In 1764, the epicenter of colonial Philadelphia was a few block radius of 2nd and High (Market) Streets where Christ Church and First Presbyterian Church were located. As Philadelphia grew, both churches complained of more people attending than owned pews. Most new attendees lived or worked in a developing area south of Walnut Street known as Southwark. Houses were being built “here and there” by a growing number of carpenters, bricklayers and tradesmen. In a short time, streets became lined with row houses. Residents, on a Sabbath day, had to traverse unpaved streets to trek uptown to attend church. If it rained, dirt quickly became mud and Sunday finery became soiled.
Christ Church was first to identify and take remedial action to address overcrowding. They petitioned and received a land grant at 3rd and Pine Streets from Thomas & Richard Penn, proprietors of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Result: St. Peters opened for worship Sept. 4, 1761. Not to be outdone, clergy of First Presbyterian Church sent a petitioner in June 1762 to the Penn brothers requesting a similar land gift. Two years passed before the proprietors, on Oct. 19, 1764, donated a 104 x 174 lot at 4th & Pine Streets to seven men of the “old Presbyterian Meeting House” on the south side of High Street for laying out a burial ground and erecting a 3rd Church for use of the Society of Presbyterians forever.
Due to financial limitations, use of the land gift was prioritized: laying out and establishing a new burial ground required no capital outlay; building a new 3rd Church required substantial planning and fundraising by subscription. By December 1764, the graveyard with 637 numbered plots was in business. From the very beginning, First Church pew holders shared rights of burial with Third Church members attending First Church.
Burials commenced on the east side in 1764 as soon as a grid plan was drawn up. Each plot in the 14 rows permitted 3 stacked burials at 9, 6- and 3-foot depths. Two more rows were added on the west side of the building after the church opened in 1768. By 1782, available grave space was limited. To complicate matters, the convivial relationship with the First and Second Presbyterian churches cooled when the Third hired it first minister, Rev. George Duffield.
A “land grab” to expand the graveyard ensued. Third Church purchased a narrow parcel the length of its southern boundary. First Church bought the large lot adjacent to and west of the Third Church property. First Church, however, restricted burials to their members only. Both the burial grounds were united as one by a 1980’s ruling of the Philadelphia Presbytery.
Closed by mid-19th c., the graveyard is the resting place for a diverse population: artisans, craftsmen, elected officials, sea captains, merchants, doctors, lawyers, and members of Provincial Councils, State and Continental Congresses. The listing of 1793, 1794 and 1798 Yellow Fever victims is lengthy. Over 235 men of the 672 Third Church members who served (and counting!) in the Revolution are buried here…each grave marked with a 13 star flag.
Noteworthy people include: a signer of the U. S. Constitution; a captain of the First City Troop; Federal and State attorneys general; sexton/official bell ringer of the State House; Philadelphia’s oldest citizen (age 122); and a man who died, age 108, in 1792 leaving 121 living descendants. Also two notable 18th c. women: one a playmate of George III’s children, who also became the War of 1812 Keeper of Philadelphia’s powder magazine when her husband died; the other whose business became the official printer of legal forms in Philadelphia for over 50 years. We are discovering and documenting history daily.