The Poor of East Church, an article by our Town Historian

Date: March 19, 2019

The Poor of East Church


By Judy Giguere

Plymouth Town Historian


East Church is the local designation for the old cemetery and surrounding section of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.  Today it is a peaceful area and the former church structure is no longer a church but a residence.  The cemetery opened in 1795, shortly after the Revolutionary War, with the appointment of a sextant.  The earliest records are lost to history except for the Hale Collection. The Hale Collection is a repository of gravestone transcriptions gathered to provide employment to the many of the unemployed during the Great Depression.  The listing gives some information on the early graves of East Church and is the only record prior to 1846. The earliest Hale listing for East Church is the grave of Lovinia Hotchkiss, age 12, daughter of Solomon and Anna Hotchkiss. Little Lovinia died January 25, 1795.  Another is Elijah Johnson, son of Elizabeth and Daniel Johnson, age 10. Elijah died January 21, 1795.  Children often died from diseases we have forgotten such as measles, diphtheria, strep, tetanus, and influenza among other causes. The sexton records that survive begin with Junius Preston in 1846. The Preston family maintained the records for sixty-four years and other than the Hale Collection these are the only surviving records for the East Church cemetery.

In the back of the cemetery are two rows of graves marked only by numbered upright stones-no names appear on the stones. The names are recorded on the Town of Plymouth Land Records.  Twenty-three stones are listed with twenty-two names. Three are were formerly slaves. David A. Blackman is grave number six, Peter Primus is grave number eight and Peter’s wife (no first name given) is grave number nine.  This listing states that Peter was sold for thirty bushels of rye. 

Connecticut passed a gradual emancipation law which meant that slaves born after March 1, 1784 would be freed when they turned twenty-five. Connecticut did not fully abolish slavery until 1848.  Peter was born July 9, 1784 which means he was freed as of 1809. Little is known of Mrs. Primus but the only other Primus recorded at East Church was named, “Betty” – very likely, this was Peter’s wife.  Betty was born in 1778 in Louisiana and there are, at this time, no other records for her.  It’s hard not to wonder who her family was and their stories.

Peter is believed to be the son of Cambridge and Moriah.  Peter appears to have had three brothers, Sam, Eben and Ham and one sister named Lydia.  When the War of 1812 came about Peter Primus is listed as a drummer.  Is it the same Peter Primus?  It is hard to tell because only the name is listed on the records of service for the War of 1812, no residence or family given.  Former slaves were listed by name and women were generally listed only by their husband’s name making records very hard to decipher without corroborating materials.  Peter registered with his brothers in New Haven for the Seamen’s Protection Bureau of New England. This certificate registered the Primus brothers as a mariners of the United States. Eventually Mr. and Mrs. Primus took up residence in the East Church section of Terryville.  Whether either was unable to provide an income to allow for a private burial and stone or ill health claimed their resources is not known.  They were finally buried in the pauper’s section of the East Church cemetery, side by side-forever.