EDITOR'S NOTE: Doug Perks, a retired history teacher and Shepherdstown resident who serves as the historian at the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town, is a contributor to the Spirit of Jefferson.
There are a number of similarities between the two men who established early settlements in what is today Jefferson County. Both Thomas Shepherd and Robert Harper immigrated to the Lower Shenandoah Valley—Shepherd from western Maryland and Harper from Pennsylvania.
Because of the importance of waterpower, both Shepherd and Harper settled along the Cohongoronto River, today the Potomac. Both built water-powered grist mills—Shepherd along Town Run and Harper on the Shenandoah. In March 1761, Harper received permission from the Virginia General Assembly to operate a public ferry crossing the “Potowmack river” from his land in Frederick (today Jefferson) County to land that he owned in Maryland. Four years later, Shepherd was authorized to operate a ferry across the “Potowmack river” from Mecklenburg, today Shepherdstown, to his land in Maryland.
Harper’s ferry continued in operation into the 1820s when it was replaced by a toll bridge. Shepherd’s ferry was short-lived because for the previous 10 years Thomas Swearingen had operated a ferry nearby. When Shepherd’s ferry got the OK, Swearingen protested due to the proximity of the two conveyances, and the General Assembly agreed with Swearingen. Shepherd’s ferry was deemed “unnecessary,” and the establishing act was repealed. Among these similarities, however, there is at least one difference.
Although there is a Shepherd Burial Ground located on Lot #115 in Shepherdstown, it was not set aside as a graveyard by Thomas Shepherd in his will. On the other hand, in his will dated Oct. 1, 1782, Robert Harper provided that “it is further my last will, that four acres of land, most convenient around my graveyard, shall be laid off by my executers, and be entirely appropriated to the use of a graveyard.”
The plot set aside by Harper is on the rise above his house nestled along the brow of Camp Hill, which affords a commanding view of the Harpers Ferry Gap.
One year after Harper’s death, Thomas Jefferson spent some time where the Shenandoah meets the Potomac. If he had visited Harper’s grave, he would have most certainly said, “The view from here is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”
According to S. Howell Brown’s 1869 Map of Harpers Ferry, “Harper Grave Yard” was divided in half by York Street. However, just as today, it appears that York Street was never intended to provide public access to the cemetery and was just a “paper street” which only existed on the plat of the town. The first or oldest interments were made in the section of the cemetery east of York Street, probably starting near the stone wall which marked the cemetery’s east boundary. Harper was buried in this section, and his grave, approximately 150 feet from the stone wall, is almost directly in line with Harper’s House on Public Way. As more folks were buried, Harper Cemetery gradually expanded up the hillside in the direction of the Lockwood House.
When Robert Harper died, his land in Virginia passed to a niece and a nephew, Sarah Harper and Robert Griffith. Griffith sold all his portion to local investors William Darke, Thomas Rutherford and Thomas Rutherford Jr.
Sarah married John Wager, who sold all of the land she inherited to the United States holding on to a six-acre plot and the ferry landing which was called the Ferry Tract. The Ferry Tract became the commercial heart of Harpers Ferry and the land along the Potomac became the location for the U.S. gun factory.
Several Wager children and grandchildren made their home in Harpers Ferry, and a number died here and were buried in Harper Cemetery. They selected a plot near their ancestor, Robert Harper, and had a stone wall built which surrounded both Harper and all of the Wagers buried in the family plot.
In 1894, Major General Wager Swayne, son of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Noah Haynes Swayne and a grand-nephew of Robert Harper, erected a “tombstone over the remains of Robert Harper, the founder of Harper’s Ferry.”
Swayne, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, employed brothers Albert and Louis Diehl who owned the Charlestown Marble & Granite Works to make the monument with this inscription: “In Memory Of Robert Harper. The Founder of Harper’s Ferry. Born 1718 Oxford, England. Died October 2, 1782. This stone is erected by his Great Nephew Wager Swayne.” Placing the tombstone was a good deed, but it created a bit of misinformation. “Born 1718 Oxford, England” is only half correct. The Oxford is correct, but it was Oxford Township in Adams County, Pennsylvania, not Oxford, England.
In researching this article, I was surprised when nothing related to Harper Cemetery turned up in local newspapers after the Civil War. Just as today, 19th-century obituaries always mentioned where the person was to be interred, and I was fairly certain that at least one person had been buried in Harper Cemetery in post-Civil War era. Closer inspection of the obituaries in the Spirit of Jefferson solved the mystery. It seems that for a period Harper Cemetery was often called “the old Cemetery on Camp Hill.” An example of this appeared in an announcement in the Spirit of Jefferson in the spring of 1883 when a committee of women announced a fundraiser.
Comprised of Sarah Cavalier, Jennie Chambers, Dorsey Erwin and Florence Kirwan, the women planned a “Dramatic and Musical Entertainment” to raise funds “to repair and beautify the old Cemetery, on Camp Hill, Harper’s Ferry.” Other examples were also found in obituaries. Washington Spangler died in Philadelphia in the fall of 1886, but his remains were “interred in Camp Hill Cemetery.” The next year “Mr. T. S. Smith and wife” spent the summer at the Lockwood House and while there visited Smith’s family “in the Camp Hill graveyard.” When Grace Arvin died in 1889 and John Marquette in 1896, both were buried in “Camp Hill Cemetery, Harper’s Ferry.”
The closest that I got to a mention of Harper Cemetery was the obituary of the Reverend Dr. Nathan Cook Brackett, founder of Storer College, who died in 1910. His death notice in the Shepherdstown Register reported that his “body was interred in the old Harper graveyard.”
Since the late 19th century, Harper Cemetery has been under the care of a volunteer Board of Trustees. Current officers are Anne Newcomer Dungan, President; Lynn Vaughn, Secretary; and Gary Dungan, treasurer. Cemetery Trustees are Shirley Caniford, Hardwick Smith Johnson, Tom Newcomer and Gregory Vaughn. These men and women are responsible for the upkeep of the cemetery’s grounds, which includes never-ending repair and replacement of broken, fallen and missing headstones.
There are several recent projects which illustrate the on-going preservation mission. On Memorial Day 2016, two volunteers, Hardy Johnson and Greg Vaughn were restoring headstones in Harper Cemetery. Vaughn discovered what he thought “was a rock sticking up out of the ground.” When fully uncovered, the rock turned out to be a headstone, broken into several pieces, which was inscribed “William Broadus. Culpeper, Va. Major in the American Army during the Revolutionary War. Died Harper’s Ferry, Va.”
Vaughn was quoted as saying, “We want to do a little bit to give this soldier dignity for his service,” and that’s just what he did.
The first step was to find someone to restore the headstone, and Vaughn found the Mosko Cemetery Monument Repair company in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Robert Mosko, the firm’s founder and owner, signed a contract in September 2016 to restore the headstone and when finished reset it in Harper Cemetery. Mosko estimated that work would be complete by November 2016. Funding for the project was provided by the Adam Stephen Chapter Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) and the George Washington Chapter SAR.
Work was completed on schedule, and on Saturday, April 29, 2017, the headstone was re-dedicated, and Broadus’ service during the American Revolution was acknowledged by several officials.
There is an interesting sidebar to the story of Broadus’ headstone. I mentioned that in 1894 General Wager Swayne, Robert Harper’s great nephew, had placed a new headstone over Harper’s grave. In the same Spirit of Jefferson article, the last sentence reads, “Messrs. Diehl also erected at the same place, at the same time, a stone to the memory of Maj. William Broadus, an officer in the revolutionary war, and father of Miss Lavinia Broadus, of this place.” So, it appears likely that the broken headstone discovered by Johnson and Vaughn was erected over a century ago by a descendent of the Harper family.
In the 1870s cemetery trustees installed a wrought iron bar picket fence along the cemetery’s northern border on Fillmore Street. The fence began where the cemetery property abutted the park service boundary on the west and ran eastward for approximately 280 feet connecting with the cemetery’s arched gated entrance. Periodic repairs had kept the fence upright, but after 150 years of service, the cemetery board reported that “all sections of the fence are either bowed out, bowed in, sunken or elevated,” and it was time for a complete restoration.
In 2017 the trustees contracted with a local company to complete the project. The estimated cost of $15,400 was secured by combining funds from the Helen Parker Willard Fund-Historic Cemetery Grant, a grant from the Corporation of Harpers Ferry, and monies received through the sale of cemetery lots. The restoration got underway, and by the fall of 2018 the old fence was back in place just in time for one more challenge.
During an early November 2018 snowstorm, a snowplow accidentally backed into and knocked down the iron-arched gateway to Harper Cemetery. Presumably erected at the same time the fence was built, an old photograph of the gateway showed that the iron arch, clearly showing the name “HARPER CEMETERY,” was originally supported by cast iron posts, which were later replaced by brick posts.
Cemetery trustees decided to restore the gateway to its original appearance and contracted with Anvil Works to complete the project. After researching examples of 19th-century cemetery gateways, the craftsmen Lee Badger, Steve Dykstra and Zach Shoop completed the restoration and had the gateway back in place by May 2021.
The local Odd Fellows Lodge, Virginia No. 1, whose hall is located west of the cemetery on Fillmore Street, may have participated at a dedication when the fence was installed in the 1870s. The old photograph shows the Odd Fellows Encampment symbol at the top of the iron arch, bracketed on both sides by the letters “F,” “L” and “T,” which represented Friendship, Love and Truth, each letter inside one chain link. Those symbols had been removed at some point and were reproduced and replaced by Anvil Works.
The never-ending work of maintaining a historic cemetery is a critical piece of preserving local history. Touring a historic building and standing in the spot where history happened is only enhanced when you can visit the graves of the men and women who were a part of the story. The fact that the Trustees of Harper Cemetery, and the host of volunteers entrusted with the care of other cemeteries, devote so much time and effort to the maintenance of those hallowed grounds is proof positive about the community’s commitment to protecting and preserving its history.
It is important to memorialize the efforts of men like William Broadus, who fought for our nation’s freedom, and Robert Harper, who carved out a village on the Virginia frontier. Folks who come to Harpers Ferry to learn more about John Brown can find George Washington Cutshaw, Brown’s first hostage, buried in Harper Cemetery. Those interested in the Civil War can visit the graves of soldiers who fought for both sides at rest in the Old Cemetery on Camp Hill.
Storer College played a major role in the post-Civil War revival of Harpers Ferry, and Storer’s first president, Nathan Cook Brackett, and his wife Louise Wood Brackett, were both interred there. Harper Cemetery is the final resting place for many of the men who served Harpers Ferry as mayor. Whether called Harper’s Grave Yard, the Camp Hill Cemetery or Harper Cemetery, the list of names of memorable men and women buried in Harper Cemetery goes on and on, just as does the work to keep the historic grounds shipshape.
If you would like to contribute to the care of Harper Cemetery, send your tax-deductible donation to: Friends of Harper Cemetery, Inc., Post Office Box 106, Harpers Ferry WV 25425