First published May 31, 1984.
On or near Memorial Day almost everyone visits a cemetery to decorate the grave of a loved one. We know that the day was set aside for honoring those who died in our Civil War and later it became a day for honoring those who gave their lives in any war. Today I am remembering an old cemetery in which the last burial was made years before the Civil War was fought.
In the springtime the children with whom I played many years ago visited that peaceful spot behind St. James Catholic Church to pick violets and myrtle. We always called it the Catholic Cemetery. It was not until I became an adult that I learned it was The Old Presbyterian Burial Ground and was rich in history. I visited the spot last week and was not surprised to see that the violets and myrtle still bloomed around the well-kept area. The tombstones are now stored in a neat pile in one corner of this old cemetery and one marker placed in 1964 designates the one-half acre of land as the Presbyterian Burying Ground given by James McMahan, the first settler of the county, in 1821. The grass is mowed by caring neighbors who live on Brewer Place.
Courtesy Patterson Library Sherman Collection
Arthur Smith Tennant, right, great grandfather of the first settler who donated the half-acre of land for the old Presbyterian Burial Ground, delivered the speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution on June 15, 1937. Others in the picture are Moses Tennant, left, with Arthur Skinner Tennant on his knee.
On June 15, 1937, Arthur Smith Tennant, on the occasion of a visit of the Patterson Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, to the Presbyterian Burial Ground, presented a speech in which he gave some history of the cemetery. "It is particularly fitting that you ladies of the D.A.R. should select this site in front of the monument of Deacon David Beecher as the place for this gatheringI am indebted to Frank B. Lamb of Westfield for the following information regarding David Beecher, whose monument we now face; it has been tradition that David Beecher was the uncle of the famous minister, Henry Ward Beecher, and of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the authoress of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'. Last winter, in tracing the Beecher line, Mr. Lamb found in the New Haven Magazine the Beecher genealogy, David Beecher, named as a brother (really a half-brother) of Rev. Lyman Beecher of Brooklyn, noted preacher and abolitionist, whose list of talented children included Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, thereby confirming our tradition."
Long ago, while the markers were still standing, Mr. Lamb copied the inscriptions and gave a copy to the Patterson Library where it is still on file. At least one Revolutionary soldier is buried in the old grave yard, Lernon Averill, age 75, and was buried July 26, 1838. At least three widows of Revolutionary soldiers are said to be among those buried there: Sarah Wilton, Hirzavith Hopkins and Mrs. Philothe Smith.
A quarter of a century before Mr. Tennant delivered his speech in the old cemetery, Miss Lavina Stone read a paper before Patterson Chapter, DAR entitled "History and Needs of the Old Burying Ground." She said, "Somewhat back from the village street lies the old burying ground. It covers the space of a half-acre, which was deeded to trustees of the Presbyterian Church by Col. James McMahan, the first settler and a large land-holder in Chautauqua CountyIt is reached by a driveway lying between the residences of Mr. Harlow Gibbs and Mrs. D.D. Arnold (across Main Street from The United Methodist Church). This approach has always been known as 'graveyard alley.'
"There is no written record of this spot sacred to the memory of Westfield's early dead save that found on their tombstones. The historian must rely upon these and the traditions of the fathers. The earliest record of burial found is that of December 30, 1821, nineteen years after the first settlement. It is reported that somewhere in Gale Street, north of the Main Road, there is a field where the earliest dead of the town were laid.
"In 1843 the present cemetery was incorporated. From that time we find few burials recorded upon tombstones in the old Burying Ground. The latest is 1844."
The Westfield Republican printed a letter written to Arthur Tennant after his 1837 speech in the old Burial Ground. It was from Amorette Fraser and she told of visiting the burial ground when she was a small child. "I remember going into it to gather crab-apples of natural fruit, green in color, very small in size, hard, tough, and sour as lemons. The fruit was wanted by Mrs. Rossiter Johnson, our neighbor, for preserving, and I went with her daughter Julia to get them from this one tree of that kind in the village. How strange it would seem now to send children into a graveyard to pick apples from a green crab-apple tree."