May 5, 2014

Northampton Native Breathes New Life into Horner Cemetery

  • By: Steven Piccione
Credit: Kelly Schindler/National Trust for Historic Preservation
To this day, descendants of the Horner family return to the cemetery to view the tombstones of their ancestors.

An hour drive’s north of Philadelphia lies Northampton, Pa., a town in an area rich with coal mines and even richer in American history. Its story starts well before the American Revolution, as a frontier settlement of Scottish and Irish immigrants who fled from religious persecution and famine, only to clash with the native Lenape tribe.

While the newly settled community struggled to establish itself in the New World, a woman by the name of Jane Horner was struck in the head by a tomahawk (as the story goes), becoming the first woman killed during the French and Indian War, as well as the namesake for Horner Cemetery.

Nearly invisible from Route 329, Horner Cemetery spreads across a quarter acre of land situated behind a local Presbyterian church. Unkempt, overgrown, and neglected for decades, it was easy to miss. That is, until 2009, when Peggy Moser -- Northampton County born and raised -- took it upon herself to breathe new life into the oldest cemetery in this part of Pennsylvania.

Credit: Kelly Schindler/National Trust for Historic Preservation
Although Jane Horner is the namesake of the cemetery, a man named James King is the oldest laid to rest here. He died in 1745, making Horner Cemetery the oldest in Northampton County.

A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Moser received an email one day in 2008 from a fellow member asking her to go to the cemetery to take a photograph of her patriot’s tombstone. Seeing the dilapidated state of the cemetery made Moser nauseous. From that point on, she was determined to revitalize the cemetery.

Since 2009, Moser and a group of volunteers -- who are part of a county-sanctioned community service program for first-time DUI offenses -- have worked every Saturday from April to October, finding and repairing tombstones and caring for the grounds.

Broken and unidentified tombstones, dead trees, sinkholes, overgrown grass -- there is a lot of ground to cover, even for a plot of land smaller than a football field.

"Clean-up was the first part. It was like a jungle," Moser says. "We had stuff growing in from outside and covering the first row of the cemetery. We had bush piles like you wouldn’t believe."

Credit: Kelly Schindler/National Trust for Historic Preservation
Recently, a woman who owns part of the surrounding forest gave the group permission to search her grounds for tombstones.

To further her efforts, Moser founded Horner Cemetery Historical Society in 2011, where she also serves as president.

"I started getting some interest in possibly forming a historical society, and I was contacted by some members of the decedents of those in the cemetery," Moser says. "So our board right now is seven people strong. Three or four out of the seven have family descendants right there."

Recording history -- not to mention occasionally finding a body -- is the renovation's focus, but it hardly comes without struggle.

"There wasn’t any chart of any kind to follow, there’s nothing that would tell us who’s buried where," she says. "We have a list of approximately 250 people, but we only have about 125 [tombstones]."

The current economic climate has prevented local schools from taking field trips to Horner Cemetery to learn about their county's history.

Even with only half of those laid to rest in Horner identified, Moser's group now knows there are four generals, seven esquires, three ministers, a few doctors, and 21 veterans from four wars. (Fifteen of those veterans are from the American Revolution alone.) The oldest resident of Horner Cemetery is James King, who died in 1745.

To bring more attention to the renovation efforts, Moser’s historical society held an open house in October 2013, which attracted more than 50 people.

Although Horner Cemetery Historical Society is gaining more attention, Moser recognizes that there is still room to grow if the cemetery is to be fully revitalized.

"We’re still struggling to get started. For most of the part, I still work with the guys every Saturday," Moser says. "I would hope that this society would grow and help us find grant money, because so far we’ve been doing everything with our own money."

Credit: Kelly Schindler/National Trust for Historic Preservation
Moser has traveled to libraries in Philadelphia to try to match names to tombstones she finds in hopes of identifying more of those who are laid to rest in the cemetery.

However, the true reason Moser is determined to bring life to the cemetery and know the stories of those laid to rest is not just to preserve the plot of land and honor the ancestors of her community, but to keep intact the crucially important historical narrative of Northampton County.

"That’s what floored me the most when I was doing research in the library. Just knowing so much about the people. Why doesn’t anybody know about this? We've got to get it out there," Moser says. "A lot of people think, ‘Oh taking care of a cemetery is a lot of work. I don’t want to get involved.’ But actually, it’s very gratifying. It’s just amazing to find literature that goes back that far with accounts that go back that far. Not every place has that luxury."

Correction: A previous version of this article claimed that James King, the oldest person laid to rest in Horner Cemetery, died in the French and Indian War. He did not. He died in 1745, nine years before the outbreak of the war.

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