Elizabeth and the Ogdens

As a result of genealogical research, I realized Elizabeth, New Jersey is closely tied to the history of Walton and the Ogden family. I had always wanted to explore that branch of my family tree so when the opportunity arose to visit, my husband and I decided to go. We had apprehension about traveling so close to New York City, but interest and curiosity overrode the misgivings.

We had been invited to attend a Wise Owl Workshop, presented by Lorna and Phil Wooldridge, a British couple whom we met at an Association For Gravestone Studies (AGS) workshop we attended in 2015, at the Snyder Academy Building in Elizabeth, adjacent to the First Presbyterian Church and cemetery. This school was attended by Alexander Hamilton, who often studied and had lunch on the cemetery grounds. The Wooldridges’ presentation was called “Gone But Not Forgotten;” it was great to see them and be among cemetery enthusiasts.

After the program we explored the cemetery.

This oldest graveyard in New Jersey, once very quiet, now has a multi-story parking garage behind it. The sounds of sirens, rap music and traffic reminded us we were in a modern, bustling city – yet somehow the cemetery seemed like an oasis of calm.

We were warmly greeted by the cemetery sexton, Tom, who told us the cemetery was once overgrown, vandalized and had many damaged stones. Thankfully, a professional conservator repaired and reset the stones properly.

The Ogdens migrated to the New World in 1640 from England and moved to Elizabethtown, as it was called, in 1665. A prominent family, they were among the area’s earliest settlers and founding fathers, entering such professions as law, religion, and politics. It was thrilling for both of us to see and touch these old stones. The majority of them were red sandstone, and many had death heads or winged faces, common iconography of the time. As was the custom, the dead were interred immediately behind the meeting house. As time went by, the church was added to, so the earliest graves now lie under the church. Such is the case of “John The Pilgrim,” my ninth greatgrandfather. Some of the “early slabs” were set in the church walls.

The church now has a robust and active Hispanic congregation. We were warmly greeted and invited in. Although the service was in Spanish we could feel the dedication and faith. The program featured much singing and rejoicing and participation from young people.

According to the Elizabeth, New Jersey Historical Society web page: “Less than 50 years after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth and 20 years before Philadelphia was settled by the Quakers, a small group of men signed a treaty with the native Indians on October 28, 1664 and established Elizabethtown. They built a Meeting House in which to gather for public affairs on weekdays and worship on Sundays. The first Colonial Assembly met in that building on May 26, 1668. It was the first and only English-speaking congregation for years in what would become New Jersey. Three and a half centuries later, this church, parish house, and burial ground still occupy that site; a witness to the faith and our continuing commitment in the heart of the city.”

One story, which I had never heard, concerned the minister James Caldwell and his wife Hannah Ogden. Hannah was killed in the Battle of Connecticut Farms in 1780 and their home was burned. Hannah at home with her nine children and after nursing one child was sitting on the bed when a British soldier came to the window and shot her. She was mortally wounded instantly. The Union City, N.J. seal depicts Hannah as she was slain – she is considered a martyr to the cause. James, very vocal in his opposition of the British, was armed when he was preaching in the pulpit. James was killed by a British sentry in 1781. The orphaned children were raised by friends.

Three Ogden brothers came and settled in Walton in the early 1800s. One of those brothers, Daniel, had a son, Abraham, who settled on West Brook and wrote a farmer’s diary from 1849-1855. I was lucky enough to have transcribed it before it was donated to the library and consequently lost in a flood.

William B. Ogden, another ancestor, went on to fame and fortune from his humble beginnings in Delaware County. He became the first mayor of Chicago and amassed a fortune from land and business holdings. Unfortunately, he lost many items in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. His legacy remains as he donated money for Walton to build the William B. Ogden Free Library, a beautiful structure made from native bluestone. It was completed in 1897 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are still Ogdens in Walton.

Dale and I continue to be amazed at the history that can be uncovered doing one’s genealogy.

December 21, 2019