Uncovered History: Documents Paint Picture of Pre-Revolutionary Fishtown and Palmer Cemetery
Most of us are accustomed to receiving doses of history in classrooms or on visits to a sterile museum where you can often look, but not touch. Fortunately for us, Philadelphia is a place where a trip through Center City can have you at any number of National Historic Sites from the very beginning of European settlers in the New World to modern pioneers of civil rights. When Spirit News was given exclusive access to witness history revealed firsthand in a rowhouse in the heart of Fishtown, we jumped at the chance and we brought our camera.
A random encounter with Fishtown resident John Lonergan at the local IGA revealed the Trustees of Palmer Cemetery recently came into possession of a treasure trove of historical documents relating to Fishtown, specifically the Palmer Burial Grounds. Though Lonergan wouldn’t provide details at the time, he invited us to his home a short time later to see what they had found.
The documents span from the 1760s up to the 1870s and include a mid-19th century copy of the original map of Kensington. The map depicts the area now known as Fishtown in the early 1700s. The rest of the documents are deeds for property surrounding the cemetery and show some chronology of when the parcels near the burial grounds were bought and sold to expand the cemetery.
The area known as Kensington in pre-Revolutionary times is modern-day Fishtown. Anthony Palmer founded Kensington in the 1730s and the layout of the neighborhood has remained largely the same over the last 285 years. Many of today’s streets have different names on the map. For instance, Belgrade Street is West Street and Montgomery Avenue is Cherry Street. Palmer Street is on the map, however, the section after Palmer that curves to the left at what is now Memphis is called Mary Street.
John Lonergan and his wife Debbie invited us into their home along Montgomery Avenue. Once we had a few drinks and snacks, the table was cleared and the cotton gloves came out.
Kingsmill, a long-time volunteer at the cemetery, first became a trustee of Palmer Cemetery, and shortly after, in March 2011, he became president. It was not long after that when Kingsmill began searching for some of the basic legal documents relative to the grounds. Since the cemetery has been in use since the early 1700s, it was unclear who had what.
“Shortly after that I started asking questions,” Kingsmill said. “Doesn’t this cemetery have records? Don’t we have this, that, and the other thing? Oh, so-and-so has the records, I’m gonna get them back to you.”
According to Kingsmill, he was assisted by local historian Ken Milano in locating some of the historical and legally viable documents pertaining to the burial grounds. Kingsmill says by the end of 2011, they had found out that the Pennsylvania Historical Society (PHS) was in possession of many of these documents.
Kingsmill says the documents had been signed over by a former trustee to PHS sometime after he became a trustee and before he became president. Kingsmill said he tried to get the PHS to give the documents back to him. “I tried to fight them, but I kept getting cease and desist orders from them,” Kingsmill said.
PHS provided Kingsmill with documents showing that everything had been signed over legally to the PHS. At the time, Kingsmill was frustrated. “We came to the conclusion that we had no money to do it and no will to fight the hierarchy of the PHS,” Kingsmill said.
Kingsmill negotiated with the PHS and they agreed to provide him with high-quality book-bound copies of all the documents they had. Kingsmill says these ranged from 1859 to 1980. According to Kingsmill, he was provided with the copies he asked for.
Kingsmill says he gets a lot of emails from people conducting genealogical research regarding the cemetery. When he saw an email from Karen McCain in his inbox, he assumed she had a question about family history. What she said she had made him very interested.
Kingsmill learned that McCain was married to a man whose mother and stepfather lived in a house in Fishtown about 25 years ago. When the parents died, the house was cleaned out. The documents had been locked in a safe inside the house. Karen McCain saw some importance in these papers, so the documents were saved. According to Kingsmill, they were kept in a cedar chest in her house in Bucks County up until a few weeks ago.
“I said, ‘Wow, I’d be really anxious to see them,’” Kingsmill said. They agreed to meet a few weeks ago and McCain gave the documents to Kingsmill. Kingsmill said McCain could have given these documents to any number of historical institutions, but she wanted to see them go back to where they originated.
“She could have done something with these that we wouldn’t have appreciated, but she had every right to do,” Kingsmill said. “She said, ‘I want them to go back to the people who rightfully deserve them, which is the neighborhood.’ I said, ‘we want them. We don’t know what they are, we don’t know what they’re worth, but we definitely want them.’”
The first thing we looked at was the map.
“It shows the Palmer Estate,” local historian Ken Milano said. “These are all the lots that are still owned by the family and the other ones are the folks that the Palmers sold to.”
The map is extremely detailed. It has the initials of the owners of each parcel and a reference key to the side. Jim Duffin, an archivist at UPenn, was also present. He was asked to give his opinion on the date of the map. “It looks like a 19th century copy,” Duffin said.
Someone appears to have written numbers in red pen on some of the parcels. The Delaware River and Gunner’s Run, the creek which used to run through the north side of Fishtown and along what is now Aramingo, have been colored blue.
Milano pointed to Anthony Palmer’s house on the map.
“Anthony Palmer was acting governor of Pennsylvania before he died and one time he was too ill to go downtown, so the government met at his house over by Penn Treaty Park,” Milano said. “We [Fishtown] were the working capital of the colonies.”
According to Milano, during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793, Palmer Cemetery began to expand. “Lots of people died and with that money they bought this lot,” Milano said, pointing to a triangle of land on the map at Memphis and Montgomery.
The deeds appear to show the chronology of ownership of the small triangle of land at the northwestern section of the grounds and another area near Belgrade and Montgomery.
“This looks like it’s an original deed for part of the cemetery they’re acquiring,” Kingsmill said, reading from one of the deeds which still had the original red wax seal stuck to it.
“These are all properties that could be part of the cemetery that they bought, not the original part, or nearby lots that maybe they were buying… maybe they were donated,” Milano said.
The most astonishing moment came when Duffin recognized one of the names on a deed from 1784.
“I think this is Betsy Ross’ father,” Duffin said, pointing to the name Samuel Griscom.
Duffin also pointed out a reference to a woman named Rebecca in the document. Historical records do indicate that Samuel and Rebecca Griscom were Betsy Ross’ parents and this may be the first time a document showing they had owned land in Fishtown has surfaced.
The room became electrified when we realized we were truly looking at a relic connecting Fishtown to our nation’s history.
“They are very good, for the Palmer Cemetery this is excellent,” Milano said.
Kingsmill admits he is not sure what the best path forward for these documents is. They are definitely safe; however, he’s looking at ways for the neighborhood to also experience history through them.
“This is the oldest stuff we have, and to me the monetary value doesn’t matter, it’s the historical value,” Kingsmill said.
Kingsmill thinks loaning this collection is the best course of action, and hopes the soon-to-be Penn Treaty Museum will be a great place to have the documents. Kingsmill admits that even though he would love to see the documents the PHS has returned to the neighborhood, they are probably in the best place. However, Kingsmill is protective of his find, and wants to make sure that it remains in Fishtown. “We’re not going to let them go,” Kingsmill said. “We’ve gotten to the point now that our neighborhood deserves some of the old stuff too.” •