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A Trove of Documents Saved from Destruction

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Petition to Congress

A few months ago my grandfather decided to a do a little spring cleaning. There was a storage unit in our barn that hadn’t been touched in years, full of mildewy furniture and worthless miscellany. He came across a metal container full of maps, mostly showing local topography and zoning. My aunt suggested that I might want them, so they escaped the trash heap.

When I got down to the barn I found a pile of mostly junk, covered in a plastic tarp because we were expecting rain. I found a few items worth keeping: the sled my great-grandmother had when she was a little girl growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, a wooden tricycle that belonged to my grandfather, and a few plastic trucks for my son to play with. I found the box of maps and popped open the latch, and immediately knew that the contents were far more important than my grandfather had realized.

There were dozens of maps, but among the rolls of paper I recognized a draft of the map my great-grandfather made for the Solebury Friends Meeting burial ground in the 1960s. Then I noticed another roll that was clearly a much older material. With the box sitting in the gravel driveway, I rolled the map out a few inches and discovered that it was in fact two maps rolled together.

SoleburyFriendsMeeting-Burial Map-1907(small)

The first was from 1907.

The second was from 1866.

They were the original maps that by great-grandfather used as a reference for the modern map, and they’d been sitting in our barn for decades, totally forgotten.

I called the person currently in charge of the graveyard to tell him about my find and offered to bring it to the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College to deposit it with the rest of the Meeting’s original records, and I held on to them for a few months until I had time to make the trip.

A couple weeks ago I finally I finally had a day off, and decided to bring the maps to Swarthmore. My timing was fortuitous. That Monday I led a graveyard tour at Plumstead Friends Meeting. We assembled in the meetinghouse, and as I led the group outside towards the burial ground, a woman approached me with a box of documents about the meeting. At the time I was too focused on the tour to discuss it, and suggested that she talk to the clerk of the meeting. The next day, however, I was consumed by curiosity. I already had plans to go down the the Friends Historical Library that week, and thought I might be able to bring those papers as well. Luckily I ran into her in Doylestown a couple days later and proposed that I take them for her. She agreed.

When she dropped the documents off the next day, she brought a lot more than the Plumstead material. She also brought a collection of documents from Buckingham Meeting, and there was so much that it took her two trips to unload it from her car.

The Plumstead material turned out to be the notes and research prepared for a pamphlet published for the meeting’s 225th anniversary celebration on 1953, as well as notes about the ceremony itself. There were also two large photographs that were used in the pamphlet, one from c.1875, and one from 1953.

The Buckingham material was rather varied. One box contained about a dozen copies of the book published for Buckingham Meeting’s 225th anniversary in 1923, as well as a block print of the meetinghouse that was used for that book. There was a folder with newspaper clippings and other 20th Century material. Finally, there was a cardboard box that had been saved from Buckingham Meeting by the woman’s father. At some point a few decades ago, the members of Buckingham meeting had decided to indiscriminately “clean” their attic, and this box was a subject of the purge. Like the burial map from Solebury, these documents were almost destroyed.

When I opened this final box I got goosebumps. I could tell by looking at the parchment that they were old. Really old. Most of them were tied together with string into little bundles, with a few groupings of loose papers between them. I saw the date “1776” peeking out from one of the bundles. When I brought them home and examined them further I found that some documents dated back to the beginning of the 1700s, and in addition to material from Buckingham, a lot of the documents actually came from Middletown Monthly Meeting. Most of them were excerpts from annual conference of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and epistles from the yearly meetings in London and Philadelphia. Some were testimony against members of meeting, or letters from people willingly leaving the Society of Friends. There were a few more recent documents that dealt with the Civil War. Perhaps the most interesting document is a letter written from a Quaker aid mission during the British occupation of Boston. She had kept them in storage for years, hoping to eventually deposit them in the archive, and I was finally able to bring them for her.

Swarthmore Donation - Stack of Papers

For the sake of brevity, I will show the individual documents in separate posts:

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Written by Moses Doan

October 7, 2013 at 2:50 pm

The Origin of Strangers Row & The Removal of Monuments

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It’s been almost a year since I first discovered Strangers Row, the section of Solebury Friends graveyard dedicated to paupers and non-Quakers, and I finally found some written documentation of its existence. In 1906, Solebury Friends Meeting celebrated its first centennial, and a pamphlet was printed commemorating the event. Out of the many interesting pieces it contains, perhaps the most valuable is Eastburn Reeder’s account of Solebury Friends history, which he read before meeting at the centennial event. Below is an excerpted portion pertaining to the creation of the graveyard, abstracted from the Monthly Meeting minutes:

 Third-month 25th, 1808… the Friends appointed to enclose the burying ground, report the service nearly performed, and a committee was appointed to consider proper directions to give the grave digger and in what manner the dead shall be interred in our grounds.

Fourth-month 26, 1808. The committee appointed to consider the proper mode for the interment of the dead in our new burying ground, and also to particularaize who shall be interred therein, report:

“We the committe [sic] to take in view what method we shall bury in, and who may be admitted in our burial grounds, are free to propose, the following: First, That the whole ground to be ocupied [sic] shall be laid out in 84 squares, each to be 8 feet by 20 feet, 8 inches, and to begin at the upper corner of Moses Eastburn’s [property] line, and each family taking their square in succession as occasion calls for it. Servants and apprentices belonging to Friend’s families may be admitted, and such as are descendants of Friends and their families within the limits of this meeting; those of other description not included.”

Ninth-month 27th, 1808. Finding some difficulties to arise from this plan for burying, Friends reconsidered it, and decided that all transient persons who may have liberty to bury in our grounds, and not properly claiming a square, ought to be interred in a row on the east side of the burying ground, beginning at the northeast corner. This is the origin of the strangers row. The grave-yard has been twice enlarged. The first time in 1830 by the purchase of 80 perches of Aaron Paxson, Jr. The second time in 1877 by the purchase of one and a half acres of Merrick Reeder, making the whole amount of land now owned by the meeting over 5 acres.

Thanks to Reeder we have the original plan for the allotment of the graveyard, and we can appreciate the sympathy of these original Friends who set aside a burying place for people who had nowhere else to turn.

Reeder’s history of Solebury Meeting also illuminates another intriguing aspect of Quaker history: the shifting opinions within the Society of Friends with regard to the recognition of the deceased with grave monuments. In keeping with the testimony of simplicity, early Friends erected plain, unmarked headstones or no stones at all. At Solebury Meeting, you’ll find these simple brown slabs of local stone in the oldest section, located in the northwest corner. Eventually initials or names were added, but it wasn’t until the  second half of the 1800’s that engraving the name of the deceased with their dates of birth and death (and consequently the use of marble and other easily engraved stone) became standard practice. Viewing the list of graves at Solebury Meeting (available here), the recording of dates seems to begin in the 1860’s. I can’t help but think that the Civil War transformed the Society’s views on death and remembrance.

Below Reeder recounts the controversy over grave monuments that occurred when Friends began erecting marked headstones at Buckingham Meeting. (Note: Before Solebury Meeting was constructed in 1806, Solebury Quakers commuted to Buckingham Meeting.)

Monuments. The committee appointed to unite with a committee of Buckingham Monthly meeting on the subject of monuments in our grave-yards, made the following report in writing: “The committees appointed by Buckingham and Solebury Monthly meetings to unite in considering the subject of monuments of deceased persons agree to report, that they are of opinion that all fixtures to graves with inscriptions thereon in order distinguish one grave from another, is contrary to the direction of the discipline; and as a great variety of such have been placed in our grave-yard at Buckingham, some of them by members of Solebury, we believe it would be proper for the monthly meetings to attend to the removal of them. But as this departure may have been generally from a want of a perfect knowledge of the discipline, great tenderness toward the survivors ought to be exercised. We, therefore, suggest the propriety of using persuasive measures to be used to induce such surviving relatives to remove, or consent to the removal of these monuments.”

After consideration fo the report was adopted, and Moses Paxson, Oliver Hampton, Oliver Paxson, Aaron Eastburn, Hugh Ely, Aaron Paxson, and John Comfort were appointed to use their endeavors to induce such of our members as may have placed monuments to graves, to remove them, or consent to their removal.

Written by Moses Doan

February 17, 2012 at 10:32 pm