To the casual observer, the newly preserved stretch of land that runs just north of Route 523 from South Autumn Leaf Boulevard to Bonetown Road resembles any other charming, yet indistinguishable, patch of woodlands.
But look closer.
Visible from the road just before the boulevard, passersby can discern the remains of a stone fence and several gravestones of the Carman Family Burying Ground poking out from among the trees. The cemetery dates back to at least the late 1770s and serves as the final resting place for two American Revolutionary War veterans: Jesse Pettit and Elijah Carman.
The protected land totals 49 acres; Hunterdon Land Trust (HLT) teamed up with partners Raritan Township and Hunterdon County to make this preservation happen. The property is roughly a half mile south of HLT’s Dvoor Farm headquarters.
“This was a very exciting acquisition for HLT to be involved in since it is so close to our headquarters at Dvoor Farm,” said Jacqueline Middleton, HLT’s director of land acquisition.
“On a personal note, many of our staff have driven by this land on our way to and from work countless times, and knowing it is now preserved is hugely gratifying.”
Besides the cemetery, the wooded parcel features wetlands, a field of wildflowers and is in the headwaters of the First Neshanic River, a significant tributary of the South Branch of the Raritan River. Preserving this land protects water quality and decreases the risk of flooding along the Neshanic River.
Hunterdon Land Trust contributed $437,500 toward the purchase price from a grant obtained from Hunterdon County.
Ray Simonds has a unique perspective on the importance of preserving the land thanks to his roles on several Raritan Township committees including Open Space, Environmental and the Raritan Township’s Historians. He also is a Hunterdon County Historical Society trustee and now heads up its cemetery committee. For the past several years, he helped spearhead the effort to protect the property. And he obtained permission, before the preservation was finished, to organize a team of volunteers to clear the cemetery of debris.
“This preservation was important,” Simonds said. “To begin with, it’s a small burying ground – it belonged to a local family that has history here. And the Revolutionary War soldiers buried there was another huge factor. The cemetery expands past the stone, and we don’t know for sure who’s buried there.”
According to obituaries published in the Hunterdon Gazette and the Hunterdon County Democrat, Elijah Carman died in Raritan on November 8, 1841 at age 84 after a “lingering illness.” Both papers noted that he was “one of those who shared in the scenes of the bloody Revolution.” Genealogy folders in the Hunterdon County Historical Society archives cleared up a mystery about Carman’s service, but created a new puzzle. Records indicate that he served in the Monmouth County militia; however, how or why he wound up in Hunterdon is not known at this time.
What we do know is that Jesse Pettit’s gravestone, marked with an American flag, lies just outside the stone walls.
“Why is he out there? Probably because he wasn’t a member of the Carman family,” Simonds said. “Why is he buried in the cemetery? The best we can tell is that he and Elijah Carman were friends.”
On April 29, 1918, renowned Hunterdon County Historical Society Secretary Hiram E. Deats visited the cemetery to record the names on the weathered gravestones, noting that “the tombstones and surrounding stone walls are falling down” at this “neglected burial ground.” Deats noted a dozen gravestones on the land consisting of Carman, Coats (or Coates), James, Pettit, Phillips and Rockafelow (sic) family members. Simonds said it’s possible there are 20 to 30 graves in the cemetery.
Before the preservation effort, Eden Holdings had received approval for a 19-lot subdivision. Raritan Township now owns the property, and it will remain open space. Simonds said a parking area may be situated on either Route 523 or up Bonetown Road, and trails would be marked where people could hike and enjoy the wildlife there.
Raritan Townships will be celebrating its 185th anniversary this year and aims to include the Carman Cemetery in its plans, Simonds noted.
Funding for this preservation was provided by a grant to Hunterdon Land Trust from the Hunterdon County Open Space Acquisition Assistance Grant Program, the New Jersey Green Acres Program, and the Raritan Township Open Space fund.
Above photos, top: Amy Greene, chair for Raritan Township Open Space Advisory Committee, was among the volunteers to help steward the Carman Family Burying Ground back in the fall of 2020. Center: Bob Leith, past head of Hunterdon County Historical Society’s Cemetery Committee, checks the ground at the Carman Cemetery. Bottom, a view of the open space at the preserve.