Several years ago (in 2007), me and my cemetery buddies (pardon the grammar) visited the mysterious and lovely Rittenhouse Cemetery overlooking the old Prallsville quarry. I have wanted to write about this place for some time, but put it off because of concern that by making it known it would be more vulnerable to vandals. It appears that my restraint did not make much difference. Bob Leith visited recently and found one of the stones with graffiti and another one with a shotgun blast to its face. So, there is not much point in secrecy anymore. But there is another reason why I am inspired to write about the cemetery now. It has to do with the oldest stone there.
1732 7 [in reverse]
I W DCDC 5
As you can see from the photo, the top line is partially broken off, adding to the mystery of who this stone is for. Originally I thought this might be the headstone of Mary Reading Howell, wife of Daniel Howell. The two of them owned this property at the time, and Mary died in 1732. But the initials do not make sense.
The “Rittenhouse” Cemetery stands on a bluff overlooking the village of Prallsville, back in the woods. As the date of 1732 attests, it is a very old cemetery for Hunterdon County. It was mentioned in Snell’s History of Hunterdon as being “near Lambert Hoppock’s house above Prallsville. Several of the Howell family are buried there.”1 Snell is probably right about Howells being here, but certainty is lacking as we must rely on stones that only have initials on them.
Snell also wrote (or one of his contributors did):
“A little northwest of the residence of Maurice Wolverton near Prallsville, and on his farm is an old burial place containing about an acre. It is now in a neglected state, being overrun with trees, bushes, and weeds. Here rest the remains of the older stock of the Rittenhouse family. Many of the graves are marked by the common unlettered field-stones there being but little marble. The graves of John Cavanagh’s two wives are here, Ann, aged 22, and Hannah, aged 22. There is also a marble gravestone upon which is inscribed, ‘Peter Rittenhouse, born 1737; died 1804, aged 67 years; his wife Sarah, died May 16, 1814, aged 76.’ This Peter Rittenhouse was the son of William (the first). The following is inscribed on a field-stone in this graveyard, and is supposed to refer to the Cavanagh family: ‘A. W. D. C. D. C. 1732.’”2
This last stone is the one pictured above. It clearly says “I. W.”, not “A. W.” and is not associated with the Cavanagh family at all.
Just a few weeks ago, I began work on the history of a property that turned out to be the home of John Wright. The recital in a deed of 1815 allowed me to definitely locate where his home was from 1727 until he died in 1732 (See Recital: From Reading to Larison). It was at the corner of Route 523 and Worman Road, not very far north of Prallsville.
During this time I was in contact with one of John Wright’s descendants, Rev. Richard E. Wright, who gave me some helpful suggestions, but none more helpful than the thought that this gravestone might belong to John Wright.
Suddenly the “I W” made sense. It was fairly common for J’s to be indicated as I’s in 18th century gravestones. And one of the “DC”s could mean December, since John Wright did in fact die sometime between November 24, 1732, when he wrote his will, and December 29, 1732 when an inventory was taken of his estate.
The 5 after the “DC”s might indicate the date of December 5, 1732. But what could the second DC stands for? I thought it might be Roman numerals; D means 500 and C means 100, which would mean 600 600, so that doesn’t really make sense.
Richard Wright had another suggestion, and it is a good one: the DCDC might be a Christian reference, “Dead in Christ, Dead in Christ.” According to Rev. Wright, this would mean “Not dead, but alive in Christ!” As you will see from his will, John Wright was a very religious man. (We are still left with the mystery of the number 5.)
John Wright’s Will
Here is the opening language of John Wright’s will, which, granted, is not entirely original, but is still a very good version of a devout man’s last will and testament:
“In Nomine Dei Amen The Twenty fourth Day of November anno Dom one Thousand seven hundred and Thirty Two &c In the Sixth Year of Our Sovereign Lord George the Second Over Great Brittain &c King That I John Wright of the Township of Amwell in the County of Hunterdon &c Within the Western Division of the Province of New Jersey Black Smith being in health of Body &c of Good and Perfect Memory Thanks be unto God for the Same Do make this my Last Wil & Testament In Manner & form following that is to Say first I bequeath my Soul & Spirit Into the hands of Almighty God my heavenly Father by whom & of his Meer [Mercy?] & Only Grace, I trust to be saved & Received Into Eternall Rest Through the Death of my Savior & Redeemer Jesus Christ. In Whose Pretious Blood I set the Whole & Only hope of my Salvation. My Wretched body, In hope of a Joyfull Resurrection I commit to the Earth to be buried With Such Charges & Such place as my Dear Wife Orka Wright Shall think Good”
John Wright is the only one of his family who is buried here. His wife Orka died around 1750, probably in Somerset County or in then Sussex County where her son John had moved. It appears that all the other children had also moved away. The eldest son Harmanus Wright died sometime before 1750, apparently unmarried. If he was buried here, his stone has not been found.
Ownership of the Rittenhouse Cemetery
Why were the Rittenhouses buried on land belonging to the Wolverton family? They certainly had a lot of land of their own. The answer lies with the original owners of the property, Daniel Howell, and his wife Mary Reading, daughter of John Reading Sr. and wife Elizabeth. Daniel died in 1733 and Mary in 1732. Mary Reading Howell is said to have died on February 27, 1732.3 She may have been the first person to be buried in this place, and John Wright the second. In his will of 1733, Daniel Howell made no mention of a cemetery.
Daniel Howell’s sister was Catharine Howell, who is buried here with her husband William Rittenhouse. Other Rittenhouse family members followed. As for the Wolverton’s ownership, the chain of title goes more or less like this:
1733, Joseph Howell inherited large acreage from his parents, Daniel and Mary Howell. In 1749, John Reading, Jr. made a confirmation deed for this property to Joseph Howell. In 1733, Joseph and his siblings were minor children. In 1744, John Reading made a survey of the mill property in Prallsville and then recorded deeds to the (now adult) Howell children.
1765, George Ely Sr. granted his 250-acre plantation, in possession of George Ely, Jr., to eldest son Joseph Ely.5 (William Rittenhouse was buried in the cemetery while it was owned by this Joseph Ely.)
1771 Aug 15, John Ely, yeoman of Amwell, mortgaged 250 acres to Wm. McDonald Esq. of Somerset for £300. There was no mention of a graveyard.6 I cannot explain how John Ely was able to mortgage the property when it belonged to Joseph Ely.
1776, Joseph Ely died intestate, his plantation was inherited by his brother John Ely. And yet, there is no estate recorded for Joseph Ely. The fact that John Ely acquired the farm is implied by the sale by John Ely and wife Sarah to John Prall, Jr. in 1792 (below).
1785, George and John Ely were sued for debt by Jacob Servass & Co., and the property was eventually seized by the sheriff.
1792 Aug 10, John Ely & George Ely, defendants, conveyed 250+ acres in Amwell to John Prall, Jr. for £1259.12.4 (at a sheriff’s sale).7 There was no mention of a graveyard.
1792 Aug 10, John & Sarah Ely conveyed their rights in 250 acres to John Prall, Jr. for 15 shillings.8 Once again, there was no mention of a graveyard. Here is an abstract of the recital:
Whereas George Ely Sr., having by deed of 20 March 1796 for natural love & affection & 10 shillings granted unto Joseph Ely all that certain tract of land & Plantation in Amwell at that time in the possession of George Ely Jr. and now in the possession of John Prall Jr., beginning at the middle of the old ferry road by the Delaware Riverside being the Boundaries of his Brother Benjamin Howells land and containing 250 acres . . . and whereas Joseph Ely died seized of the same intestate in 1776 and unmarried, leaving the above John Ely his eldest brother and heir at law . . .
1792 Aug 11, John Ely and wife Sarah of Amwell sold to John Prall, Jr. of same for 15 shillings, their rights in 280 acres along the Wickecheoke and Shoppons Run.9 The property was described as “All that tract of land & plantation in Amwell which John Ely purchased of John Barnes Esq. High Sheriff of Hunterdon on August 15, 1771, beginning in the ferry Road by the Delaware River side being the Boundaries of Land now or late Benjamin Howell’s . . . two rods of which is hereby reserved for a graveyard” [emphasis added].
On the same date, John Ely & George Ely were bound to John Prall, Jr. for $5,000 to guarantee that no action against Prall to recover dower rights for Sarah Ely, wife of George, would take place.10 This guarantee was rather unusual, and the amount of the bond was certainly quite high. Prall must have insisted on it; it seems like an excess of caution.
1831 September 21, Death of John Prall, Jr. He had written his will on June 24, 1822, ordering his executors to sell three parcels of land: 1) “my mill lot and the buildings thereon, containing 73 acres; 2) the woodlot of 18.5 acres which I bough of John Wolverton; and 3) the farm on which I live, and the lands adjoining of about 280 acres. The cemetery was part of that 280-acre tract of land, but Prall made no mention of it. The will was recorded on October 5, 1831.
1834, The estate of John Prall, Jr. sold 276 acres to Peter Miller of Easton, PA.11 The property bordered the graveyard, and the deed description stated that a graveyard of one-half acre was not being conveyed.
Correction, 7/4/15: The deed of 1792 had exempted 2 Rods for a graveyard, and I had mistakenly concluded that meant two acres. Dave Reading pointed out to me that a Rod, which usually is used to measure a length of 16.5 feet, was also understood to represent a quarter of an acre. So the original set-aside of 2 rods was a half acre, which was the same as was exempted in 1792.
As far as is known, John Prall, Jr. kept the graveyard lot until his death in 1831. None of the burials took place after Prall’s ownership.
1841, Thomas P. Holcombe bought the Prall farm (or part of it) from Peter Miller, and in 1850 sold 136 acres from the western side to the step-brothers Asher and Morris Woolverton for $7,370.12 This deed also mentioned that the half-acre graveyard was excluded from the conveyance.
As Snell mentioned above, by the 1880s, the graveyard was generally considered to be part of the Woolverton farm. Asher and Maurice Wolverton were sons of Samuel Wolverton, who had inherited his homestead farm north of Rosemont from his father John Wolverton. The purchase of the old Prall plantation was a little surprising inasmuch as the brothers were in line to inherit quite a bit of property on their own.
In the 1850 census, taken in September, five months after the Prall farm was purchased, Asher, age 39, and his brother Maurice, age 23, both farmers, were sharing a household, together with Sarah Stockton age 60; Frances Naylor age 64; Charles Gray, age 60, no occupation; Joseph McLannin age 20, farmer; and William McLannin age 11.
I presume that at some point Asher B. Wolverton released his rights in the Prall farm to brother Morris, since they were in separate households by 1860. But since the Search Room is closed today, I can’t double check that. Nor can I examine all the deeds from the estate of John Prall, Jr. dec’d.13 But one thing is clear—the cemetery has no known owner. Like so many other small cemeteries dotting the Hunterdon countryside, it is an orphan. My suspicion is that the executors of Prall’s estate did not feel that it was appropriate to sell what was a de facto public place to a private owner, but at the same time, they had no established legal practice to follow. So, they just ignored it. Another reason the cemetery is a de facto public place is that there is a public right-of-way for access to the cemetery over the property of the N. J. Conservation Foundation in Prallsville.
It is hoped that the efforts of Dave Reading and the Mount Amwell Project to persuade Stockton Borough to take ownership of the plot will succeed. Caring for a cemetery that belongs to no one is problematic.
Cemetery Stones Published in the Lambertville Record of August 6, 1879
The first record we have of the gravestones comes from an article published in the Lambertville Record which can be found online.14 I do not know who made this list (asterisks indicate these stones were also found in 1917):
A. H. 1711
J. J. H. – almost certainly an incorrect reading
* A. W., D.C., D.C., 1732 – incorrect reading; Deats & Bush wrote “I. W.”
* C. R., 1778
* M.H., (no date.)
* John Bake, died Dec. 9th, 1826, aged 47 years and 2 days.
* Ann Cavanaugh, wife of John Cavanaugh, died Dec. 24th , 1810, aged 20 years, 6 mo. and 4 days
* Hannah Cavanaugh, wife of John Cavanaugh, died Feb. 24th 1814, aged 22 years, 10 mo. and 5 days.
* P. Rittenhouse, born 1724 [Deats & Bush wrote 1720]; Died 1791
* Sarah Rittenhouse, widow of Peter Rittenhouse, died May 16th, 1811, in the 76th year of her age.
* Stachys Rittenhouse, died April 11, 1827. In the 22d year of his age. (The published list had the name as Stacy, but the gravestone clearly says Stachys.)
* Peter (Deats & Bush wrote “P.”) Rittenhouse, son of Elisha and Isabella Rittenhouse, his wife, born 1798. Died 1804.
* Jacob and Letitia Lambert’s son, born Jan. 15th 1815. Died the same day.
* A.H., died September 29th, 1820, aged 26 years and 2 days.
According to a history of the cemetery written by Jonathan Bosse in 2009,15 the Hunterdon County Democrat in an article published on July 3, 1888 listed eight gravestones. I have not seen that article yet. Bosse wrote that there were “perhaps 80 unmarked stones in rows plus seventeen engraved headstones in clusters representing twenty-one individuals. Twelve of the individuals are identified only by initials, some of whose names we know.”
Inscriptions Recorded by Deats and Bush
The inscriptions were copied by Hiram Deats and Egbert T. Bush in 1917.16 The stones listed above that have an asterisk were stones that Bush and Deats also found. The following were stones that Deats & Bush found that were not included in the Record’s list:
H R D, May 9, 1798
A R, Sept. 23, 1823, 69 yrs
S R (two stones, same initial, no dates)
W R 1767
Combined Inventory, arranged alphabetically by surname:17
John Bake, died Dec. 9th, 1826, aged 47 years and 2 days.
Ann Cavanaugh, wife of John Cavanaugh, died Dec. 24th , 1810, aged 20 years, 6 mo. and 4 days
Hannah Cavanaugh, wife of John Cavanaugh, died Feb. 24th 1814, aged 22 years, 10 mo. and 5 days.
H R D, May 9, 1798
A. H. 1711 A.H., died September 29th, 1820, aged 26 years and 2 days.
J. J. H. – almost certainly an incorrect reading
M.H., (no date.)
Jacob and Letitia Lambert’s son, born Jan. 15th 1815. Died the same day.
A R, Sept. 23, 1823, 69 yrs
C. R., 1778
P. Rittenhouse, born 1724 (Deats & Bush wrote 1720); Died 1791
Peter (Deats & Bush wrote “P.”) Rittenhouse, son of Elisha and Isabella Rittenhouse, his wife, born 1798. Died 1804.
S R (two stones, same initial, no dates)
Sarah Rittenhouse, widow of Peter Rittenhouse, died May 16th, 1811, in the 76th year of her age.
Stachys Rittenhouse, died April 11, 1827. In the 22d year of his age. (The published list had the name as Stacy, but the gravestone clearly says Stachys.)
W R 1767
1732 7 (in reverse) / I. W., D. C. D. C. 5
My next post will describe what is known of the people buried here.
Correction, July 4, 2015: Dave Reading reminded me that the Howell children were minors when their parents died, so deeds were drawn up for them until they reached adulthood.
- James P. Snell, History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, 1881, p. 371. ↩
- Snell, p. 384. ↩
- I’m not sure what the source for this date is. It is not in Leach’s Genealogy of the Reading and Howell families; perhaps it is in the family bible kept by her brother, Gov. John Reading. ↩
- Recital in H. C. Deed Bk 2 p. 39. ↩
- Recital, H. C. Deed Bk 2 p. 39. ↩
- H. C. Mortgage Bk 1, p. 134. ↩
- H. C. Deed Bk 2 p. 26. ↩
- H. C. Deed Bk 2 p. 43. ↩
- H. C. Deed Bk 2 p. 19. ↩
- H. C. Deed Bk 2 p. 24. ↩
- H. C. Deed Bk 56 p. 551. ↩
- H. C. Deed Bk 97 p. 686. ↩
- The Wolverton family of Stockton is a very interesting one, a story I will write about someday in conjunction with an article about them by Egbert T. Bush. ↩
- “Rittenhouse Burying Grounds.” ↩
- I should note that I have many disagreements with the statements made in Mr. Bosse’s article, especially with his history of the ownership. He made statements about who owned the property when certain individuals were buried that are simply wrong. And he comes to conclusions about who ought to be buried there that can be misleading. ↩
- Names published in HCHS Newsletter v. 4, no. 1 (Spring 1968), p. 48. ↩
- Another Inventory of this cemetery can be found on Find-a-Grave. ↩