Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Past and Present

What is archaeological is not necessarily ancient.  I learned that years ago on our farmstead in the Arkansas Ozarks.  That area of the country was still essentially wilderness at the time of the Civil War, and wasn’t effectively divided into quarter sections (160 acres) until about the time of the First World War.  But in the Twenties and early Thirties certain counties of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri had significant rural populations living on hardscrabble forty- or eighty-acre plots.  The cost of such land was generally fifty cents an acre.  Practically all of these subsistence farms were wiped out in the Depression.  All that was left in the Fifties were traces, barely discernible, of old wagon paths, perhaps the ghost of a cabin foundation, and an old galvanized bucket or two.  One would stumble upon such places lost in the deep woods.  The galvanized bucket, used to haul water from a more or less distant spring, had been built to resist rust.  So here were archaeological sites not a quarter-century old.  The vehemence with which an uncontested forest reasserts itself is awesome.  I could easily understand how great temples could be lost for centuries in the jungles of the Yucatan.
            The sizeable tracts of cultivated and wooded land owned by Princeton University are ever shrinking as the institution expands inexorably to the south.  Wild areas in which I used to knock about with my young children have now been enclosed by chain-link fences to protect manicured soccer fields and a vast solar farm.  But this Ivy League institution still dedicates at least a quarter section of land to agricultural use, the cultivation of feed corn and soybeans, undoubtedly exploiting some tax boondoggle dreamed up with other beneficiaries in mind by the Iowa congressional delegation.  Amid these acres is an old cemetery, enclosed within a square of stone wall.  For many years it was a de facto poison ivy farm and so derelict that the gravestones were mostly covered in roots, vines, and tree sprouts.  When I first chanced upon it about forty years ago, it was barely visible.  Under three successive Princeton administrations I lobbied to have this burial ground reclaimed and tended; but most administrators didn’t even know it existed, and the matter was neither curricular nor linked to an obvious fund-raising possibility.   My eccentric pleas fell on deaf ears.

            I had not been in those remote parts for at least five years, but in my berry-gathering mania (reported last week) I was there a few days ago.  To my delight, I discovered that the burial ground has recently been cleaned out and spruced up.  The only serious vegetation still there is entirely fitting: a sacred grove of three handsome oaks.  As many headstones as could be rescued have been cleared and re-erected. 

            I congratulated the Director of Buildings and Grounds on a work of beautification that was also an act of piety.  Now I needed some serious historical information, and I knew where to turn: to Wanda Gunning, a fellow parishioner, a civic leader, and the dean of local historians.  She knew the place well, identifying it as “the Schenck-Covenhoven Burial Grounds”, and gave me the crucial bibliographical reference.*
Schenck Corner

            The Schencks and the Covenhovens were two prominent related Dutch colonial families who in the early part of the eighteenth century moved from their farms on Long Island to central Jersey, where they had bought from the heirs of William Penn a modest tract of 6500 acres.  Owning all of Pennsylvania was apparently insufficient for Penn.  He had diversified.  (The nearby swath of land along Route 1, the original and mainly unpleasant superhighway that disfigures our landscape for 2369 miles from the Canadian border to Key West, is still called “Penn’s Neck”.)  The cemetery was established at a point where the two family properties came together.  The first known burial was in 1746, the last as recent as 1941.  The grounds were enclosed by a handsome stone wall in 1876.  Throughout our country proud citizens marked the national Centenary with similar restoration projects.
"She stood in tears amid the alien corn…"

            In general the Dutch Reformed pioneers of New York and New Jersey seem to have paid special heed to the injunction of Genesis 1:28: Be fruitful and multiply.   Both the Schencks and the Covenhovens (also spelled Couvenhoven, Kovenhowen, etc.) were very numerous, and their names are widely spread upon the annals of New Jersey colonial history.  Both Schencks and Covenhovens distinguished themselves in the War of Independence.  One of the many John Covenhovens was a colorful patriot partisan.  He fought with the “regulars” under Washington at the battles of Trenton and Princeton, but spent most of the war engaged in the entrepreneurial (and often nasty) guerrilla activities that typified the conflict between revolutionaries and loyalists along the Jersey seabord.  He was one of the drafters of the long memorandum sent to Washington detailing the Tory lynching of Joshua Huddy, the captured American officer who had been in charge of defending the blockhouse at Tom’s River.  Legend has it that as Covenhoven was actually being married to Mercy Kelsey in February, 1778, Hessian troops searching for him invaded the church and disrupted the ceremony.  The swashbuckling ranger escaped via a window, and was able to reclaim his startled bride only several hours later when the soldiers had moved on.  Whether according to Calvinist theology they were validly married I cannot say, but they escaped successfully across the Delaware into Pennsylvania, where they increased and multiplied with the best of them.

*The Genealogical Magazine of New Jersey, 57 (1982): 22-25.