Home > Articles > Omnia Mors Æquat : REMEMBERING A JERSEY PROPRIETOR


Coat of arms from the tomb of David Lyell, with motto “Sedulo et Honeste” above the crest.

The language spoken by New Jersey’s aboriginal peoples lives on in many of its place names, notably those of rivers and creeks on which the lives of the Lenape depended.  They include the Musconetcong, Assunpink, Crosswicks, Rancocas and Cohansey, all flowing more or less westward, and the Metedeconk, Manasquan, Raritan and Passaic, which drain in the direction of New Jersey’s eastern shores.

For centuries, these and many smaller waterways have guided the migrations and settlement patterns of indigenous inhabitants and newcomers alike.  The name of one, Topanemus Brook in Monmouth County, first appears in 1686, in the record of a sale by five “Indian owners and Sachems” to the British proprietors of East New Jersey.  The deed conveyed a tract of land extending “to the Indian Fishingplace and to the Indian town Toponemes.”[1] Of uncertain meaning, the name is thought to refer to the area’s abundant supply of fish.[2]

Topanemus became a center of religious activity for early Scottish and English immigrants, who built a house of worship there.  This church was closely linked to George Keith, a Scottish-born Quaker preacher, and a surveyor of lands for the proprietary colony of East Jersey. (In 1687 he was hired to determine the boundary with West Jersey, the so-called Province or Keith Line.)

Seal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, on a memorial window in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Freehold. It is encircled by the words SIGILLVM SOCIETATIS DE PROMOVENDO EVANGELIO IN PARTIBVS TRANSMARINIS, and incorporates a scriptural phrase, TRANSIENS ADIUVA NOS (Acts 16:9).

Dismissed from the Quakers because of doctrinal differences, Keith immediately lent his prestige and considerable energy to the established Church of England and its new missionary wing, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.  The congregation of Topanemus soon turned over its land and church to the Anglicans, but also gradually moved its seat to the village of Monmouth Court House, today’s Freehold Borough.  Burials continued on its former grounds through the eighteenth century, but tapered off by the middle of the nineteenth.

Abandoned, secluded and accessible only to the stout-hearted and sure-footed, this ancient burying ground in Marlboro Township remains one of the most evocative places in the state.  Well after the church building had disappeared and burials ceased, one could still glimpse a fine slab of sandstone whose coat of arms and imposing inscription were proof that, in this spot, lay someone who in life had enjoyed high standing.

The parents of David Lyell, the man whose tomb this marker once covered, may have come from Scotland or the North of England to London, where it appears he was born on February 22, 1672, and baptized four days later in the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.[3]  In the same church he wed Catherine Lorraine, daughter of Sir Thomas Lorraine of Kirkharle,  Northumberland, in 1696.  David Lyell sailed for America, with his wife and one or more of their children, in 1699 or 1700.[4]

In both London and America Lyell practiced, or at least professed, the trade of goldsmith.[5] Nothing is known of his work in this line, but it may explain his later appointment as “sealer and maker of weights and measures” for the city of New York.[6] It is also possible that, together with early success as a London gold merchant,  Lyell’s marriage into the English gentry enabled him to acquire a proprietary share in the lands of East New Jersey.[7]  On arriving in Perth Amboy, the provincial capital, in 1701, he took up his share, becoming a member of the powerful Board of Proprietors, a corporation formed in the 1680s which finally dissolved itself more than three hundred years later.

Soon after Lyell joined the Board, the proprietors of both West and East Jersey, having endured decades of challenges to their rights and prerogatives as landholders, formally relinquished the right to govern their tumultuous provinces.  But politics in the united, now royal province of New Jersey remained as fractious and unsavory as ever, and proprietors continued to demand a say in government, though with mixed success. Lyell, a nominee to the governor’s council, was rejected (with several others) “as being of the Scotch & Quaker factions.”  He had to wait until March 1716 to join the council of Governor Robert Hunter, a Scotsman.[8]

In this position Lyell served as a collector of taxes on the sale of strong liquor, and as a commissioner for revising, extending and confirming the former Province Line, on which county boundaries, and innumerable land titles, still depended.[9]  He was simultaneously engaged in several judicial proceedings, including a notorious Salem County murder case that ended in the execution of three slaves.[10]

Slave ownership, legal in New Jersey throughout the eighteenth century, was a concomitant of real property and commerce. Lyell’s own holding of slaves both Lenape and African, or Afro-Caribbean, can be documented and, with his residences in the important trading centers of Perth Amboy, Middletown Point (now a part of Matawan) and New York City, is not unexpected.

Miniature on vellum of David Lyell. John Watson, David Lyell (England, 1670-1725). Yale University Art Gallery, Lelia A. and John Hill Morgan, B.A. 1893, LL.B. 1896, M.A. (Hon.) 1929, Collection.

The number of his slaves is not known:  in general, the records yield details only about the lives of bondsmen who tried to escape their bonds. Through a newspaper advertisement Lyell hoped to recover one such runaway, “an Indian Man Named Nim, … about One and Twenty years of Age,” whose value, including that he could “do something at the Carpenters Trade,” is suggested by a reward, if discovered “in the Jerseys” and returned, of “Forty Shillings and Charges; and if in any other Government Five Pounds, if they give but Notice where he is, so that his Master may have him again.”[11] One of nineteen blacks sentenced to death in the wake of a violent uprising in New York City had belonged to Lyell; the record of this somber detail is a New York Assembly bill, awarding the owners fifty ounces of silver as compensation for each executed slave.[12]

With its city seal, adopted in 1718, Perth Amboy honored the royal governor by including a hunting horn in the design, along with the Hunter family motto, arte non impetu.  Despite the governor’s departure in the following year Lyell remained, under his successor William Burnet, an active member of the council.  The record of his public service ends abruptly, however, in 1725.[13]  He made his last will and testament on January 23, 1726, “being weak in body, but of sound mind and perfect memory,” naming his wife Catherine and seven children as heirs.[14] We learn from his gravestone that he died on January 28, “in the 55th year of his age.”

Perhaps in commemoration of his appointment to the council in 1716, Lyell sat for one of America’s earliest portrait painters, John Watson of Perth Amboy.  Watson’s miniature depicts the councillor in a peruke and official robes, and with something of an imperious air.

One of the mortality images at the foot of the Lyell marker.

A more potent monument, surely, is the tablet laid over Lyell’s grave: its tokens of mortality – two slightly turned skulls with crossbones flanking an hourglass, plus its distinctive lettering, mark it as the work of an accomplished but anonymous New Jersey carver.[15]

The abandonment of Topanemus graveyard exposed its stones to the ravages of nature and vandals, so that in the 1970s members of St. Peter’s Church decided to move many of them – including the Lyell marker, broken into seven pieces – to the grounds of their present church in Freehold, at the corner of West Main and Throckmorton Streets.

There, below Lyell’s coat of arms, which occupies the upper fourth of the slab, one may still make out his epitaph:

Sub hoc Tumulo Sepultum


nuper ex Consiliariis hujus

Provinciæ Cui summus fuit

dies 28us Ianuarii 1725Anno

Ætatis 55o.

Omnia Mors Æquat extre

mumq tibi semper adesse pute[s.]

Nascentes morimur finisque

ab Origine pendet.

Apart from a reference to his councillorship and, with the word nuper, a hint that he may have left it due to sudden incapacity, the inscription is silent about Lyell’s career. It ends instead in an amalgam of excerpts from three poems of Roman antiquity.  With the words Omnia mors aequat, from Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae (2.302), Pluto offers Persephone dominion over all the dead, regardless of whether they were powerless or powerful in life. Then follows part of an epigram of Martial (4.54), admonishing a prize-winning poet to think of each day as his last:  si sapis, utaris totis, Colline, diebus / extremumque tibi semper adesse putes. The Astronomicon (4.16) of Manilius furnished the concluding thought:  by the immutable laws of the universe, death is our destiny from birth.

The presence of these disparate bits of ancient verse on an early colonial grave marker may stem from the fact that libraries in the province, although few and exclusively private, typically included Roman authors in their collections.  Classical learning was valued in David Lyell’s milieu: Robert Hunter himself tried his hand at writing Latin odes.[16] But, considering their potential as aphorisms, the excerpts may have come instead from some collection of sayings, or a devotional tract which cited them, and not from wide reading in Latin literature on Lyell’s part, or on the part of anyone close to him.

Still, the precept that the mighty face the same destiny as the meek has, in the case of the once powerful David Lyell, a peculiar resonance.  It was surely not his design, but it has become his fate to lie in a remote, unmarked grave in the seclusion of Topanemus.

Copyright © 2012 by Gregory J. Guderian

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Bulletin of the New Jersey Classical Association, Fall 2011, pages 4 (.pdf) and 5 (.pdf).

Concerning dates:  Months and days in this article adhere to the Julian calendar in force in Great Britain and its colonies until 1752, but years follow the Gregorian calendar.

^ 1] East Jersey Deeds (hereafter EJD) A:264 in Archives of the State of New Jersey (hereafter NJA) ser. 1, 21:73

^ 2] Paul D. Boyd, Settlers along the shores: Lenape spatial patterns in coastal Monmouth County, 1600-1750 (Ph.D. thesis, Rutgers University, 2005) 782.  The Lenape origins of the name Topanemus do not appear to be in doubt, but the notion that it came from Greek or Latin did occur to some; cf. George Warne Labaw, A genealogy of the Warne family in America (New York 1911) 65, where he speculates, in part:  “Greek, Topan = wholly, Nemos, Latin, Nemus = pasture, pasturage.  Hence ‘wholly a pasturage.’  Why may not this really be the meaning?  It is certainly descriptive of the surroundings, and must have been eminently so in those days.”

^ 3] The 1672 birth (by the Julian calendar 1671) recorded in the St. Martin baptismal register (Westminster City Archives, Acc 2298) would be a year too late if, as his tombstone states, Lyell died in 1726 (Julian 1725) in his fifty-fifth year.  The epitaph is probably to blame for this discrepancy.

^ 4] A tradition that Lyell was a dependent of Sir Thomas and eloped with his benefactor’s daughter to America – noted in William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country (New York 1856) 84, and accepted by other writers – is difficult to reconcile with the fact that Lyell did not leave Britain for at least three years after the wedding.

^ 5] In a document dated 1700, Lyell was described as “late of London now of New York, goldsmith, one of the Proprietors.”  (EJD G:125 in NJA ser. 1, 21:310).  In 1716, Lyell was still styled a goldsmith, and through 1718 was called a merchant of New York.  (EJD C2:73; Deed D 375, New Jersey Historical Society Collections).

^ 6] Kenneth Scott, New York City court records, 1684-1760.  Genealogical data from the Court of Quarter Sessions (Washington DC 1982) 23.  Apparently Lyell performed a similar service for the East Jersey government, receiving compensation near the end of his life of nearly £25, “for Standar<d>s and weights for the provinces vse” (NJA ser. 1, 5:148).

^ 7]  EJD F:716, F:730 in NJA ser. 1, 21:292-3; cf. EJD C:181 in NJA ser. 1, 21:145.

^ 8] NJA ser. 1, 2:487-8, 14:6; cf. 4:227.

^ 9] NJA ser. 1, 14:43-4; ser. 3, 2:193, 252; cf. ser. 1, 14:106.

^ 10] NJA ser. 1, 4:296, 299.

^ 11] The Boston News-Letter, July 23-30, 1716, repr. in NJA ser. 1, 11:41.

^ 12] The colonial laws of New York from the year 1664 to the Revolution (Albany 1894) 1:983-4Cf. Kenneth Scott, “The slave insurrection in New York in 1712,” The New-York Historical Society Quarterly 45 (1961) (43-74) 66, 73.

^ 13] NJA ser. 1, 5:151; EJD D2:138.

^ 14] East Jersey Wills B:17 in NJA ser. 1, 23:300.

^ 15] Richard E. Veit and Mark Nonestied, New Jersey cemeteries and tombstones:  History in the landscape (New Brunswick 2008) 43-44.

^ 16] Mary Lou Lustig, Robert Hunter 1666-1734. New York’s Augustan statesman (Syracuse NY 1983) 147.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: