The Presbyterian Burying Ground
A Treasury of White Plains History
The oldest gravestone in the cemetery was dated 1709. The churchyard was originally carried in the names of individuals because the English colonial government did not recognize dissenters and “prisbiterians.” On May 27, 1714 Mr. John Frost of Rye gave a gift of good land to the Rev. Christopher Bridges of White Plains, land on which the Presbyterian Church would eventually be built. This land subsequently passed to the Rev. John Walton, pastor of the church from 1723-1727. Walton gave the church three-quarters of an acre for the churchyard, and when he retired and sold his farm this sector was exempted from the purchase. In 1751, the land was deeded to Caleb Hyatt, Sr., John Turner, Sr., and Peter Hatfield, Sr., as trustees. In 1764 when the old road to Philipsburg (now Rockledge Avenue) was changed, the town gave a small piece of undivided land to the church to be added to our “burying ground” for the use of all, but entirely under the government and management of the congregation, according to the following deed:
TO ALL PEOPLE To whom it may concern, Know ye that we the undersigners being such as have proprietors rights in ye White Plains in ye township of Rye and whereas there is a small piece of undivided land lying on the north side of ye burying ground yard near the Presbyterian meeting house, we and each of us being willing, that said piece of undivided land should be annext to ye burying yard abovementioned and we are willing that the same should be fenced into and with the said burying yard and to be appropriated and for the use of a burying yard not only for ye use of ye Presbyterians Society but for ye use and benefit of all or any Society or persons whatsoever freely to bury in.
The Presbyterian Church in White Plains was incorporated in 1787, one of the first uses of trustees in the country, and later reincorporated as the White Plains Presbyterian Church in 1863. Its property is held in trust on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Gravestone Carvers were the first American Sculptors
According to Gray Williams, Jr., a former trustee of the Westchester County Historical Society and the Association of Gravestone Studies, the churchyard of the White Plains Presbyterian Church “is a rich treasury of Westchester’s early history. Its gravestones commemorate several of the leading individuals and families of central Westchester during the late 18th and 19th centuries. The most important monument is that of the first minister of the church, John Smith, who died in 1771. Executed in New Jersey sandstone and decorated with the ‘soul effigy’ (a stylized face flanked by wings, symbolizing the flight of the soul to heaven) typical of the period, it bears a long inscription celebrating its subject’s life and accomplishments.”
The stone of John Smith is now displayed inside the sanctuary to preserve it from weather and decay, though many stones like it remain in the cemetery. However, when it was removed after nearly two centuries underground, it was found to bear the signature, “John Zuricher, Stone Cutter.”
According to Gray Williams, Jr., “Gravestone carvers were the first American sculptors. They began to produce distinctive, original works during Colonial times. Although several were active in New York before the revolution, few are known by name. One of the exceptions is John Zuricher, who signed several of his works. The stone of John Smith is the first of these to have been discovered in Westchester.” There may be others. Zuricher also carved stones in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown and St. Paul’s Churchyard in Mt. Vernon, as well as many of the surviving milestones for the Albany Post Road. “His faces, carved in low relief, are either pear-shaped and jowly, or oval with a pointed chin. The wings are quite abstract, with lines of lightly engraved rows of scallops to suggest feathers. His vigorous, deeply cut lettering is also a key to his work.”
Who's Buried Here?
We are reminded of the line in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil” about the fictional Rev. Hooper: “Nearly all his parishioners, who were of mature age when he was settled, had been borne away by many a funeral: he had one congregation in the church, and a more crowded one in the churchyard.”
THE FIRST FAMILIES who settled in White Plains such as Purdy, Hyatt, Hatfield, Budd, and Hart were among the founding congregants. Within the church’s cemetery we find the gravestones of Jacob and Abigail Purdy, who lent their home to George Washington to use as his White Plains headquarters during the Revolutionary War as well as the graves of forty-two soldiers, like Elijah Miller and his sons, who fought and died for independence and a constitution that established rights that have guided our nation ever since. Elijah’s widow, Ann Miller, is also buried here. She was the founder of Methodism in White Plains.
THE REV. JOHN SMITH was both minister and doctor for nearly half a century and was closely identified with the early development of White Plains. Dr. Smith is buried underneath the sanctuary and his headstone is now preserved inside the building, but his family remains in the cemetery. His wife, Mehitabal Hooker, was the daughter of James Hooker, of Guilford, Connecticut, great granddaughter of the Rev. Thomas Hooker, one of the founders of the State of Connecticut.
JONATHAN G. TOMPKINS was a farmer and justice of the peace in White Plains. He was one of the leaders of two social groups – tenant farmer and middle class – in a colony dominated by a powerful landlord and merchant aristocracy. On the eve of the revolution he declared himself a Whig and readily took the side of the colonies against the King and Parliament, declaring for American independence. Serving in numerous democratic meetings, including the state convention that ratified the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776, as well as the committee that adopted the state constitution, Jonathan was one of the most politically active men in Westchester County, and in New York State. He was a lifelong member of the White Plains Presbyterian Church, serving on the board of Trustees when the church was incorporated in 1787. His oldest son Caleb (also buried in the cemetery) served locally as a member of the New York State Assembly 1804-1806. Caleb was then appointed the first judge of the Westchester County Court of Common Pleas on March 10, 1808. His appointment was signed by his younger brother, Daniel D. Tompkins (not buried here), then Governor of New York State and later Vice-President of the United States. Caleb was also elected twice to the U.S. House of Representative as a Democratic-Republican, serving in Congress (1817 – 1821) while his brother Daniel was Vice-President.
THE GUION FAMILY were one of Westchester’s pioneer families, descendants of Louis Guion, a French Huguenot from La Rochelle, France, who arrived in New Rochelle around 1687. The family was active in the Presbyterian Church throughout the nineteenth century. They are depicted as both mourners and deceased in the Guion Family Memorial, a work of oil, needlepoint and decoupage, the centerpiece of the Westchester Historical Society.
PATRIOTS AND VETERANS-The burying ground also preserves the remains of more than forty soldiers who served in the Revolutionary War, one who served in the War of 1812, and four who served in the civil war. The list is no doubt incomplete. Bolton says that a British officer who fell in the Battle of White Plains was buried in the southwest corner of the old graveyard, and according to the Rev. Samuel Piercy, “doubtless most of those who fell on the American side were buried here and in unmarked graves.”
A Shrinking Footprint
Mass removals from the cemetery were made at three different times during the 20th century. In 1922 all of the burials on the south side of the church were removed to allow for the construction of the Church House and landscaping of the lawn. These remains were reinterred elsewhere in the cemetery. Among the memorials removed during this project were those depicted on the Guion Memorial at the Westchester County Historical Archives. (See attached photo).
In 1958, a total of 201 additional remains and headstones were moved to make way for the expansion of the sanctuary and the addition of a new education building and administrative offices. These were carefully recorded and reinterred in one spot marked at the four corners by granite columns in the remaining cemetery. Family remains were kept together, where practical. Those in unmarked graves were buried together. Veterans of previous wars were interred in a separate grouping and so marked. Additionally, some burials in the rear of the churchyard were removed at a different time for the creation of a parking lot.” The cemetery at 49 N. Broadway is what remains of the more extensive burying ground that used to completely surround the sanctuary.
A complete transcription was made of the cemetery in 1910, before any of the removals began. In addition, the Trustees of the church issued the following statement in 1938:
The church owes a real debt of gratitude to the leaders and the boys of Scout Troop No. 9, sponsored by the Men’s Bible Class, who have spent a lot of time in the last two years listing and describing all the grave markers in our Churchyard and making a map from which they can be located. 642 markers are listed, which include 181 that were transferred from the South lawn when the Church House was built. No one knows how many unmarked graves there are.
On April 16, 1959, vandals toppled eight gravestones on the north side of the sanctuary. Many stones today remain where they have fallen.
As part of the 300th anniversary celebration of the City of White Plains, a time capsule was buried on the eastern edge of the cemetery, to be opened in 2283.
Many stones have deteriorated with age and most are illegible. Many more stones lie flat where they have fallen, often face down. About two-dozen sandstones in the center of the cemetery were mute witnesses to the Revolutionary War. The Guion Family Memorial created in the 1850s already depicted stones on the ground. In 1897, the Rev. Dr. A, R. Macoubry lamented, “Some of the sand stone monuments have already so decayed only slight fragments of them remain; and others are fast crumbling. The time shall come, please God, that its condition shall be of less reproach to those we have dead buried there, and to us all." This condition is typical of cemeteries of such age.
In 2014, the White Plains Historical Society restored the gravestone of Abigail Purdy, daughter of The Rev. Dr. John Smith and wife of patriot Jacob Purdy. Abigail and her husband hosted General George Washington in their home from July 23 to September 16, 1778. The home is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and serves as the headquarters of the White Plains Historical Society.
In 2015 the Daughters of Liberty's Legacy replaced the missing headstone of patriot Anne Miller, whose husband Elijah and sons John and Elijah all died in the War of Independence. She is buried beside them in the cemetery. The Millers also hosted Washington in their home three times, in 1776, 1778, and 1781. Their home also appears on the National Registry of Historic Places.
In October 2017 the City of White Plains designated The Presbyterian Burying Ground a Local Landmark.