Solutions sought for black soldiers’ final resting place

Westtown’s Shiloh AME graveyard center of dispute between property owner and advocates


State Rep. Stephen Barrar (R-160) (center, light blue shirt) listens intently to information about the burial site at the former Shiloh AME Church in Westtown, Monday. Barrar and State Rep. Dan Truitt (seated at back near wall in navy/red shirt) were among two of many local and county officials to attend a meeting Monday on the status of the site.

By Kim Chiomento, Staff Writer, The Times

WESTTOWN – At the intersection of Shiloh and Little Shiloh Roads sits a nondescript property with a unique and historically significant past.  This same quiet property is currently the subject of a heated debate between its current owner and parties deemed responsible for the care of gravesites and the moral call of many to honor U.S. Veterans.

Monday, a group including two state representatives, veterans affairs and historical advocates as well as local and county officials met looking for options to honor and preserve this final resting place of soldiers from the Civil War and the Revolutionary War.

From approximately 1817 through 1920, this parcel of land was home to the Shiloh A.M.E. Church and cemetery (also commonly known as Westtown Burying Ground.) Shiloh A.M.E. was once a thriving church and its cemetery is believed to be the oldest African American burial ground in Chester County.  Today, only prominently posted bright orange “No Trespassing” signage marks the property’s perimeter; while hinting at its importance and the brewing controversy.

Shiloh A.M.E. Church was abandoned in 1920 and the property was then quitclaimed to another owner.  Research indicates that between twelve and fourteen U.S. Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) Civil War Veterans (the historically accurate name), one African American Revolutionary War soldier, and upwards of 100 non-veteran graves, are believed to exist on this property.

The property was acquired by the current owner in 1977; and for approximately 15 years, various Veterans’ affairs groups have sought permission from the owner to enter the property to identify the graves, honor veterans, and provide proper care and maintenance to the gravesites.


Only the orange “no trespassing” signs mark the final resting place of African-American soldiers — and what may be Chester County’s oldest African American burial site in Westtown at the site of the former Shiloh AME Church. Image courtesy Jonathan Hoppe.

To date, all such requests have been rebuffed by the land owner who is currently threatening civil and criminal action against anyone found trespassing. The owner does not wish for any historical research or gravesite preservation to occur; and is unwilling to discuss future plans for the property’s use.  Additionally, this individual does not currently reside on the property or within Chester County.

Records indicate that there has been no maintenance or care of the cemetery since the 1920’s and the original church succumbed to a fire in the 1930’s.  It is also believed that during the 1960’s a good portion of the land was turned-over, plowed, and prepared to make way for fruit trees to be planted.

Adding to the property’s intrigue is the mystery of where the grave markers and tombstones rest today. Some people believe they are buried as a result of the properties former agricultural use; while others suspect the markers may have been discarded or used for other purposes.

As a result of this speculation, veterans’ affairs groups wish to learn more by employing the use of ground penetrating radar (GPR) to survey exactly what exists below the surface.  GPR is commonly used when surveying historical, unmarked gravesites and other subterranean research projects; and is considered a key resource in helping to gain answers to this mystery.  However, without access to the former Shiloh Cemetery property, answers to these and other questions must wait.

State Representative Stephen Barrar (R-160)  – Chairman, of the house Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committees along with State Representative Dan Truitt (R-156), (who will represent the area containing the Shiloh Cemetery property beginning in 2015); held a meeting Monday to bring together key stakeholders to discuss how to best resolve this controversy.

Barrar credits David Walter – the Chair, Westtown Township Historical Commission with bringing the Shiloh Cemetery situation to his attention, and also notes that Walter has been the primary proponent in seeking a resolution.

Nearly twenty representatives from Chester County, Westtown Township, numerous veterans’ affairs groups and historical preservation specialists attended the meeting including: Carol DeWolf – Chair, Westtown Board of Supervisors, Robert Pingar – Westtown Township Manager, Lawrence Davidson – Director, Chester County Office of Veterans Affairs, Sean Harris – Veterans Affairs Research Analyst, Bill Christman – Analyst to County Commissioner Terence Farrell, Thomas Whiteman – Solicitor, Chester County, along with Westtown Historical Commission’s David Walter.

Chester County archive records indicate the following U.S.C.T. soldiers are buried at the Shiloh A.M.E. Cemetery: Alfred Bye, Richard Bye, Robert Caldwell, John Cooper, Eli Davis, George Derry, Thomas Henry, Samuel Johnson, John Roberts, Charles Wheatley, Joseph L. William, and Isaac J. Winters.

Also attending the meeting was West Chester-based archivist and historical researcher, Jonathan Hoppe. Hoppe’s findings support the belief that African American Revolutionary soldier Jacob Martin is also thought to be interred on the same property.  Hoppe believes it is likely that direct descendants of many of these veterans still reside locally and some may not even realize that status of their deceased relative’s graves.

Meeting attendees explained that as expansion and development occur on the county, state and national levels the issues around gravesite discovery, management, property rights and caring for veterans’ graves will continue to present themselves.

Officials indicate that they wish to achieve resolution pursuant to their lawful responsibilities for all gravesites, including the gravesites of service persons, outlined in existing county and township codes. While a number of ideas are under consideration, due to the delicate legal situation revolving around the property, officials are reluctant to share specific details at this time.

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  1. Lonnie J. Nicholas Sr says:

    My great, great grandfather and his brother are buried there. Alfred and Richard Bye. My father an mother pastor-ed St. Luke’s UAME church in West Chester and my sister was a member of the the West Chester Area School district for years. Our family is very close withe former West Chester mayor Clifford DeBaptise and my cousin Wendell Butler was mayor of Chester, PA for years. Our family has server the community and the nation with dignity, honor, respect, and love for generations. My hope is to contact this land owner and secure their support to allow everyone to pay their respect for those who gave their lives in service to our nation.

    Lonnie J. Nicholas son of, Rev. Ross Berry Nicholas, son of Alfonzo Warner Nicholas, son of Maggie Bye-Nicholas, daughter of Private Richard Bye.

  2. James Hayes says:

    Something needs to be done to preserve the honor to protect the resting place of these brave Anerican soldiers.

    Out veterans deserve better treatment than this.

    What is the name of the owner of this property?

  3. Anita Wills says:

    My name is Anita Wills and I am a Native of Pennsylvania. I am writing about my ancestors who may be buried in the AME Graveyard. Although I reside in California I travel to Pennsylvania as a Historian interested in preserving the areas where my ancestors resided. My Great-Great-Great Grandfather, Charles Martin was born in WestTown, as was his wife. Sarah Johnson-Martin. I believe that Charles father was Jacob Martin and that Sarah’s father or relative Samuel is buried in that Graveyard. Jacob Martin owned land in Chester County after the Revolutionary War and it would be interesting to know what happened to that land. I ran into the same issue with graves of my ancestors buried in the Welsh Mountains. My hope is that all of our historic sites will be preserved.

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