Grave database brings dead back to life

Lewes Historical Society honored for tireless work to catalogue cemeteries
March 25, 2016

Margaret Huling was born in 1631, the same year Lewes was founded at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. She wasn't born in Lewes, but her 1707 gravestone is the oldest in Delaware's First Town.

Huling's grave at St. Peter's Church on Second Street is easy to find thanks to the efforts of the Lewes Historical Society. In the summer of 2003, the organization embarked on the titanic task of cataloging every single gravestone in the Lewes and Rehoboth Hundred, from well-preserved gravestones in well-known church cemeteries to lesser-known, sometimes hard-to-find stones in family plots in more rural areas of the Cape Region.

Thirteen years later, the society has built a database of about 8,500 graves, each with a GPS location to pinpoint not only where a grave can be found, but also where within a cemetery a grave is located.


Interns did most of the work gathering information for the database project. The interns were encouraged to analyze the data they collected and develop a focused study.

Dave Trombello

Julia Robinson Walls

Laura Moore

Erin Toohey

Anna Rothman*

Trip Celone

Mike Metz

* - Rothman interned twice at Lewes Historical Society

The project is now moving into a new phase, as the historical society is building a new website that will connect the graves to photographs, letters and other artifacts in the society's collection.

Historical society Executive Director Mike DiPaolo said the project was started as a way to answer questions the society often receives.

“One of the most common questions we get is 'Do you know where my [ancestor] is buried?'” he said. “We wanted to do something that would not only help all these research questions, but hopefully answer questions we haven't thought about yet, and also to help put Lewes on the map a bit again.”

The bulk of the database work was done by interns over the course of six summers. The project was made possible by the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, which paid for a small stipend, housing and some equipment, such as a GPS unit. DiPaolo himself as well as volunteer Russ Allen also logged numerous hours working on the project.

“There was a lot of sunburn, mosquito bites and fly bites, but everybody really enjoyed it,” DiPaolo said. “Now, the GPS unit on your phone is better than what we were using at the time.”

The beginning

The project started at the St. George AME Church cemetery on Pilottown Road in Lewes. DiPaolo said the cemetery features very humble gravestones, including stones of at least two U.S. Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War.

“Of the cemeteries that are in the town proper, that's probably the one people knew the least about,” DiPaolo said. “It was a reasonable size; big enough to learn from, small enough that it wasn't going to be overwhelming.”

From there, the interns logged by hand the stones of all other known cemeteries in the Lewes and Rehoboth Hundred. Along the way, they also branched out into the Indian River Hundred, recording the gravestones at Conley's Chapel, St. George's Chapel and several other cemeteries in the Long Neck area.

The locations of cemeteries in the Indian River Hundred were not as well known, so to pinpoint the locations, the society used the Tatnall Tombstone Index at the Delaware Public Archives. They also overlayed Beers Atlas maps from 1868 with Google Earth maps to further hone in on lesser-known burial grounds.

“There were a few things that were off, but for the most part I would say 90 percent of it was almost to a T,” he said. “The Tatnall index was done in the '20s or '30s, so a lot of things have happened in the intervening 90 years. It took a couple weeks just to verify a lot of the information.”

The database can be found on the historical society's website It features several drop-down menus to narrow searches to specific birth years, death years and cemeteries. Results may also be narrowed by searching for a specific name.

Each of the 8,500 gravestones in the database lists basic information, including the stone type, a legibility rating, the direction the stone is facing, and the birth and death dates of the person, when known.

With stones dating back to the early 18th century, weathering and erosion are common. DiPaolo said in cases where it was difficult to ascertain information, interns often used rubbing paper to get a negative image. They also used chalk to provide a better contrast. Both methods are the least harmful to the stones, DiPaolo said.

“If there is lichen and moss growing on it, the best thing to do is just leave it on there,” he said. “Don't try to blast it with anything; that usually just erodes the stone a little more.”

Preserving history

Now that the project is mostly complete, DiPaolo is using the information gathered to tell the stories of those buried in the Cape Region.

The society will soon be unveiling a new website, where items in the society's collection can be linked to specific graves.

“Say you're searching for Richard Beebe and we have a file folder full of correspondence from him, you'll be able to see that,” DiPaolo said.

There will also be a robust mobile experience. Anyone who is walking around Lewes may be able to learn more about those who are buried nearby.

“If you're exploring Lewes on your own, we will be able to say, 'Did you know you're right next to Lizzie Burton's grave?'” he said. “Then you click on Lizzie Burton's grave and we might have a picture of her.”

The idea is to use the society's collection of thousands of artifacts, documents and photographs and connect them to the people who once lived in Lewes. Then the people of today can learn more about the past.

DiPaolo also encourages ancestors with photographs or artifacts to contact the historical society, so more can be added to an individual's story.

Using the data

In addition to expanding the physical record of Lewes' past residents, DiPaolo also hopes the project can provide usable data for researchers. As part of the project, each intern was encouraged to analyze the data they collected and develop a focused study.

Intern Laura Moore worked primarily on the large Bethel United Methodist Church Cemetery on Savannah Road. While doing the research, she learned that at one point land closest to what is now the Rite Aid pharmacy was set aside to be a Quaker burial ground. Though it is not believed anyone was interred there, it inspired Moore to write a paper about the history of the land as well as the Quakers in Lewes.

Anna Rothman, who interned two consecutive summers, was fascinated with the design of gravestones. Coming from New England, she noticed a difference between the designs of gravestones in both regions. New England featured elaborately carved stones often with graphic images, while Delaware's stones were more textual based.

“Down here there's more family information, Bible verses or quotes from poetry or literature,” DiPaolo said. “They just don't have that up in the cemeteries of New England.”

Rothman researched the prevalence of the iconography carved into the Cape Region's stones, which feature fingers pointing in specific directions, open Bibles, roses and others.

Some interns dove deeper into the data. Intern Erin Toohey analyzed infant mortality, while Rothman, in her second summer, looked at overall mortality to see if there were any trends.

“The one thing we can say, based on the Lewes and Rehoboth Hundred, is that if you made it past childhood, you had a really decent shot at living to a ripe old age,” DiPaolo said. “It's not unheard of to find 70- and 80-year-olds in St. Peter's from the early 1800s and late 1700s.”

Lost information

The project includes all known gravestones up to 1950. With the internet, DiPaolo said, there should be resources available to know who's buried where past that point. Plus, with the region's population explosion, it would be difficult to keep up, he said.

Now that all known cemeteries are documented, DiPaolo said, he's curious about the ones they don't know about.

“Lewes was established 385 years ago – there should be more than 8,500 people,” he said.

There could be several reasons why the number isn't higher. People move away, so some are likely buried elsewhere. Others may be buried in cemeteries that have disappeared. He said there are references in historical documents to a cemetery somewhere between Third and Fourth streets, but only houses sit in that area today.

“Did they ever do that and people just forgot about it? Stranger things have happened,” DiPaolo said.

Just last year archaeologists were working on a family cemetery in the Hawkseye community that was discovered by construction crews. A wooden grave marker was found in the vicinity several years ago, which is now believed to have been from the cemetery. Most wooden grave markers have not survived, and only one was found during the project, at Israel United Methodist Church on Plantation Road.

DiPaolo said he hopes the society's database, if used geographically with land records, could be helpful in finding other long-forgotten cemeteries.

The database remains one of the most visited sections of the historical society's website, proving there is plenty of life left in those who once lived in the Cape Region.

The historical society's work was recently honored with the Association for Gravestone Studies' Oakley Award. The award is given to individuals and groups that advance the association's mission to foster appreciation of the cultural significance of gravestones and burial grounds through study and preservation.