Pennsylvania doesn’t treasure it’s cemeteries. Pennsylvanians do; but the laws haven’t.
Cemeteries have been bulldozed under, sold with land for development and plowed to plant more crops. Country roads have encroached in cemeteries and it is not unusual to travel down a country road and see a small cemetery right up next to the pavement. An example of one is pictured below.
In one case, a large cemetery was turned into a parking lot after the “occupants” were removed and put in a mass grave! Headstones have been used for sidewalks and some have turned up in unusual places, such as the Delaware River in Philadelphia.
Many of the 18th century immigrants, Mennonites and other Pieitists, who settled in the County were farmers and as they established their farms, usually set aside a section for the family burial ground. As more came and cities grew out to meet the farms, many became part of those cities they once surrounded, and the family farms slowly disappeared. With the farms, the burial sites disappeared as well.
Such is the case of The Nissly Farm. It was located in what is now the heart of Lancaster. The land was patented in 1747, and following the usual custom, a piece of ground was set aside for a burial site. The original farm passed through several generations before it left the family. It was deeded first to Sebastian Graff from the grandson of the original owner and from Graff to George Ross and his wife.
According to an article by Byrnes published in Lancaster County Historical Society Journal, in 1930, the piece of land that George Ross and wife deeded to Jacob Long (Book QQ page 492 dated 12 March 1794) “Its exact location is fairly well determined by the description . . . the distance from Cherry Street to the West side of the alley leading to the Grave Yard, was 130 feet; and the distance from Lime Street to the East side of the alley was 165 feet. The width of the alley was not given. From Chestnut Street to the point of the South corner of the Grave Yard, along the east side of the alley, was 82 feet, 6 inches; and to a point on the Southwest line of the Grave Yard, along the West side of the alley, was 99 feet.” It would be in the area outlined in Green on the map below. The area outlined in Red is the Railroad Station and the Blue line is the railroad itself. The block at Aqua at the entrance of Lancaster Cemetery marks the corner of the Nissly land.
The deed from the Rosses to Long is the last time the burial spot is mentioned. Exactly where on the land this was, is unknown today. It is somewhere in vicinity of the blue line that cuts through the green area. That area is now covered with a building that was the Lancaster Police Station until several years ago.
Buried on the land, in addition to the early Nisslys, were the Conestoga Indians that were massacred at the Lancaster County Prison by the Paxtang Boys in 1763. The burial site, for that reason, was referred to in several documents as the “Indian Burial Ground.” Another name it was known by was the “Mennonist Burial Ground,” which is how it was described in the deed from the Rosses to Long.
The Railroad Station was at the SW corner of the property in the mid 1800’s. In 1836-37, when the Pennsylvania Railroad went through what was the Nissly parcel the land was excavated for the tracks. It is believed that the excavation by the Railroad obliterated what was the Nissly Graveyard. Many have researched this and none have found evidence of removal and/or relocation of the “occupants” of this particular burial ground. Whether they remain or have been relocated is unknown. The disposition of the remains of this burial site is unknown to this day.
The Lancaster Cemetery is a short block and a half away. It looks like it would have been an easy move, doesn’t it? Probably, if it had been there in the 1830’s. It was not even laid out until 1846, however.
. . . and the speculation continues. Where are those Indians and Nisslys?
- John Thomas Scharf, Thompson Westcott. History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884: L.H. Everts and co., Publishers, 1884, page 2359.
- Thomas H. Keels. Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries: Arcadia Publishing, 2003, page 115.
- Jacob Hill Byrne, Esq., The Old Graveyard Between Walnut, Chestnut, Lime and Cherry Streets, Lancaster: Lancaster County Historical Society Journal, Vol XXXIV, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1930, pages 25-30.
- William Frederic Worner, Grave Inscriptions of Lancaster County, Vol. 7: Lancaster County Historical Society, 1935, page 249.
- A. Hunter Rineer, Jr., Churches and Cemeteries of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, A Complete Guide: Lancaster County Historical Society, 1993, page 238.
- H.F. Bridgen, Bridgen’s 1864 Atlas of Lancaster Co, Penna: D.S. Bare, Lancaster, Pa, 1864, Reprinted by Elizabethtown Historical Society, Elizabethtown, PA, 2000, page 4.