Archives Month Philly Spotlight: Old First Reformed Church of Philadelphia Lot at West Laurel Hill Cemetery

October is American Archives Month, and the Friends of Laurel Hill & West Laurel Hill Cemeteries have a specially curated post to share with you!

Sarah Hamill, tour guide and volunteer researcher, recounts her experience researching congregants buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery’s Philadelphia Section, Lot 1, owned by the Old First German Reformed Church of Philadelphia. Volunteer research on the congregants of this church is part of a project funded by a generous grant from the Independence Hall Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.

Read on to learn what Sarah found (and couldn’t find) about several congregants: Archibald Steele, The McWilliams Family, Lewis Lowry, and Henry Clopp.

I jumped at the chance to join the research project to learn more about the people who were reburied in West Laurel Hill Cemetery from The Old First German Reformed Church in Philadelphia. For me – an amateur researcher – the challenges were immediately obvious.  There were limited or no dates of birth/death information for many of the individuals, just a general idea that they were Revolutionary War-era.  In addition, many had common names that were often spelled in different ways in different sources, making it difficult to determine if you were chasing the right person through historical records.  To give you an idea of how I approached this project, here’s a roadmap to the sources I tapped for information:

West Laurel Hill Cemetery Records: To get started, I reviewed the historical records available through the cemetery. This provided the foundation to understanding the church and its history, as well as the details around moving church members from their original cemetery to West Laurel Hill.    

Old First Reformed Church Archives   Next, I visited the Church archives at its current location on 4th Street in Philadelphia.   The Church Administrator – who was beyond helpful – worked with me to sort through the archives to find relevant records to review.  Luckily, in the 1940s many of the basic records were transcribed into a typed format; this included birth, baptism, marriage, and burial records through the early 1800s.  Without this transcription, many of the records would be very difficult to read.  There were also several folders of correspondence that discussed West Laurel Hill and the reburial project. 

Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP)   Many of the Church records had been donated to the HSP in Philadelphia – so that was my next stop.  These records picked up where the ones at the church ended and provided additional information around membership data and other details of church life.   [Note:  currently, membership in HSP is required to schedule a research appointment.]

From the Church archives and HSP, I was able to add at least a date of burial to most of the people I was researching.  That helped as I moved on to a range of online sources, some free and some subscription based. 

Internet Sources   The free websites I tapped were Findagrave.com, Family Search.org, PA State Archives, and theLibrary of CongressThe sites provide different types of information, each relevant in its own way.  The Family Search website was particularly helpful since it connected to a wide range of other archives I would not have known about and helped determine some family relationships.  [Note: Family Search is free, but you do need to register to access the site, and not all the records are available online.] 

The subscription-based websites included Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com, both providing small glimpses into the lives of many of the people I was researching.  Ancestry provided information from sources like the census, marriage/obituary records, and wills.  Newspapers.com was helpful with information from news articles that mentioned people that I was researching, but the challenge is to be sure the people referenced are those for whom you are searching, since spelling varies widely from story to story.

In the end, was I able to paint a complete picture of the individuals I was researching?  No.  But, I was able to piece together bits of their stories, from burial dates to family relationships, home addresses, marriages, and baptisms.  Here are a few examples:

Archibald Steele   In addition to finding a photo, details of Colonel Archibald Steele’s long and successful military career were uncovered.  During the Revolutionary War, Steele participated in the storming of Quebec in the winter of 1775; his obituary noted that he ‘distinguished himself in a manner that should entitle him to immortal renown’.  At the time of his death – at age 92! – he was in command of the US arsenal at Frankford in Philadelphia, having served his country a total of 57 of his 92 years.  That’s a man who deserves to be remembered! 

The McWilliams Family   Only bits of information were discovered for other individuals I researched. For example, there are 5 individuals reburied in West Laurel Hill with the last name of McWilliams:  William, David, Robert, Mary, and Margaret.  There were no dates of birth or death for any of the five.  From the Church records and online sources, however, we can begin to build out their profiles and family relationships.  Records indicate:

  • Burial dates for all five, with the addition of a tentative age of only 28 at the time of death for Robert and 36 for David 
  • Robert and Mary were married, and they had a daughter named Margaret
  • David lived at the same address as Mary, but based on their ages at death, Mary was David’s mother – this means he was possibly Margaret’s brother
  • Newspaper accounts refer to William’s military rank as ‘Major’
  • Robert was killed in the line of duty, leaving behind a wife and three children

This is all tentative since it’s complicated by the repeated use of first names – for example, it is difficult to always be sure which ‘Mary’ you might be reading about since there seems to be more than one in the family. 

Lewis Lowry and Henry Clopp   Records are often frustratingly incomplete.  Lewis Lowry is mentioned in Church records just once for having a baby baptized on July 15, 1803.  While most of the baptism records are fairly detailed, for Lewis’ baby, the baby’s gender, name, year of birth, and spousal name are all blank.  The same type of thing for Henry Clopp – he is mentioned once in the records for getting married on May 21, 1822, but the name of his bride is blank.  Frustrating! But even small pieces of information helps round out individual stories.

The Friends of Laurel Hill & West Laurel Hill Cemeteriesthank Sarah and the following individuals for their research efforts into those buried at West Laurel Hill from the Old First German Reformed Church: Alison Ross, Barbara Mann, Caitlin Angelone, Janet Steiner, Kimberly Morrell, Marty Foley, and Pamela McMahon.

While our volunteer researchers were pouring over different repositories of historical information, our masonry crew was able to raise and reset headstones also relocated from the previous burying grounds used by the Old First German Reformed Church to complete this project.

The Friends of Laurel Hill & West Laurel Hill Cemeteries welcome all who are interested in attending our rededication ceremony of this lot on November 3, 2021, at 11 AM! Attendance is free, but RSVPs are requested so we can share important information about the ceremony and location.

If YOU want to dive into the archives at Laurel Hill, become a member to sign up for next month’s free, members-only program, Digging in the Cemetery- An Exploration of Laurel Hill’s Archive! Carol Yaster, the Friends’ resident researcher and genealogist, and Friends’ Weekend Coordinator, David Gurmai, will present some of the less-often-seen items in our expansive collection, from letters and telegrams to guidebooks and historical maps of the cemetery.

For more Philadelphia-area Archives Month activities and information, visit ArchivesMonthPhilly.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close