250 Years of Burials

The first burial in St. Peter’s churchyard was of Rosanna Smallman, age 56, who died in August 1760, a year before the church was finished, and whose small, unreadable marker lies along the path to St. Peter’s School. Since then, more than 1,000 people have been buried in the yard, which remains open for the interment of ashes but was closed to virtually all casket burials in 1966. (If it seems there’s space for casket burials, it’s only because many gravestones were broken and not replaced over the years, or sank into the soft ground.) 

Today, there are two areas available for ashes, both east of the Pine Street gate that forms a natural start for any tour of the yard. First is a section with individual markers; then, down the path almost to Third Street, is a modern obelisk with room to commemorate those who have been cremated or whose burial sites can no longer be located. Among the latter is Samuel Fraunces (d. 1795), who became George Washington’s household steward in 1789 and moved with him to Philadelphia during Washington’s presidency. Earlier, the Fraunces Tavern in New York was the site of Washington’s farewell to his officers.

In between these two sections for ashes are 25 large family vaults that were built in 1835-36, have brick walls, and are 18 feet deep. The Lewis family’s vault in this section lists 10 members buried under the heavy slab, with dates ranging from 1855 to 1974.

Family vaults elsewhere in the yard include the Dallas/Dixon vault at the northeastern corner of the church building, not far from the obelisk. The top name is that of George Mifflin Dallas, mayor of Philadelphia, U.S. senator, and vice president under James K. Polk. (Dallas, Texas, is presumably named for him.)  He died in 1864.

Attached to the eastern wall of the church beneath the Palladian window, a well-worn tablet marks the graves of the Rev. Jacob Duché and his wife, Elizabeth. Duché’s change of heart during the Revolution captures the conflicted response to the war among many of the parishioners. At first he showed such zeal for the colonial cause that he was made chaplain of the Continental Congress. By 1777, however, he was pleading with Washington to rescind the Declaration of Independence and negotiate for peace. Duché then fled to England. After the Revolution, he was ultimately allowed to return to home and died in Philadelphia in 1798.

Continuing a clockwise tour of the graves, the southeast corner of the yard includes the elegant box tomb of Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader, who died in February 1776 shortly after the birth of her third child. She and her husband, John, had used her considerable fortune to build a magnificent mansion on Second Street whose furniture remains the touchstone for the city’s Chippendale achievements. John Cadwalader (buried in Kent County, Md.) became one of George Washington’s most trusted generals and loyal supporters. 

In the beginning

“Peter” means rock, of course, but the land that the Penn family donated in 1757 for Philadelphia’s second Anglican church was originally swampy, with a duck pond that drained into the Delaware River via a tributary of Dock Creek. At first the yard was surrounded by a wooden fence so nearby residents could pasture their cows there. British soldiers used the fence for firewood during their occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-78, however, and in 1784 the church erected the present brick wall.

Today, the churchyard is so large because the original building committee took note of a problem that Christ Church had faced four decades earlier. By 1719, that church’s vestry had had to purchase land at Fifth and Arch Streets, then on the outskirts of town, because it needed more room for burials. To forestall that, the St. Peter’s building committee purchased land adjacent to the Penn grant, and by 1782 the churchyard had grown to the present size.

The history of the plantings isn’t as clear. In an 1829 drawing, there are some weeping willows and Lombardy poplars within the walls near Third and Pine—species often found in swampy areas. But these were gradually replaced by today’s prominent canopy of mature sycamores and London plane trees along Pine and Fourth Streets. The first planting was recorded in 1770, when a member paid for 10 sycamores (or buttonwoods), location unknown. The present line of trees along Pine Street was planted around 1838, with more trees added along the west side of the yard in 1842. In 1944, additional sycamores and London plane trees were planted along Third and Lombard Streets at the edge of what is now the church parking lot. 

The oldest tree in the yard is a large horse chestnut west of the tower that may have been here when the church was being built.  Unfortunately, the tree is in poor health and will probably be removed sometime after the church’s 250th anniversary. Its heir has already been planted farther west.

Meanwhile, the yard’s most famous trees are seven Osage oranges linked to the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-06. Five can be found near the fence due south of the church; the other two flank the central walk towards Fourth Street. The Osage orange is one of the species the explorers sent back to President Jefferson from their journey across the west. Jefferson forwarded the samples to Bernard McMahon, one of the foremost botanists and horticulturists of his day, who had a nursery on the east side of Second and Market Streets, half a block from Christ Church. He planted some of the seeds or cuttings at Christ Church and at St. Peter’s; unfortunately, dates were not recorded.
Other prominent trees in the yard include:

A tall ginkgo in the western section, which lines up with the tower and is adjacent to the flag pole that was installed in 1917.

Two Lebanon cedars that flank the bier shed in the southwest section.

A mature Southern magnolia, planted at the grave site of Eliza Pinckney of South Carolina along the walkway to St. Peter’s School.

And a majestic red oak and a nearby sweet gum at the southeastern end of the churchyard.

Smaller flowering trees and bushes can also be seen throughout the churchyard, including magnolia, autumn cherry, crabapple, dogwood, redbud, hawthorn, serviceberry, Oregon grape holly, spirea, rose of Sharon, boxwood, and roses. Perennial flowers in the yard include irises, daffodils, peonies, tulips, other spring bulbs, and the ever-popular dandelions.

The 18th Century

The 19th Century

The 20th Century

The People of St. Peter's

The Choir

Mission and Outreach

Did You Know?

The Next 250

The Hero of Tripoli

The Book