Constructed in the 1740s, St. John’s Church was built on what was then known as Indian Town Hill (now Church Hill) on an acre of land donated by William Byrd II of Westover Plantation. Needs of the vestry resulted in several expansions of the original 60-by-25 foot building: a 40-by-40 foot addition in 1772, a north addition in the 1830s, and a south addition in 1905.
At some early point in its history, the church grounds began to serve as a burial location for the congregants. In 1799 Richmond municipal officials purchased two lots bordering Broad Street and adjacent the St. John’s property to provide a public cemetery. The city also paid for a brick wall to enclose the entire area bordered by Broad, Grace, Twenty-forth, and Twenty-fifth Streets. By about 1820, the “whole square had now been filled with graves,” and church officials raised concerns about further burials. St. John’s was the only public cemetery until Richmond opened Shockoe Cemetery in 1826.
The exact number of interments at St. John’s is (and likely always will be) unknown but is estimated at about 1,400 and may exceed that number. Several factors hinder burial quantification and identification. Over its nearly three-century history, the church’s fortunes have fluctuated—conditions declined in the 1830s such that some families moved the remains of their loved ones to other cemeteries. Many if not most of the original markers are no longer extant, and those that do exist are often difficult to read due to weathering, the impact of military operations, vandalism, and other factors. In many cases, the location of a marker does not represent the actual burial site. In addition, the various expansions of the church and construction of subordinate buildings referred to above have been built over existing grave sites.
About 400 gravestones remain above ground at St. John’s. Many of these are weathered and worn and in need of repair to preserve them for future generations. Conservationists estimate that 117 are in critical condition; another 107 are considered second level priority. The grave markers are vulnerable to environmental elements. Acid rain, pollution, and bird droppings cause continuous deterioration to fragile stone materials.
These stones have a story to tell. As the first public cemetery in Richmond, our inhabitants represent a core of early settlers to the colony of Virginia and the first citizens of a new country. Many were born in England, Scotland, and Ireland; France and Spain are also represented. Heroes of the Revolution and the War of 1812 lie in our cemetery as do a great many children and infants. Some have incredible biographies; some will be unknown to us forever. Together they are part of the story of early Virginia, Richmond, and the nation, and their stories— be they celebrated or long forgotten— flesh out the story of life (and death) in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In order to hear their stories, we must preserve their history.
We have started several important ongoing projects in order to preserve and learn more about our graveyard.
In 2017 we launched an Adopt-A-Grave Program to preserve as many of the remaining stones as possible. We have eleven markers adopted and preserved and more coming in spring 2019.
GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar)
In 2018 we undertook an exciting GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) Project to try to decipher a little more of what lies underneath our feet. We will continue to do more sections of the graveyard as time and money permits.
We are just beginning to understand what remains. Join us in our mission to preserve these valuable grave markers and assess Richmond’s first cemetery. Through repair and restoration coupled with research provided by the church archives, our staff and volunteers, we continue to develop this exciting part of our story.
There are several different kinds of gravestones on site. We have a plethora of "table top" markers, designed to protect graves from wild animals when the hill was an open field. Table tops also have a lot more room to laud the deceased!
Head and foot stones
There are also headstones, some with foot stones. The foot stone may simply mark the foot of a grave, but more often provide additional information about the interred decedent. A foot stone usually contains the initials of the person whose grave it marks.
A large tower indicates the importance of the deceased, and is an Egyptian motif. Obelisks were associated with greatness and were considered patriotic. They also symbolize eternal life.