The Oldest Gravestone

William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 4, No. 3, Jan. 1896
p. 195-197


"Error wounded writhes in pain, and dies among its worshippers,"
But error sometimes takes a long time to die. One Thomas Hurd
"correctly copied," in October, 1837, an inscription (purporting
to be two hundred and twenty-nine years old), on a tombstone of
usual size standing on the banks of the Neabsco Creek, in Prince
William county, Va. Mr. Charles Campbell gave currency to his
statement by publishing it in the Southern Literary Messenger
for October, 1843, p. 591. In 1890, Mr. Alexander Brown repeated
Mr. Campbell's language in his great work, the Genesis of the
United States. He numbered it Document XLV., but said, "I give
this without comment, as I find it." (See Brown, Vol. I., page
150.) It is true that the authenticity of the date claimed, 1608,
had been denied in the newspapers.

Determined to get at the truth of the matter, the Editor, in
company with Mr. R. L. Traylor, of Richmond, went up to Freestone
depot, on the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad, and walked over to
the tombstone, near Neabsco Mills, some three miles distant.
We found it without difficulty, and took a full-size tracing.
The stone was doubtless covered with moss when Thomas Hurd
visited it, and the letters were probably obscured. But the
proprietor of the land had considerately in late years provided
the tomb with a shelter from the weather, and the inscription
was deciphered without difficulty. There is no doubt that what
was taken for 1608 was 1698! The accompanying illustration is
nearly a fac simile.


An examination of the Patent Books in Richmond shows a grant
to William Harris, 30th May, 1679, of 1600 acres in Stafford
county, "beginning at a white oak standing by an Indian Path
which divides this land & ye Land of Mr Nathaniel Barton at ye
head of Niapsco Breek and ye Maine Runn thereof, from thence
along ye Ridge Path S. E. by E. 278 perches, thenc N. NE. ye
Maine Runn of the Niapsco Creek 140 perches, thence parallel to
ye said Ridge & Maine Runn to Mr Robert King's corner oak," etc.
On Feb 26, 1690-'91, William Harris and Lewis Markham got a
confirmation of this grant from Philip Ludwell, agent for the
proprietors of the Northern Neck. On the 29th of August, 1691,
William Harris received a grant for 383 acres on Chappawansic

The tombstone of William Herris lies at a place "at the head
of Niapsco Creek and the Maine Run," and he is undoubtedly
the William Harris of the Land Patents, who was probably an
officer in the regiment of Col. Herbert Jeffryes, sent over
to subdue Bacon's Rebellion. In those days the vowel "e" was
pronounced "a."

The oldest tombstone known to be in existence is that at
Westover, lying between the tombstones of Theodorick Bland
and Lt. Col. Walter Aston. Mr. Campbell made out the inscription
to be that of Capt. William Perry, one of the council of
Virginia, who died August 6, 1637. The stone is now worn smooth.

The oldest tombstone in Virginia that bears an intelligible
inscription is that of Mrs. Alice Jordan, in the old burial place
at "Four Mile Tree," in Surry County. It runs as follows:

Here Lyeth Buried The Body of
Alice Myles daughter of
John Myles of Branton neare
Herreford Gent and late wife
of Mr. George Jordan in Virginia who
Departed this Life the 7th of January 1650.
Reader, her dust is here Inclosed
who was of witt and grace composed
Her life was Vertuous during breath
But highly Glorious in her death.

The next oldest tombstone is that of Major William Gooch
at "Temple Farm," where Lord Cornwallis surrendered, 1781:
Major William Gooch of T(his)
Dyed Oct. 29 1655
Within this tomb there doth enterred
No shape but substance true [nobility]
Itself though young in years just t[wenty]
Yet graced with vertues morall and [divine]
The church from him did good partici[pate]
In counsell rare fitt to adorn a S[tate]

©2007 - 2008 Alice Warner


Fairfax County, Virginia