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St. John's yard is crowded with the
bones of pre-Revolutionary leaders

Brewster image

By Charles W. Brewster

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.

The Episcopal Church Yard.

IN the last Ramble is given the names of some of the Portsmouth citizens who took an active part in public affairs between the time of the war of the Revolution and that of 1812. The list might be considerably extended, -- but we will not now attempt it. While thus marshaling this company of the past, it is not out of place to enter one of the sacred enclosures where some of them are resting from their labors.

Among the early cemeteries of Portsmouth was that of the St. John's hurchyard. This was used as a cemetery some twenty years before the first interment was made in the old North Burying Ground. Within the walls of this Churchyard rest the remains of the principal and highest in rank, in their time, of the inhabitants of Portsmouth previous to the Revolution. Here are the remains of the Governors, Counsellors, and Secretaries of the Province of New Hampshire, in the colonial days -- for it was then in the Church of England that all felt obligated to worship who held an office under the Crown. So the Ground around the church was the place where they also, with the humblest citizens, mingled in one common dust, at death.

St Johns

The Church that stood on the spot where St. John's Church now stands was built in 1732 and was called "Queen's Chapel." About ten years since, on rebuilding the wall around the Burying Ground, the tombs became for a short time exposed. They were large, and quite full, some containing the remains of upwards of one hundred persons. One was, however, opened with the remains of but one person, in the centre of the tomb, who no doubt was the proprietor. It belonged, according to the records of the Church, to Mr. Christopher Rymes, and no doubt had not been opened for one hundred and twenty years.

There is also a tomb in the middle of the yard called the Governors' tomb. In this tomb were placed the remains of the several Governors Wentworth (except the last), with their families. Some sixty years ago this tomb was opened, disclosing the coffins of occupants, their standing designated by the escutcheons, coats of arms, lion, unicorn, etc. that were on their lids. The rusty remains of a highly polished sword, laid on one, reminded, with these coffin ornaments, of the words of the poet:--

"Shall we build Ambition! Ah, no;
Affrighted it shrinketh away,
And nothing is left but the dust below,
And the tinsel that shines on the dark coffin lid."

St John's Cemetery

The whole enclosure on the north of the church is sufficiently elevated to permit entrance to the tombs from the street. Here are the tombs of the Atkinsons, the Sherburnes, the Jaffreys, the Peirces, the Sheafes, the Marshes, the Mannings, the Halls, the Gardners; and the remains of many others of latter days here repose,--among them honored names, whose fame needs no tomb-stone to perpetuate them.

By the liberalty of one of the descendants of the Sheafe family, (J. Fisher Sheafe, Esq. of New York,) a handsome and substantial iron fence was erected on the walls of this ancient churchyard a few years since; thus not only making more secure the sacred depository of the dead and conferring an acceptable present to the Church, but also making the enclosure a city ornament.

Could we in imagination go back through a century, we might here see many splendid arrays of carriages with footmen, servants, and military display paraded around these tombs, to pay the last respect to the illustrious dead, and hear the beautiful service of the church, consigning them to their last resting place, read by the venerable Arthur Brown, as in later days it has been read by the talented and sympathizing Burroughs:

"I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."

PHOTO CREDIT:  Early postcard of St. John's showing above-ground cemetery and a recent photo showing Bow St. and the bridge in the background by J. Dennis Robinson.

MORE: See St. John's Church Today
MORE: Seacoast Cemeteries

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
Design 2002

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