This is the first column of an occasional series, courtesy of the Shelter Island Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, updating Islanders on who’s who in the Presbyterian Church cemetery and why it’s such an essential place. Careful readers will also find out how to win a prize.
Let’s see how well you know your history. Somewhere in the following paragraphs there will be three questions. Everyone is on Scout’s honor. If you are a member of the DAR you may not compete; this applies as well to the staff, paid or volunteer, of the Shelter Island Historical Society.
Reporter readers, however are free, in fact encouraged, to consult with any one of them, as well as to go online and find out whatever they can.
Before we begin, a word about why we need to care about the cemetery and why the Shelter Island Chapter of the DAR has received a matching grant of nearly $11,000 from its national headquarters. One of the primary missions of the DAR is historic preservation related to the American Revolution — including headstones, publications, old houses in need of renovation and more. But equally important is the preservation of knowledge and cemeteries are treasure troves of knowledge.
Many Islanders may not know that we have no formal town records before the year 1881. There was no Town Hall until well into the 20th century and consequently the records were kept in the home of the Town Clerk. When the Town Clerk’s house burned down, the records burned with it.
So the information on every gravestone prior to that year was precious and needed to be recorded. That was the first step in our project and the information carved on the stones of over 600 graves has already been recorded.
Now we have begun cleaning and restoring headstones. This is a time-consuming process, scheduled for a weekend each year. In our next story we’ll have information on how and when to join us. If you’d like to participate, we’d be glad to have you. It’s an interesting process and you’ll not only learn a lot but have some fun. We have begun with the graves of the earliest settlers of the Island with particular attention to the graves of Island patriots who fought in the Revolution. And here’s your first question: How many were there?
On the north side of the cemetery, easily located close to the rear entrance of the church, you can find two elaborate monuments called “tables.” Why tables instead of upright stones? Because they were expensive and a sign of stature, in the same way today one might buy a Rolls Royce instead of a Ford. It’s also interesting that before they were public parks, people often picnicked in cemeteries where there was a great deal of green grass and flowers.
Some of the tables were certainly used as tables when it was time to set out the extensive picnic lunch. Most of them originally had tablets of text, set in lead. During the Revolution, many of these tablets were stolen. And here’s your second question: What was the lead used for?
Last question: There is an important Islander buried here. He was born November 28, 1694 in East Hampton, but inherited land on Shelter Island in 1704 to become the owner of roughly half the Island. He lived here the rest of his life, built a house that is still standing and had two daughters, Mary and Margaret. He was a deeply religious man and often paid to bring clergy to officiate at services in the Meeting House, which originally stood on the site where the Presbyterian Church now stands. What was his name?
Call DAR member Karen Kaier at 917-012-4748 if you know the answers to these questions. She heads the cemetery project. Whoever calls in first with all three correct answers will win a copy of “Shelter Island and its Presbyterian Church” by the Reverend Jacob E. Mallman.
Next column, you’ll find out the answers, who won and the runners-up, if there were any.