Grave Matters: Discovering Bryn Mawr’s History in the Graveyard Behind English House

By Rachel Hertzberg, Staff Writer

Bryn Mawr pulses with creation myths. Myths exist for a reasonthey offer explanation when we dont have the facts, or when we are interested in something more than just facts. There is the story of Rockefellers niece, on whose behalf John D. Rockefeller supposedly donated the money to build his namesake dorm. There is the story of Katherine Hepburn pioneering the tradition of skinny dipping in the cloisters, and the legends about the statue of Athena  in Thomas Great Hall. After a quick walk around campus, any visitor can tell that this is a place steeped in history, where the  traditions of the past continue to inform the present. The stories that students tell one another about our campus create a sense of continuity with past generations and codify our values.

Just beyond the edge of Bryn Mawrs campus, however, lies a fascinating site with few, if any, popular stories attached to it: The Harriton graveyard in Morris Woods, also known as the graveyard behind English House. At night, this graveyard can be found while stumbling over haphazard fallen logs and dry ravines, the grave markers looming shadows. On a bright autumn morning when golden light filters through the trees, the graveyard is a pleasant place to enjoy some solitude and a Halloween aesthetic. Although many students know of its location, few know about the burial grounds occupants and significance.

Around 1719, Richard Harrison, owner of the Harriton tobacco plantation (named for the Welsh town of Harriton), established a family burial ground. Harrison owned the 700 acres of farmland, and his property ended at what is now New Gulph Road. Harrison was the first person known to be buried in the graveyard, and after his death, the land was passed down to his son-in-law, Charles Thomson. Thomson was a little-known founding father,  secretary of the Continental Congress and designer of the United States seal, as well as a beekeeper, orchardist, and abolitionist. There are at least ten unmarked grave sites from the Harrison/Thomson period, including those of family members and other members of the local community. According to Quaker tradition, a stone was placed next to the spot where a body was buried, marking not the deceased, but the next available spot. This practice reflected the Quaker belief in equality and humility.

The most distinctive grave markers are those located at the back of the plot. They are Gothic-style tablets with carvings that resemble angels wings. These tablets do not belong to anyone in the Harrison or Thomson families; the Lower Merion Historical Society describes them as Strangers to the familybecause they mark the graves of a family whose surname is Cochran. Little is known about the Cochran family except that they must have had some claim to the land which allowed them to be buried there. Since the graves do have writing on them, the Cochrans were probably not Quakers.  

In the 19th century, a craze arose for grand public cemeteries, and Thomson and his wife Hannah were dug up and brought to the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, a resting place that seemed to better befit such distinguished citizens. Of course, considering the fact that  the Harriton graves were unmarked, and the transfer happened decades after the original burials, it is possible that the bodies resting under the obelisk in Laurel Hill  either are not the Thomsons, or include remains of multiple individuals. Macabre as this sounds, it reveals the obsession with death rituals that was common in the Victorian era, often referred to as a cult of mourning”. However, not all the deceased were afforded such convoluted rites. As a tobacco plantation, even a small-scale northern one, Harriton was also the home of enslaved people.

The grave markerslack of identification makes it difficult to know for sure how many slaves are buried here, but local historians believe that they would have been former house slaves, freed by Charles Thomson. It is disturbing that such a picturesque spot could be the resting place of slaves. Many people do not know that the Quakers didnt officially disavow slavery until 1758, and due to gradual emancipation laws, some people remained enslaved in Pennsylvania until the early nineteenth century. Although the Harriton slaves had no connection to Bryn Mawr College, their graves hint at the violent reality of this areas history, a reality that is often hidden behind the ideals of Quakerism and tolerance. The proximity of the graves to campus emphasizes the way that a legacy of racism has haunted Bryn Mawr throughout the colleges history.

As Charles and Hannah had no children, the property was inherited by the descendants of Hannahs brother Thomas Harrison. The 700 acres originally owned by the family were divided up and parceled out, both as inheritances and to be sold to developers. Through marriage, the property that included the graveyard came into the hands of the local Morris family, and then passed to the Vaux family. In the early twentieth century, George Vaux IX built a house for his family on his inherited land just on the border of the original property. This house remained in the family until 1958, when it was sold to Bryn Mawr College to be turned into English House. What is today Russian House was once the neighboring garage and apartment. The forested area called Morris Woods was also sold to Bryn Mawr College at this same time.

Trina Vaux, George Vaux IXs granddaughter, spent her childhood in what is today English House. She is now the current owner of the property that includes the graveyard. She recalls that students have always found their way to the cemetery.In fact, it was a popular destination and a favorite site of trysts back when her mother was a Bryn Mawr student in the 1930s. In the 1980s and 90s, Bryn Mawr students formed a coven of witches that met in the graveyard at the spring and fall equinox to read poetry. In later years the witches became an overtly feminist and political group, which did not go over well with some of the more traditional neighbors.  

Today, the graveyard offers a testament to the depth of history in this area, as well as a place for meditation and appreciating nature. After learning about the individuals who are buried there, and speaking with one of their descendants, Ive found it hard to visit without considering their stories. Knowing the history provides a more complete context for Bryn Mawr, but also a more complicated one. Those who are interested in local history might  like to visit the historic Harriton House, a fifteen-minute walk from campus.

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