skip to Main Content

Graves of Our Founders: A Call to Action

Graves of Our Founders: A Call to Action

Chase headstones.

By Joe Farrell, Joe Farley & Lawrence Knorr
SAR Magazine
Winter 2018, Vol. 112, No. 3, p. 15ff.

“Poor is the nation having no heroes; shameful the one that having them, forgets.”

We came upon this expression when working on our Keystone Tombstones–Civil War Edition in 2013 and used it in the book’s introduction. We have
visited many graves over the past years as we wrote and released 10 volumes of Keystone Tombstones and two volumes of Gotham Graves, all published by Sunbury Press, Inc. We started in Pennsylvania, visiting the graves of famous or noteworthy people. We typically take pictures of the gravesites and then write a biography including
interesting or lesser-known stories about the individuals. More recently, we branched into New York City with the latter series. Two of our favorites to talk about in our many appearances are Ben Franklin, who is buried in Philadelphia, and Alexander Hamilton, who is buried in Manhattan. Both men are appropriately memorialized with well-maintained, popular gravesites.

As we finished our most recent book, Gotham Graves — Volume Two, we had the idea of doing a similar book or books covering our nation’s Founding Fathers. Visiting their graves and writing short biographies seemed like an exciting project, especially with our country’s 250th birthday approaching. Our initial debate was about the scope, given the dispersal of the gravesites and the potential number of subjects. Should we include only signers of the Declaration of Independence or Constitution? What about the generals? What about other contributors to the Revolution? While our list is still in flux, we have, for now, settled on signers of either the Continental Association, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation or the Constitution, plus other famous or noteworthy Patriots. To date, we have listed more than 200 and have personally visited about one- third of the sites.

Near Morton’s resting place

So far, we have made trips covering New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Georgia, Virginia and the District of Columbia, visiting and photographing graves of our founders. These field trips have been exciting and rewarding in many cases, but also shocking and shameful in others. We have found Patriots in bucolic country cemeteries and gritty urban settings. We have found great well-maintained monuments, and others overgrown, weedy, disheveled and broken. We have found Patriots under the floors of churches and under parking lots. We have found them on great plantations and in the middle of soybean fields. While many of our founders’ graves are known, many are also uncertain, lost or forgotten. In fact, there are even some missing bodies!

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton, Caesar Rodney (assuming he’s actually buried there!) and Button Gwinnett all have fitting, well-maintained and accessible graves. (We were a little surprised, however, that a visit to Jefferson’s grave cost $25, though we managed to talk our way into free tickets—we did not have time to tour all of Monticello.) Unfortunately, these are the exceptions rather than the rule. We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the past efforts of the Daughters and the Sons of the American Revolution in honoring most of the 200-plus sites we are visiting. We have come upon many plaques donated by a DAR or an SAR chapter in honor of a Patriot, some from 1926 and others from 1976. In many cases, these plaques are the only legible markers. The typical gravesite is a weather-beaten stone of modest size, with some brief mention of the inhabitant’s role in the founding of our country, often placed there by the DAR or SAR. All too often we encountered shocking neglect.

Declaration of Independence signer Samuel Chase is one of the shameful situations. His grave is in Old St. Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore, which is marked as a National Historic Site. With much effort, we were able to speak with a caretaker on the phone, who gave us the code to the lockbox so we could let ourselves in. We found the grounds overgrown with poison ivy and weeds, and badly neglected. Chase’s stone was found among the weeds, with no additional markings. A plaque on the exterior wall of the cemetery, which is along a side street next to a busy hospital, states that Francis Scott Key, Col. George Armistead, Samuel Chase, Col. John Eager Howard, Col. Tench Tilghman, Lt. Griffith Evans, Maj. Richard Heath, Gen. Robert Ross and many more are buried there. Gen. Lewis Armistead, CSA, has a separate plaque honoring him. How can such a historic cemetery with so many important graves be left to ruin? Does it even mean anything to be listed as a National Historic Site? It should be noted that Francis Scott Key was moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland in 1866, and Tench Tilghman was moved moved to a new cemetery at Fremont and Lombard streets in 1804, and then, due to vandalism, moved Talbot County in 1971.

Another prominent signer, John Morton, lies in a neglected, overgrown site among decaying, crumbling graves in what is known as St. Paul’s Burying Ground in Chester, Pennsylvania. This little plot is near a run-down neighborhood and an industrial area. While some effort had been made to memorialize Morton, this was some time ago and has not been well-maintained. The other graves at the site were overgrown and many stones were broken.

In Trenton, New Jersey, we found the grave of George Clymer, one of only six men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. A tiny stone on the edge of a parking lot behind the Quaker meetinghouse is how he’s memorialized. While the architecture of the building was interesting, the graves in the back seemed to be an afterthought, despite the ongoing operation of the meetinghouse.

Also in Trenton is the grave of David Brearley, who fought in the Revolution, was arrested and charged with treason, and was one of 39 men to sign his name to the Constitution. It is hard to describe his grave situation. He lies in an old, run-down churchyard in a decaying Trenton neighborhood. His grave can only be accessed by going through the church. The church was closed and locked when we were there on a weekday afternoon, and we gained entrance only after we banged on a service door and made contact with a woman who was cleaning the church. She nervously allowed us to take a picture, and we quickly left.

Rufus King, another Constitution signer and a man who played a major role in crafting the final document, lies in Grace Episcopal Churchyard in Jamaica, New York. His stone is weathered, and one can barely make out his name. His many contributions to our country go unrecorded at his gravesite. Just a block or two away, King Manor, once a rural plantation, now stands in a small park in an urban setting, open as a museum. It is a shame his grave has not been moved to this more attractive spot.

Rich Henry Lee lies amidst an overrun field.

Neglect and decay weren’t the only problems we encountered. Many of the graves of our Founding Fathers are on private property and are inaccessible. Declaration of Independence signers William Paca and Francis Lightfoot Lee of Virginia fall into this category. So, too, does John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States. We tried to visit Paca’s grave on an estate on Maryland’s eastern shore. Unfortunately, we could not find a way to gain entrance. Lee’s grave is on the Mt. Airy Plantation, which was open to the public in the past, but is now overgrown and run-down. It appears no one is maintaining the grounds. Jay’s tomb is within a private graveyard, which is open to the public only on special
occasions. Francis Lightfoot Lee’s famous brother, Richard Henry Lee, who provided the motion for the vote for independence, is buried in a soybean field in rural Virginia, near where his plantation burned down many years ago. While the grave is well-maintained, it is extremely hard to reach.

Declaration signer Carter Braxton of Virginia apparently has no grave. It seems that when his family’s graves were moved from the family cemetery in Chericoke to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, his remains could not be found. We also could not locate the grave of Daniel of Saint Thomas Jenifer, who is reportedly buried near Port Tobacco, Maryland. He was a Constitution signer, a close friend of Benjamin Franklin and a member of the Continental Congress. We spent considerable time and made inquiries of locals, but could not find his grave or any mention of him.

Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania served in both Continental Congresses and as its president, and was Pennsylvania’s first governor as well as a signer of the Constitution. He died in debt and was buried at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at state expense. When the church cemetery was abolished and the graves relocated, Mifflin’s remained. All there is to commemorate him is a small plate erected by the DAR on the exterior of the church. The exact location of his remains is unclear, but it appears they may be under a macadam parking lot.

After seeing about a third of these graves, we have come up with a rating system to evaluate the condition, location, accessibility and information associated with them. We will soon publish these findings and photographs on our upcoming website, www. We hope to call attention to those Founding Fathers’ graves that are weather-beaten and difficult to read or are in obscure, hard-to-find or hard-to-reach locations. Many, we feel, are undermemorialized, given their role in our history. We understand that each grave situation is unique, on land either privately owned or owned by government organizations. We also appreciate that different organizations have made investments in the past to better recognize these Patriots. While much of that work is still bearing fruit, much remains to be done! Hopefully, we can help rally local support to take on some of these situations.

Another idea we have been tossing around is the possible relocation of some of these neglected graves, or those on private property, to what we call a Founders
Garden. We first thought a good location would be Independence Hall or Arlington National Cemetery or even Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. More
recently, we thought multiple regional sites might be more appealing: perhaps Boston, Philadelphia, Virginia and Charleston. In any event, we think many of these graves should either be restored or relocated for our country’s
250th birthday in 2026. The idea of a corporation or organization adopting a grave or graves and funding the action has also been discussed and seems like a viable idea. Congress recently formed a Semiquincentennial Commission to plan our country’s 250th birthday celebration. Assuring proper memorialization of our heroes would make a nice and lasting gift to our nation.
Over the next couple of years, we will continue traveling, speaking and writing about what we find, to increase awareness of the condition of these graves. We think there will likely be three books in the Graves of Our Founders series. We hope to update you with our findings in future editions of this magazine.

On the Authors

Joe Farrell and Joe Farley, also known as “The Joes,” are the authors or co-authors of 16 books, with more on the way, all published by Sunbury Press. They are available for talks to organizations. If you are interested in inviting them to speak to your organization, please contact Compatriot Lawrence Knorr (#152547–Harris Ferry Chapter) owns Sunbury Press, and is the author or co-author of 17 books, including several with The Joes. Knoor has also functioned as The Joes’ navigator and photographer.

Massachusetts Society, Post Office Box 890235, Weymouth, MA 02189-0004, (508) 229-1776
© 2016-2023 All Rights Reserved

Back To Top