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Area cemeteries as old as America

By Brian Gilliland, Associate Editor

(Oct. 26, 2017) Generally speaking, the lower shore was farming country back in the colonial days, and family members whose time had come were buried on their land — usually on the high ground, to prevent the rain and flooding from disturbing the departed.

Several area churches date back well before the Declaration of Independence, with congregations forming significantly before that.

All Hallows Episcopal Church in Snow Hill, for example, formed its congregation in 1692, with the still-standing church erected in 1748. St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, in Showell, opened in 1756 after being paid for by tons of tobacco.

The Rev. Francis Makemie organized congregations along the coasts of Maryland and Virginia beginning in 1683, and is responsible for Buckingham Presbyterian Church in Berlin and a namesake building in Snow Hill that was recognized as the oldest Presbyterian Church in America.

The congregations usually met in someone’s home until a permanent building could be placed, and of the four just two are original buildings. Buckingham’s roof collapsed in a snowstorm in the 1850s and the building was moved downtown, and the Makemie church moved from a log building near the Pocomoke River to its current site, though two previous buildings were damaged by fires.

Except for Buckingham, the three other churches all have their own graveyards on site. Because the Buckingham building moved, the cemetery has taken over its former spot along Route 113, near the Worcester Athletic Complex, according to Sally Kohler, church member.

Church leadership at all four sites have some records of the people interred there, but time, fire and customs have changed, leaving gaps.

The oldest records — usually the headstones themselves — date only to the American Revolution. Before then could be anyone’s guess, but common theories are the headstones may have been wood and just deteriorated over time, being buried close to the church instead of owned property wasn’t a thing until that time, or the graves were generally left unmarked.

Jeanne Townsend helped update church archives for All Hallows in 1983, which was the first time the task had been attempted since the 1920s. She pored over obituaries, records, or anything else she could find that said a person was interred at All Hallows. With more than 900 plots at the cemetery, more than 50 are occupied by unknown people.

When no documentation could be found, she used borrowed equipment to confirm there were remains in a certain plot.

“Northampton and Accomack counties in Virginia never had fires, so they have the oldest records in the U.S.A.,” Townsend said.

Now in her 80s, some of the records have stuck with her.

“One of the unknowns could have been a Union soldier, and we had a murder victim who was killed in Tennessee returned here on the train,” she said. “And we have one slave — check Handy Hudson.”

Townsend’s daughter, Janet Simpson, thumbed through the records until he was located in plot 150E: Handy Hudson, 1805-1856. He was described in the records’ remarks as the “faithful slave of Aaron and Anne.”

Other, more affluent citizens can be found at Makemie.

“Former Governor John Walter Smith is buried here, as well as Ephraim King Wilson,” Arline Curtis, a church administrator, said.

John Walter Smith was the 1st District Congressman from 1899-1900, the 44th governor of Maryland from 1900-1904 and a Senator from 1908-1921. He died in Baltimore in April 1925 and was buried in Snow Hill.

Ephraim King Wilson was the 8th District Congressman from 1827-1831.

Also in the cemetery is Hanna Moore Richardson, who had a portrait of herself sent to Italy where it was carved into a marble relief and placed on her headstone. It faces her old home in town, Curtis said.

The cemeteries are open to the public and visiting is encouraged, so long as visitors conduct themselves in a respectful manner, the members explained.

The exception is St. Martin’s Church in Showell, which has been restored as part of a partnership with the Maryland Historic Trust, Sherrie Beckstead, church member, said.

The cemetery there is largely unmarked and featureless, Beckstead said, but the church itself is available for tours and holds services on select days, like Christmas Eve.

“Part of our mission to restore the church was to put it back into the service of the community,” she said.