It’s the last stop on my 2018 Charleston cemetery adventures. I’m ending on a true high note at the Circular Congregational Church (CCC) burial ground. If you visit Charleston and only have time to visit one cemetery/church yard/burial ground, pick THIS one because the rarity of what you can see here in the Southeast will literally blow you away.

Visually, it’s apparent where the church got its name. If you visit their web site, they do a good job detailing their history so I won’t talk too much about that. There are too many awesome stones to share.

A British cannonball blew up in the CCC graveyard during Sunday services in 1780. Earthquake, fires, and vandalism have also left their mark over the years.

Some important things to know are that the first meeting house on this site gave Meeting Street its name. While the CCC congregation was established around 1680 on this spot, the current building is its fourth and was built in 1892.

The church yard or burial ground (as it is listed on Find a Grave) was established around 1695. As a result, you get a true microcosm of the history of funerary style/art over two centuries. The skull and crossbones of the earliest slates evolve into the skull with wings, the angel’s head with wings, and then portrait busts, first primitive and then classical.

Most of the carvers of these stones never stepped foot in Charleston but lived in New England. So how did their work end up in South Carolina? Wealthy Charlestonians wanted to keep up with their Northern neighbors when it came to representing their wealth when they passed on. A simple gravestone would not suffice. So they paid top dollar to have New England carvers produce the same stones their society peers were demanding up North.

There’s a gate between the CCC burial ground and St. Philip’s West Cemetery. It was locked the day we were there but all we had to do was walk around to the entry by the bank drive-thru.

The CCC burial ground is located right behind the West Cemetery of St. Philip’s, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Most of the time, the gate between the two is unlocked and you can walk through. The day we took this photo, it was locked but all we had to do was walk around the block to where the bank beside the CCC is located. That entrance wasn’t locked.

That’s a bank drive-thru right beside the CCC burial ground. Is it a gentle hint that you can’t take it with you?

According to the CCC’s web site, while many gravestones have disappeared, more than 500 remain, with about 730 individuals named on those stones. Another 620 people are named in church records with indications they were most likely buried in the graveyard.

Statistics for gravestones currently in the graveyard:

  • Earliest unmarked grave: 1695
  • Earliest inscribed gravestone: 1729
  • Number of burials before 1776: 150
  • Number of burials for people who were born before 1800: 450

One of the oldest stones in the CCC burial ground belongs to one of its pastors, the Rev. Nathan Bassett, Jr. It’s located right beside the church building itself.

The Rev. Nathan Bassett, Jr.’s marker is thought to be the first portrait stone in America.

Born in 1701 in Roxbury, Mass. to blacksmith Nathan Bassett, Sr. and Mary Huckins Bassett, the Rev. Bassett arrived in Charleston in 1724 to pastor the CCC. The lengthy inscription on his marker is written completely in Latin. He died on June 26, 1738 of smallpox at the age of 36.

Two weeping angels flank a portrait of the Rev. Bassett.

There are some important things that set the Rev. Bassett’s marker apart. For one, scholars believe it’s the first example of a portrait-style stone in America, predating any seen in New England by a handful of years. Second, it was created by one of New England’s top carvers, William Codner. His signature, a rarity in itself, is on the bottom. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this when I photographed it. The grass was obscuring it so I never noticed it at the time.

There are at least 30 Peronnneaus buried at the CCC and a number of their markers were also carved by William Codner. This stone for Henry Peronneau (1667-1743) is just one of them. It’s another great example of a portrait stone.

The marker for Henry Peronneau was carved by William Codner.

Born in La Rochelle, France, Henry Peronneau came to Charleston in 1687 when he was 20. He and his family were some of the early Huguenots in the colony as well as members of the Independent Congregational Church in Charleston. A merchant, Henry Peronneau, his wife Desiree, many of their children and grandchildren were buried in the church yard.

Henry’s grandson, Alexander, is buried near him and his stone is another Codner creation that embraces the portrait style. In this photo, his grave is on the left.

Alexander Peronneau (left) died in 1747 at the age of 12. His mother, Mary, is to his right. She died in 1742.

To the right of Alexander’s marker is that of his mother, Mary Peronneau. She passed away when Alexander was seven years old. Her marker is thought to have been carved by the Lamson family of carvers in New England. You can find their work in graveyards all over Cape Cod. One distinctive trait of Lamson’s winged skulls are eyebrows with hooked ends.

Another Lamson marker was done for Mary’s son (and Alexander’s brother) John, who died at the age of two in 1736. While Mary’s stone has a winged skull and John’s features a soul effigy, many of the decorative elements like the amoeba-like swirls on the border are very much the same.

Note that the swirls on the sides are similar to the ones on John’s mother’s marker.

Elizabeth Simmons’ marker is another portrait-style marker but it was done by Boston carver Nathaniel Emmes (1690-1750). William Codner apprenticed in his shop. You can see Codner’s influence on Emmes quite clearly in Elizabeth’s stone.

Like the Rev. Bassett’s marker, Elizabeth Simmons’ stone has two weeping mourners flanking the portrait. She died in 1740 at the age of 35.

Some of the features Emmes liked to include were ornate borders, graduated discs in the fineals, along with indented skulls and cross bones over the winged skulls.

Another carver whose work you can find at the CCC is that of Capt. John Homer of New England. Homer enjoyed using the combination of a skull and crossbones over a soul effigy. He did an especially fine job on this stone for Charleston merchant David Stoddard, who died at the age of 30 in 1769.

A stark skull and crossbones sits atop a more detailed soul effigy. David Stoddard’s father, William, was from Boston. David died in 1769 at age 30.

Finally, let’s take a look at the graves of the children of William and Sabina Ellis. From what I can tell on Ancestry, the couple had at least nine children. The eldest and the youngest are the only two whom appear to have lived well past their 20s. Five of their children were buried at the CCC between 1753 and 1765. Let’s take a look at the four that I managed to photograph.

Second son William was four months and 19 days old when he died on June 14, 1753. He is buried to the left of his younger brother, John, whose marker I did not get a complete photo of. The soul effigy on William’s marker has a happy expression, with its wings folded down on the sides. 

William Ellis was probably the second child of William and Sabina Ellis.

Next was daughter Sabina, who lived 11 months and 20 days before she died on June 6, 1757. Her stone was probably done by the same carver who did William’s marker.

I believe Sabina was the Ellis’ fourth child.

Finally, we have John and Margaret Ellis. John lived only a month and 11 days before he died on July 19, 1758. Margaret, who is to his left, lived three months before she died on Jan. 4, 1765.

Siblings Margaret and John Ellis are buried next to each other.

You can see that the soul effigy on William’s grave marker has wings that point up.

The contrast between Margaret and John’s two markers is quite interesting. Margaret’s marker is more like William and Sabina’s, with the soul effigy having down-turned wings. But John’s marker has a soul effigy with its wings turned up. They’re also not nearly as well detailed.

There’s so much more to discover at the Circular Congregation Church burial ground. Join me for more stories among the stones next time.