In a rectangular plot of land behind the Dutch Reformed Church in Belleville, scientists and students were painstakingly moving a long yellow tube along the ground.
Still more scientists and students were slowly guiding a grey box across the dirt floor in the church’s dimly-lit, dank basement.
These Rutgers-Newark graduate students and their professors were deploying ground-penetrating radar in two historic sites on Main Street in search for unmarked graves dating back to the Revolutionary War.
The survey is tied into the students’ environmental geophysical class. Their work plotting and surveying the land stretched from early morning into the afternoon on Thursday, Nov. 14, with high hopes.
After the data is studied and analyzed in the coming weeks, the findings may yield crucial clues to solving a longtime mystery in Belleville and perhaps substantiate long-repeated whispers in town about some Chinese workers who may have been buried in the church’s basement generations ago.
Many Chinese workers who helped build the Central Pacific Railroad were in search of a safe haven from rampant anti-Chinese sentiment that had spread across the country in the 1860s. That’s when they found a home Belleville.
They settled here, lived here, raised families here and eventually died here. Some of their graves may be seen in the cemetery behind the church; others have disappeared from the landscape.
Some were buried out back and it is now believed that their resting places were covered over during one of the church’s expansions.
“Belleville was a place that accepted Chinese workers with open arms,” Mayor Michael Melham said. “Belleville was the site of the first Chinatown on the East Coast. If there are workers in the ground under the church, we want to recognize their historical significance and give them a proper burial, if possible.”
Melham also said the township is preparing to mark the 150th anniversary of the first Chinese New Year to be celebrated in Belleville. Although the festivities won’t be until 2021, fireworks are already in the plans.
Meanwhile, the space behind the church is believed to be the resting place of soldiers who fought in the American Revolution and sacrificed their lives for the freedom of others.
As it stands, the cemetery behind the church is the final resting place of what is believed to be the highest concentration of Revolutionary War soldiers — 68 in all — in any cemetery, according to Belleville Historical Society.
The church is so steeped in Revolutionary War history that the steeple was used as an observation post during the fight against the attacking British.
Belleville will be eagerly awaiting the results of last week’s surveys by the end of the year.
The church, which was founded in 1697, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Reformed Dutch Church of Second River.
It was rebuilt in 1725 and again in 1807.
Deputy Mayor Vincent Cozzarelli, Councilwoman Naomy De Peña, Gabrielle Bennett-Meany of Belleville’s Historic Preservation Commission and Pastor Mike Ortiz were on hand for the survey.
Michael Perrone, of the Belleville Historical Society, notes, however, that it may be difficult to exhume bodies from the church basement, if they’re found, since only next-of-kin may do so. And, the church did not keep death records — it only kept baptismal and wedding records — church sacraments.
“Burial records were kept by families of the deceased. There is no way to identify any members of the congregation buried in what is now the church basement,” Perrone told The Observer. “The church basement is not an archaeological site it is part of the church cemetery. Only next of kin can exhume remains if they know the specific location of the grave, which no one does since there are no markers or records.
Perrone, who has been involved in restoration efforts at the church for more than two decades, says it will next-to-impossible to decipher whether any remains potentially found in the church basement are Revolutionary-era dead or people who were part of the first Chinese-immigrant community in America.
“There is no way to identify anyone whether they are Revolutionary War soldiers or Chinese. Based on church history, we know the identity of a few buried under the church but not where (they are) from — the Revolutionary War era, Pastor Geraudus Haughort and militia leader Capt. Abraham Spear and later the Chinese members of the congregation. The church cemetery is the final resting place of 68 Revolutionary War soldiers. All of their names are engraved on the George Washington monument behind the church. Some of the grave sites are known because the original stones exist and can still be read.”
The Belleville Historical Society is also appealing for donations to help with the many needed church repairs, primarily the church steeple. Donations in any amount may be sent to La Senda Antigua, 171 Main St., Belleville N.J. 07109. It has also sent up fundraisers for “Belleville Historic Church” on GoFundMe and Facebook. For more information, contact Belleville Historical Society President Michael Perrone at 973-780-7852 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.