth Avenue - ran across the crest of the hill. Beyond it was the gallows. Boys who lived in that area were called gallows hillers and were probably proud of their notoriety.
To the north beyond Boundary were an Indian burial ground and a Quaker graveyard, although no one today knows exactly where. A potters’ field was to the south on the hill above the church. How often it seems that we seek high ground for burying our dead. Historian Elizabeth McKoy wrote, in Early Wilmington Block by Block from 1733 On, “The hill beyond the church must have been a pleasant spot, high and airy, looking off over the church to the river and its traffic... sailing ships in those days.” By 1771 Governor Johnston enthusiastically reported that at least a hundred ships annually lay at anchor in the Cape Fear River.
During the hundred years of burials in St. James’ graveyard, the church was in use for only sixty-eight years, from 1771 through the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the period following, which was a time of transformation for Wilmingtonians. Adventurous pioneers who had courageously left behind everything they had ever known to risk their lives a world away in the wilderness of the royal province of North Carolina, had to learn to think of themselves as citizens of a newly created democracy called the United States. They did not yet think of themselves as Americans. That term was a derogatory one the British press used to disparage “second-class” people without the rights British citizens enjoyed. Change was coming!
Wilmingtonians continued to worship in the modest little church, now the Protestant Episcopal Church in America, until April 1838, when it was dismantled. Parishioners who had decried its decrepitude watched and wept as it was demolished. The bricks that had come by ship from England were reused in the foundation of the Early Gothic Revival style church which was dedicated on April 4th, 1840.
A few more grave lots were available after the church was torn down. The latest stone is dated 1849, but burials must have continued here until Oakdale Cemetery opened in 1855. Its Board of Trustees, most of whom attended St. James, was headed by Dr. Armand John De Rosset lll. Sadly, his six-year-old daughter, Annie, was the first person interred there.
“For there are deeds which should not pass away... And names that must not wither.”
Lord Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto lll
This graveyard is a unique legacy - a tiny bit of colonial Wilmington and the only surviving part of the first St. James Church. The south door of the 1771 nave opened into the burying ground. The 153 graves represent 175 people, some Anglicans who owned pews, some who simply wanted a Christian burial. They were mariners, merchants, innkeepers, shipbuilders, sea captains, planters, patriots, Revolutionary War veterans, militia from the War of 1812, a poet, doctors of physic, little children, and mothers young and old who died with their newborns. They came from England, Scotland, Ireland, and France, from all along the eastern seaboard and from the West Indies to start new lives, creating a new town in this coastal pine forest, and ultimately a new nation. Most are mentioned in the earliest town records.
Near the corner of Fourth and Market streets, where the brick walk into the graveyard turns south, is the sandstone marker of our super-patriot Cornelius Harnett. He was an Irishman of small stature, charming manners, and devotion to justice and independence. His sense of duty led him to give lifelong service to his developing town and emerging nation, even though he relished home life with his wife Mary at their plantations Poplar Grove and Maynard. The latter was built on the bluff above the river north of town, which was the site of the “World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree” beloved by local children of the 1950s - 90s.
Royal Governor Gabriel Johnston appointed Cornelius Harnett a justice of the peace when he was only twenty-five years old. He was responsible for seeing that Wilmington’s laws were fairly administered and observed - that every house had a fire bucket, that pigs were not allowed to wander in the streets, nor young men to ride wildly through the town. Elected a commissioner for eleven years, there were few committees he did not serve on. He organized the Committees of Correspondence and Safety to keep the thirteen colonies informed of what each other and the British were doing. A Grand Master of the local Masons, he gathered with them to socialize and discuss the events of the day.
His friend Archibald Maclaine Hooper wrote of him, ”He practiced all the duties of a kind and charitable and elegant hospitality….Easy in manner, affable, courteous, with a fine taste for letters and a genius for music, he was always an interesting, sometimes a fascinating, companion. He had read extensively for one engaged so much in the bustle of the world, and he read with a critical eye and inquisitive mind…. In conversation he was never voluble. The tongue, an unruly member in most men, was in him nicely regulated by a sound and discriminating judgement… for what was wanting in continuity or fullness of expression, was supplied by a glance of his eye, the movement of his hand, and the impressiveness of his pause. Occasionally, too, he would impart animation by a characteristic smile of such peculiar sweetness and benignity, as enlivened every mind and cheered every bosom within the sphere of its radiance.” (Quoted in Connor, p. 203.)
In 1776, Harnett was President of the Provincial Congress meeting in Halifax. As de facto governor of the colony, when the Declaration of Independence arrived from Philadelphia, Harnett read the words for the first time in North Carolina to a cheering crowd. In 1777 he was elected to the Continental Congress and reluctantly set out on the long journey to Philadelphia and months of separation from hearth and home.
British forces entered Wilmington unopposed in 1781 under the command of the pompous hothead Major James Craig. Harnett was Most Wanted. He was captured, forced by Craig’s marauders to walk tethered to a horse until he fell from exhaustion, then bound hand and foot, thrown over the back of the horse “like a sack of meal” and into a roofless prison. Dr. Armand John DeRosset 11, a boy of fourteen at the time, witnessed this cruelty to a man who had sacrificed everything for his beliefs. He said the memory haunted him for the rest of his life. When it became obvious that Harnett was dying of exposure, the townspeople - patriots and loyalists alike - appealed to the British for his release. He died at Maynard three days after Lord Cornwallis left for Yorktown, the only patriot buried in this graveyard who sacrificed his family’s well-being, his personal wealth, and his life in the cause of American independence.
In a modern-day story of devotion, Betsy Fensel and Lizzie Broadfoot, finding Harnett’s gravestone damaged beyond repair, resolved to honor him by replacing it with an exact copy of the original. Unable to find the red sandstone required, they appealed to architect Leslie N. Boney, who contacted firms in several states, including the quarry in Massachusetts that had produced the original stone, only to learn it had closed long before. The search for a good match reached a former head of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who got in touch with London’s Royal Geological Museum. Samples were reviewed, but none was right.
Then Mr. Boney turned to the US Congress! N.C. Congressman Charlie Rose’s legislative assistant was from Wilmington. He knew that the legislative assistant of the Speaker of the House, Thomas O’Neill, was from the East Long Meadow area where the original quarry was located. Happily, some of the stone from the quarry had been saved and was available in a contractor’s shop in Newark. Rubbings of Harnett’s ruined stone were sent to New Jersey, where the new stone was cut and expertly carved. It now weathers the elements in our graveyard and should be good for another two hundred years, given the advances that have been made in cleaning materials for gravestones. The story was told before the House of Representatives by Mr. Rose and was written into the Congressional Record for March 29, 1976, to reaffirm, in that bicentennial year, the spirit of cooperation evident during the early days of our country.
The Deist inscription Harnett chose for his stone, from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, reflects the 18th century Enlightenment belief, embraced by many of our Founding Fathers, that all beings are part of the creative force evident in the laws of the universe. Many ask if that means Cornelius was an atheist. Belief in God was a prerequisite for membership in the Masonic Order, and Harnett was a St. James vestryman. Enlightenment ideas informed his way of relating to his responsibilities and to the Supreme Being.
The obelisk in the nearby intersection honors Cornelius Harnett and commemorates the first open and armed defiance in the American colonies of the British monarch’s authority manifested in the detested Stamp Acts. The colonists saw no reason why they should be taxed to pay for unwelcome British soldiers housed in their country. A thousand Sons of Liberty from Wilmington and the surrounding area armed themselves, some with only pitchforks. Led by Harnett, they marched sixteen miles to the home of Royal Governor William Tryon at Russellborough, near Orton Plantation. They confiscated the stamp paper and required the Port Collector to swear an oath that he would never interfere with trade and commerce by enforcing the Acts. That was February 21, 1766 - eight years before the Boston Tea Party!
In the Fourth Street corner of the yard is a granite marker for Thomas Godfrey, budding poet and playwright. He was visiting on Masonboro friends he had made while serving in the French and Indian War. Godfrey finished his classical tragedy, The Prince of Parthia, shortly before succumbing to a fatal fever. His friends preserved his manuscript and encouraged its production by a professional theater company in Sound with Brigadier General Hugh Waddell, Caleb Grainger, and other Philadelphia, his hometown. The period piece has been performed at Thalian Hall and by the UNCW Players.
Set against the east wall of the Great Hall is the 1771 box ledger of Dr. Samuel Green. He emigrated from Liverpool before 1748, when he treated burn victims of the Spanish privateers’ attack on Brunswick. A town commissioner, he… practiced Physick and Surgery here for thirty years. His plantation Greenfields is today Greenfield Park, and his plantation, Pine Savannah, is now the Pine Valley subdivision. His summer home, Green Hall, stood on a hill above Greenville Sound, which was also named for him.
Dr. Green’s grandson was ordained at St. James Church in 1823. When the Reverend William Mercer Green was chaplain at his alma mater, Chapel Hill, he asked Thomas U. Walter, designer of the 1840 St. James, to draw a plan for the first Chapel of the Cross, built adjacent to the campus. It is part of today’s larger building, designed by Hobart Upjohn, who also designed our Great Hall in 1924. As the first Episcopal Bishop of Tennessee in 1867, the Very Rev. Dr. Green founded, named, and was first Chancellor of the University of the South at Sewanee.
In the lower right-hand corner of Dr. Green’s stone are the letters, “R HART... NY”, the partial signature of Richard Hartshorne, the best-known stonecutter of Connecticut and N.Y.. His style featured elegant lettering without flourishes or decorative images.
South of Dr. Green’s stone is the granite marker of Mary Baker Eddy’s first husband, a victim of the 1844 Yellow Fever epidemic. Major (not a military title) George Washington Glover, who recently arrived from doing construction work in Savannah, Ga., had just lost all his building supplies in a warehouse fire here. The Masons of St. John’s Lodge arranged for their fellow Mason’s burial in St. James Graveyard. Grand Master Thomas Brown, a silversmith, escorted his penniless young wife, who was expecting their first child, home to New Hampshire. She later founded the Christian Science Church. This memorial was erected in gratitude for the kindness shown to her by the Masons in her time of great need.
St. John’s Masonic Lodge was the first in North Carolina, chartered in 1754. By 1803 the Masons had built a new lodge on Orange Street. In their membership were the “Who’s Who” of colonial Wilmington. Their gatherings, which often took place at members’ summer homes, resulted in their name being given to Masonboro Sound.
Next to Glover’s memorial lies Colonel Thomas Lloyd, a Philadelphia native, another of the twenty-four physics in the town before 1778. This was an amazing number considering that there were fewer than three thousand residents in the area, two-thirds of whom were slaves. Illness brought into the port by sailing vessels kept them busy. Lloyd treated smallpox in the 1776 epidemic. He also served as justice of the peace, but he refused to sit on Royal Governor William Tryon’s Council, and he marched with Harnett in the Stamp Tax Rebellion.
Most of the early practitioners of medicine were not trained in medical schools. They spent three to seven years in an apprenticeship with an established physic - watching, assisting, and studying his few medical tomes, as books were rare and treasured. With mortar and pestle, lancets, and jars of leeches, the apprentice learned to dress wounds, set bones, pull teeth, bleed patients, and compound medicines from local plants. He often began as an apothecary. Every home had a medicine box that was kept supplied by the physic. In 1735 Wilmington was lucky to have the first classically trained doctor in North Carolina, Armand John De Rosset II. His 1720 diploma from the University of Basel, Switzerland, is in the UNC library in Chapel Hill. Forty years later there were two hundred physicians in the thirteen colonies. Only fifty-five were M.D.s. Four of those were De Rossets, all dedicated members of St. James Church.
There is a stone bench where the walk turns down the side of the Great Hall. Beside it is a bronze plaque placed by the Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry to mark their service in Wilmington in the War of 1812. They joined militias from various towns to protect North Carolina’s most important port. Many attended services at St. James during their deployment here. When they returned home, they were instrumental in founding Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville.
The FILI has placed markers on the graves of four veterans of the War of 1812. Just across the walk lies Richard Lloyd, a resident of Wilmington who was a successful young dry goods merchant and grocer. 4th Corporal of the New Hanover Militia Company, he was called to active duty in July and August, 1813, in response to the British invasion of Ocracoke Island. His pay voucher for $16.50 exists to this day.
At the west end of the brick walk is the grave of Joshua Winslow Cochran. His family moved here from Fayetteville when President Jefferson appointed his father Collector of Customs for the port. At sixteen Joshua was commissioned a midshipman in the US Navy. After the War of 1812, he practiced law and bought the Wilmington Advertiser, planning to publish the newspaper with a Whig slant. That project was not realized, as he died suddenly of bilious fever, a euphemism for malaria or yellow fever used to avoid alarming the populace.
Around the building corner lies John Cholwell, periwig maker, whose shop was on Dock Street. Wonder how many orders he filled for “big wigs” in early Wilmington?! His pew was in the gallery of the 1771 church, which stood a little north of his grave.
Facing the building wall is an elegant slate stone with a neoclassical motif of urn, weeping willow, and fluted borders that was popular in Salem, Massachusetts circa 1808. Captain Ephraim Symonds was born there. The stone was found to be fully ten feet long when it was lifted above ground recently to have its footing redone. This heartbreaking verse had sunk beneath the sand:
Come hither all ye tenderest souls that know
The heights of fondness and the depths of woe
Two happy souls made intimately one:
And felt a parting stroke: ‘tis you must tell
The smart, the twinges, and the racks I feel
This soul of mine that dreadful wound has borne
Off from its side its dearest half is torn,
The rest lies bleeding and but lives to mourn.
On the ground against the building wall, with markers for service in the Revolution and the War of 1812, is the grave of Captain Thomas Callender, the only man in the graveyard who was actually a foot soldier in the Revolutionary War. Born in Boston, he was in his teens when he fought with George Washington and the First N.C. Continental Regiment at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and the siege of Charleston, S.C., where he was imprisoned with his unit.
After his release, he settled in Wilmington. During the War of 1812, Callender at fifty-eight again served his country, as captain of militia units massed here. He was for many years the city clerk, a vestryman, and the leader of the choir almost until his death at seventy-five. His only surviving child laid him to rest beside her mother in the yard of the church he served so faithfully. The stone for his wife Mary, sadly now disintegrated, bore the names of five of their seven children who died within six years of each other, before her own death at forty-two.
Along with the stories of men honored here are the untold stories of the bravery and industry of the women who made their exploits possible. There was endless labor for wives, who tended the animals and kept children fed, clothed, and nursed through numerous illnesses while their husbands were town-and-nation building.
Bearing their children was so often a death sentence. What must it have been like to endure repeated pregnancies without adequate medical care or sanitation through winter cold, relentless humid summer heat, mosquitoes, and recurring plagues of yellow fever and malaria? There are eight women buried here with their newborns. One of the ledgers set close together just across from the door into the Great Hall is for Harriet Greer, forty-three. Her daughter lived, as did the baby of Mary Davis, age eighteen, who is buried a few steps farther east near the obelisk. Their similar inscriptions read,
“Lo where this stone in silence weeps,
A friend, a wife, a mother sleeps
Her infant image here below
Lies smiling in its father’s woe.”
Directly south of Mary’s grave is a small slate marker for Sarah Stone, one of three 1788 memorials created by Josiah Manning, the most successful stonecutter in eastern Connecticut. Cloudlike shapes surround a rather humorous soul head with tightly-coiled hair, eyes like fried eggs, and the preaching tabs of a cleric. Stylized flowers border the sweet inscription for a baby daughter.
East of the circle of benches is the oldest stone here, placed in 1757 for nineteen-year-old William Hunt. A cherubic soul head with softly rounded features and graceful wings fills the tympanum. The border has stylized tulips. Price engravor is inscribed in a scalloped arch below, for Ebenezer Price of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, the boy’s home. The dour inscription, typical of that era, is at odds with his whimsical design. These last two stones are pure American folk art.
Midway in the long straight row to the right is the marble marker of Frances Wilkinson, eighteen, and her son, eight days old. The baby’s grandfather, William Wilkinson, was a business partner of Cornelius Harnett in the rum trade. They had a distillery and a sloop for transporting sugar from the West Indies. He owned pew thirty-one in the Anglican church, but left funds in his will to build a Presbyterian church. Before the Revolutionary War, all landowners paid a tax for the support of the Church of England, regardless of their religious preferences.
This is the second of the 1788 stones by Josiah Manning, a marble rectangle with a similar, but more primitive, soul head with unrelieved wings. By contrast, Joseph Gautier’s 1801 marble marker farther along the row, signed Witzel and Cahoon, NY, has an elegant urn draped in deeply carved folds of fabric. It is the height of neoclassical refinement, which was in vogue for turn of the century gravestones.
Thomas Gautier, the boy’s father, is noted on the nearby obelisk. He was a midshipman in the British Royal Navy before emigrating and joining the US Navy. During the 1812 war he patrolled the coast and inspected ships entering the rivers. By 1817 he was piloting the Prometheus, a genuine innovation, the first steam-driven paddlewheeler to carry passengers and goods on the Cape Fear River.
A descendant researching Thomas Gautier’s history sent an account of his first marriage to a much older, wealthy woman. Concerned that he seemed in poor health, she left everything in trust for him, arranging for executors to handle his affairs after her death. Within the year Tho had recovered, married a much younger woman, and enjoyed the first wife’s largesse until his death at age eighty-four. Sadly, the new wife lost two babies in two years and died an early death.
Another Gautier family grave has a French inscription. It says that Ann Boudet was born in Rochefort, France. The Gautiers were Huguenots, Calvinist Protestants who, like the prominent De Rosset family, left France for England after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and later immigrated to America.
A little east of the end of this straight row is an odd set of stones that tells a heartbreaking story of four children in the Muter family (Muter’s Alley runs from Dock to Front near Orange Street) who died within five years. Two deaths in eight days suggests one of the communicable diseases that plagued children in the 1700s. Thirty children under the age of six are buried in this small graveyard. Parish records list them dying of measles, mumps, and whooping cough, scarlet, bilious and brain fever, putrid throat(strep), lockjaw, and worms.
Turn and walk toward the SW corner of the yard. Note in passing the date and design of the slate marker of William Millor, an honest & inoffensive man.
The stones here were cut elsewhere, as this area has no native stone. They could be carved and shipped wherever they were wanted for as little as three dollars plus an inscription fee of a dollar or less per letter. By the 1850s large marble obelisks with ornate bases could be ordered from Sears Roebuck and Co. for twenty-five dollars!
A small red sandstone marker south of the joined brick vaults marks the grave of Grainger Wright, two months old, who died in 1795, and his brother Joshua, fifteen months, who died two years later. Their Quaker grandfather was one of Wilmington’s four founders. Wrightsville Beach is named for their father’s family, Bradley Creek for their mother’s. Susan and Judge Joshua Grainger Wright lived in the Burgwin-Wright House at Third and Market streets, as well as at their summer home on Bradleys’ Creek, which Susan named Mt. Lebanon. It is said that no one was ever turned away hungry from her door.
They are great-grandparents of Bishop Robert Strange, who is buried under the chancel of the present church, as are Bishop Thomas Wright and Bishop Thomas Atkinson, whose diplomacy kept the National Episcopal Church from splitting into northern and southern factions after the War Between the States.
Behind the three brick vaults, in front of the obelisk, is the grave of Christopher Dall. A native of Nova Scotia, he was head carpenter of the 1840 church, working with his son. The cause of his death at forty-nine was listed as bilious fever, a euphemism for mosquito-borne Malaria or the dreaded Yellow Fever. His plain stone bears this elegant tribute:
This monument is erected by an
affectionate Son, the only member
of his family privileged to be near
him in that trying hour when, in a
land of strangers, far from wife and
children, he was suddenly called
from all that bound him to earth.
He was a kind husband, an affectionate father,
an honest man, and has left his family the
imperishable patrimony of a good name.
St. James Parish Register of burials for 1829 lists adults dying of consumption (tuberculosis), apoplexy (stroke), dropsy (congestive heart failure), lockjaw(tetanus), dysentery, sea sickness, childbed, gunshot, a fall from a horse, intemperance - a tragic death - and influenza. It is a wonder that Sarah Bowdish lived to be eighty-four, and John Nutt buried his second wife Martha, half his age, before dying at eighty-seven in 1810.
Turn around to find the upright marble stone of Elizabeth Brice, who died in 1796, two days after she lost her newborn son. Her husband Francis had been the town tax collector, secretary of the Committee of Public Safety, and commissioner of the Port of Wilmington, but he joined the British and left with Cornwallis in 1781 bound for Yorktown. After a failed effort to regain citizenship, he was banished from North Carolina, his property confiscated.
Elizabeth was the only daughter of Marmaduke Jones, Esq., Attorney General of the province of N.C. and a member of Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs’ Council by appointment of George III. William Hooper, signer of the Declaration of Independence for North Carolina, said, “I have met him, and he is the greatest coxcomb alive!”
Under the wide diamond-paned window of the Bridgers building is the brick Henry Toomer & Charles Jewkes’s Family Vault 1786 with stepped end walls. Toomer, owner of pew thirty-two in the first church, was a justice of the peace and a town commissioner, served on the Safety Committee, as county coroner, and as a commissary for North Carolina units during the Revolution. He buried three wives and died in 1799, leaving a large estate: a brick mansion on Toomer’s Alley (from Front to Second streets between Market and Princess - now a parking lot), two plantations, forty-five slaves, a summer home on the sound, and Dorsey’s Tavern. It was there that President Washington, a Mason, hosted Wilmington’s Masons during his 1791 Southern Tour, before attending a gala ball and a bonfire with illuminations and fireworks.
The appearance of the Father of the Country was a great event for every town that George Washington visited. Henry Toomer and the Light Horse Dragoons rode out to meet his entourage twelve miles northeast of town - near Cornelius Harnett’s Poplar Grove Plantation on The King’s Highway, as US 17 was called then. They escorted Washington to the outskirts of town where an official party of local dignitaries was waiting to greet him.
It was Easter Day afternoon and Washington was making a demanding tour of the thirteen colonies to begin to forge them into one nation. Always conscious of the effect of his person, he surely donned his military regalia before mounting his great white steed, Prescot, and leading the parade down Market Street. He was followed by his gleaming white carriage with four matching brown horses driven by red-liveried attendants. Mounted trumpeters heralded his arrival and cannons boomed in salute. What a moving moment it must have been for the people lining the road to hail the first President of the United States of America!
The next morning when Washington emerged from his quarters, he was met by thirteen young ladies in white dresses who went before him, scattering flower petals in his path as he walked to the courthouse for obligatory welcoming speeches by more town dignitaries. The tall hero, standing head and shoulders above most men of his day, showed pleasure at everything done in his honor, but confided to his diary that the land from New Bern was the most barren he had ever beheld, and that Wilmington was ”no more than a bed of white sand,” as it still is!
After nights of bad lodgings and worse food along the way, he was delighted with his stay at the widow Quince’s house at Front and Market streets. (Quince’s Alley is there today, just south of Market.) He particularly admired the sixty-five beautifully dressed ladies presented to him at a second ball held at the new Assembly Hall on Front Street between Orange and Ann.
Charles Jewkes, whose family shared the rounded brick burial vault with Henry Toomer’s, was a partner of John Burgwin in his shipping and mercantile businesses. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, Burgwin had arrived in Wilmington in 1741 and soon married Margaret, the daughter of Captain Roger Haynes. Her maternal grandfather, the Reverend Richard Marsden, held services in the Cape Fear area before Saint James Parish was established in 1729. He built the plantation house he named the Hermitage, which Burgwin inherited from Margaret. She died childless in 1770, the same year she and John built their townhouse at Third and Market.
When Burgwin returned to England before the Revolution, seeking medical attention for a badly broken leg that had not mended properly, Jewkes moved into his townhouse to protect it from confiscation by the British, but to no avail. After the war Burgwin was able to reclaim his property from the State of North Carolina. He sold the townhouse to Judge Joshua Grainger Wright and lived at the Hermitage until his death in 1803. His plantation adjoined that of Margaret’s father, Castle Haynes. John Singleton Copley’s fine portrait of John Burgwin hangs in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.
The North Carolina Society of the Colonial Dames of America saved the townhouse from demolition in 1937. After an extensive restoration, the Georgian house was opened to the public in 1951. It has since been an inspiration for the hugely successful effort to preserve Wilmington’s historic residential district.
Charles Jewkes' summer home on Greenville Sound was part of the neighborhood where families who could escaped the heat and dreaded fevers that periodically ravaged the town in summer. Children of the Bradley, Wright, Grainger, Toomer, Hostler, Green and other early Wilmington families played together and often married the friends they had grown up with. Widowers married widows. The same names were given from family to family, making it difficult now to know who is who, all part of the Wilmington “cousinhood”. Shandy Hall on Greenville Sound, owned by several of these families through the years, much altered and enlarged, sold in 2020 for over a million and a half dollars!
The three brick barrel vaults nearby are a complete mystery, in spite of the marble plaque on the east side of the wall joining them. They are unique in Wilmington and rare in the state, usually found in coastal areas. They were generally constructed like cisterns for water, with walls and floor. Only for the affluent, they were expensive to build, requiring handmade bricks laid by a skilled mason.
An article in the Wilmington Messenger in 1902 described what was found when a domed brick vault elsewhere in the yard needed repair. At a depth of almost eight feet the remains of a man and a woman lay amid the remnants of their coffins. Two tiny intact coffins and a shelf once attached to the wall were atop the bodies. Snail shells and snails in their slime were at the bottom of the vault.
The man wore the remains of a soldier’s uniform with brass buttons, probably from the Revolution or the earlier French and Indian War. A flint and steel or cartridge box had once been buckled around the waist. Lettering on the vault’s marble plaque was illegible, partially obliterated, so the occupants of the grave remained unknown. It was not included in Elizabeth McKoy’s 1939 list of graves and may have been covered over when the Great Hall was built in 1924.
For a last incredible and heroic story, walk east from the brick vaults to the straight row of gravestones. In the middle of the row is the 1787 sandstone marker of Mary Bleakly and her nine-month-old son, who both died of one of the fevers Wilmington was infamous for in the 18th century. Widower John worked hard in his wine and grocery business and used his profits to purchase warehouses and rental dwellings on the riverfront, before dying of a fever himself when his first son was sixteen. He had entrusted Johnston to the care of his longtime Irish friend, attorney Edward Jones. Neither Mary nor John could ever know that Johnston, a toddler when they sailed from Ireland, would be North Carolina’s dashing naval hero of the War of 1812.
The University of North Carolina student was described by Mrs. Jones as rather small, but well made and handsome with very black hair and eyes. She remembered the exceeding whiteness of his teeth and the brightness of those eyes, and said Johnston was grave and gentlemanly in his deportment, cheerful and easy when at home. In his second year at the university, his inheritance went up in flames as Wilmington’s riverfront burned yet again.
Johnston enlisted in the navy as a midshipman and soon distinguished himself. During the War of 1812 he was given command of a new 22-gun sloop, the Wasp. On his first cruise out he captured, burned, or sank fourteen British ships in five months. That was an amazing feat, as many commanders did not take a single enemy vessel in their entire careers. To honor his achievement North Carolina had a medal struck, a silver saber made for him, and planned a presentation ceremony, but he never returned home. He vanished with his 173-man crew somewhere east of Madeira, leaving a wife and a baby daughter he had never seen. A fellow officer said of Johnston Bleakly that he was as calm and courteous under fire as at the dinner table.
Submitted April 2021.
Virginia Allen Callaway
St. James is deeply indebted to Elizabeth Francenia McKoy, communicant and local historian. In 1939, when most of the inscriptions were still legible, she recorded them and drew a map of the graveyard. Without her work we would know almost nothing about the people buried here. A model she created of the early church and burying ground is upstairs in the History Hall of the Bridgers building.
Miss Elizabeth’s family was present in colonial America before the Revolutionary War. Her father, who attended Princeton, then read law, loved local history, flora, and genealogy, and was a Grand Master of the Wilmington Masons. One of her four brothers wrote Wilmington, N.C. : Do You Remember When?.
Miss Elizabeth’s maternal grandfather, Henry Bacon, lived on Third Street across from the First Presbyterian Church. He was the engineer who designed and installed the dam known as The Rocks to close New Inlet, which was causing the river channel to silt up, impeding shipping. Henry Bacon, Jr., her favorite uncle, designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and asked his friend Daniel Chester French to sculpt the Seated Lincoln. Bacon’s beautiful gravestone stands close to Elizabeth’s plain one in the family’s lot at Oakdale Cemetery
Miss Elizabeth was a tiny, dedicated person, who was born and lived her entire life in the Shingle style Victorian house, faded to a soft green by the 1970s, on the SW corner of Third and Nun streets. Most days of her adult life she walked downtown to the courthouse and spent hours in the Records Room in the basement, where she read every page of every deed book of the early town, beginning with AB and going through DD, recording every transaction. On her way home she often stopped for a visit with her dear friend, another tiny historian, Mrs. Ida B. Kellam, who lived on the east side of Third St. She had retired from forty years of teaching in the public schools and begun writing about local history. The two often collaborated.
It was Mrs. Kellam, celebrated for the accuracy of her research, who edited The Wilmington Town Book 1743-78, another invaluable source of information about the graveyard residents. Wilmington is the only town in the state to have such a book - handwritten minutes of 18th century commissioners’ meetings during the years when Wilmington was becoming the major town and port of the province. The book had disappeared in 1920, not to be seen again until it just turned up forty-six years later. Mrs. Kellam and Donald R. Lennon, of the State Department of Archives and History, after extensive research, added biographical notes identifying the people mentioned in the text and published it in 1973.
Miss Elizabeth once wrote, “I plead for the preservation of what adds to our charm, our dignity, our interest for visitors - the buildings that tell our history, the precious heritage from our forefathers.”
The treasures she preserved for us are the identities of those forefathers and mothers buried here, together with the stories her friend’s history tells of their part in creating the town and nation we call home.
Block, Susan Taylor, Temple of our Fathers: St. James Church (1729-2004), Wilmington, N. C. : Artspeaks, 2004.
Cashman, Diane Cobb, Cape Fear Adventure. Windsor Publications, 1982.
Cashman, Diane Cobb, The Lonely Road: a history of the physics and physicians of the Lower Cape Fear 1735 - 1976.
R.D.W. Connor, Cornelius Harnett: An Essay in North Carolina History. Raleigh, N. C., Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1909.
McEachern, Leora, History of St. James Parish, 1729-1979, Wilmington, N. C., 1982.
McKoy, Elizabeth Francinia. Early Wilmington Block by Block from 1733 ON. Raleigh, N. C., Edwards and Broughton Co., 1967.
Lennon, Donald and Ida Brooks Kellam, eds. The Wilmington Town Book, 1743-78, Raleigh, N. C. : State Division of Archives and History, 1973.
Little, M. Ruth. Sticks and Stones, Three Centuries of N.C. Gravemakers. Chapel Hill, N. C., University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
St. James Graveyard is listed on THE NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES. We are grateful to Lizzie Broadfoot, Betsy Fensel, and Virginia Callaway for their dedication to the preservation of the graveyard.
AN ENLIGHTENING DAY
There is a small sandstone ledger SW of the Beach family obelisk near the Fourth Street gate aboutwhich there was no information for many years. It reads:
In Memory of
Samuel Townsend Born
on Long Island in the
Province of New York
died here the 9th July
aged 24 Years”.
Nothing else. No year given. Local histories did not mention a Samuel Townsend. When and how did he die here? This was before 1998 when one couldn’t google almost any topic and get information in an instant.
One day in June 2021 a striking young woman came to the church office looking for Samuel’s grave. She and her co-author had just published a book about his illustrious Oyster Bay, N.Y., family. They were, among other activities, importers who owned five ships. The second surviving son, Samuel Townsend, Jr., supplied merchants all along the coast with cotton, flour, tea, pork, flaxseed, tar, tobacco, and rum. In 1773 he succumbed to one of Wilmington’s highly contagious fevers. There was no way to get his body home to N.Y. without endangering many others. Wrought-iron fencing, surely from the oldest brother’s foundry, once surrounded his burial plot.
Espionage and Enslavement In The Revolution, by Claire Bellerjeau and Tiffany Brooks, includes an account of the Townsends’ business dealings with the Wilmington firm of Ancrum, Forster, and Brice in the uncertain and difficult years before and after the Revolutionary War. As was the case for many, the Townsends lost heavily during the conflict. After the war, the third brother, Robert, sought the help of Henry Toomer, a member of the Wilmington Commission that worked to settle disputes between merchants and debtors in an effort to recover losses, often with little success.
Patriot John Ancrum had been killed by the British when they destroyed his plantation. His grave was found under Market Street some years ago when there was a cave-in near the corner of Fourth Street. John Forster was killed while serving as commissary to patriot units. Francis Brice, the remaining partner, who had left Wilmington with the British when Cornwallis went to Yorktown, pledged to repay a sizable sum to the Townsends within a year, but absconded to Jamaica. He returned to Wilmington and tried to recover his confiscated property, but was banished. Returning a second time, he married Elizabeth, the aforementioned only child of Marmaduke Jones.
Not until the 1920s, some 80 years after Robert Townsend’s death, did it come to light that he, operating under the alias Culper, Jr., had been a member of President Washington’s secret spy ring, indeed the leader of New York City’s intelligence operation. Espionage, the scrupulously researched history of the outstanding Townsend family’s complex and challenging life during the formative years of our country, gives long-wished-for details about inhabitants of our graveyard.
A LAST STORY FOR NOW
In the long straight row east of the big obelisk near Perry Hall, on the south side of the graveyard, is the grave of Mary Claypoole, next to Thomas Gautier’s tall neoclassical marble stone. The inscription says Mary died at sea and was buried here three days later. Five graves farther along is Miss Polly, her two-year-old daughter. If the dates are correct, Mary was only fourteen when her baby was born. According to a Bulletin of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, her husband William Claypoole was a well-educated physician whose family was descended from Oliver Cromwell and arrived in Philadelphia with William Penn. Dr. Claypoole practiced medicine in Wilmington for only five years before he and his wife died in 1799.
The people in this row and some in the straight row west of the obelisk were originally buried near the 1771 church. They were moved in 1892 when the site was chosen for the Bridgers Parish Hall, identifiable by its diamond-paned windows. This sometimes happens, as needs can change over a century. Two Vestry members were required to be present when graves were moved, but surely in this instance more sensitivity was needed in relocating them. Mary Claypoole is separated from her child. Capt. Callender and his wife, who had seven or eight children together in life, were parted from each other in death. Mary and the children lie separated from each other along this row while their husband and father, a vestryman and the leader of the St. James' choir into his 70s, was left alongside the wall of the new building.
The footstones for many of these graves were abandoned, perhaps piled up and forgotten. Workers making repairs under the Bridgers building in the 1930s found them and brought them out. Rather than being rejoined with their appropriate headstones, some were fixed to the base of the building wall, others set in the ground. Maybe that’s the best place for them, as they have a sad story to tell. They are evidence that these graves were once nearby, presumably in family plots. A footstone, but no grave, is here for Geo. Evans, husband of Capt. Callender’s oldest daughter, and there is no stone at all for Dr. Claypoole, who died within a month of his wife. Could some gravestones remain beneath the building?
Additional stories will be recorded as research identifies more people from Wilmington’s past whose earthly resting place is in this sacred ground.