Buried in Brambles: The Vancampen Cemetery

At the worst of it I found myself nearly immobile. Vines stretched tightly across my chest, thorns dug into my forearms with every move, and my feet, down somewhere in the invisible nightmare below the foamy ocean of green in which I swam, were in the tangled clutches of evil flora with long, sinuous tentacles. I had no idea what they were, and no intention of looking. I had been struggling to find a way out of this place for almost forty-five minutes. My breath was laboured, my jeans and shirt ripped and bloody, my forearms dripping red. Movement was only to be had by throwing one leg or the other up and over the closest thorny mass and trying to press it down. Success got you a foot forward, while more commonly failure left you dangerously off balance and ready to tumble into the darkness. At one point I seriously pondered the potential ignominy of calling the rangers and asking them to cut me out… never a serious option, but I could see how it might become one. I had a nice chunk of stone nearby. I might have gotten up on it to try and see a way out, but I couldn’t do it. The words on the front of the stone said “Sherman Vancampen,” and I didn’t think he would appreciate me climbing on his grave.

It began two months earlier with some lines on a relatively recent topographical map, and the abbreviation “Cem.” The lines were in the form of a rectangle not far north of an old farm that had once been one of the homesteads of the Vancampen family. A check of various sources turned up references to a “Vancampen cemetery,” and I was intrigued. I had visited the nearby graveyard of the Depues, and thought that was all the mortuary evidence that the vanished town of Calno had to offer. But here were hints of another, where I would find the headstones of the patriarchs and matriarchs of one of New Jersey’s original pioneer families. I made two trips to the location, searching the deep woods to the north where I thought the map pointed, to no avail. On my third trip I had simply happened to look in the right direction, at the right time, while passing up the narrow lane to the farm. There were two newish-looking headstones, resting in a little niche that had been carved out of the undergrowth, on a rise maybe 200 feet north of the road. It was the work of a few minutes to reach these graves, the last resting places of George and Mary Vancampen, and Walter Vancampen and Mallie Sutton.

The stones were in good shape and more recent, the latest one dating from 1954; recent enough to still have living nuclear family around to keep the gravesite as tidy as possible. Beyond I saw hints of other stones deep in the greenery. The brush was simply fearsome: as bad as anything I have been in. Thick thorn bushes and vines were everywhere. However someone had pushed a slight path onward and deeper into the thicket, whether animal or human, and it was this I determined to follow. This had not originally been a bushwhacking trip, and I was not prepared for deep stuff. They call it “bushwhacking” for a simple reason: to get through you need to get a big knife and whack bushes. With no cutters or even a knife on hand, no thick gloves, and short sleeves I was not equipped to move forward. But the site of older stones deeper in got the better of me. I could just follow this older gap, and come back out the same way. Foolproof!

Against the average fool, perhaps. For twenty or thirty minutes I worked my way forward. Each group of stones revealed interesting names and dates, some that I knew from earlier research. I took as many pictures as I could, from as many angles as the brush would allow. Each group also yielded another dim view of yet another group of stones off a little ways in the bramble, reachable if I would just go a little farther, which inevitably I did. When I finally arrived at what I thought was the northern edge of the plot, and turned to come back, there was no path. It was like the bramble had closed in behind me. It was just me, the thorns, some tombstones, a lot of bugs, and not much else. I tried a number of times to find the “easy” route by which I had come; the one that had now been pressed down by at least three passages of something sizeable, but it was simply invisible. The brush was over my head in most places by at least a foot, and although I retained a strong and reliable sense of where the road was, I could not place myself in the plot itself, in relation to the elusive path out.

Not to over-dramatize this. The area I was in is remote by New Jersey standards, and at 7:30 in the evening there are very few people on the nearby roads. However I had a cel phone, and at times a bar of signal strength. I could call for help if I really, really needed to. As it turned out I did find a way, not by struggling in the direction of the road, but by turning east toward the deeper forest. I emerged very cut up, with ruined clothes and trembling with exhaustion. At no time was I lost in the strict sense of the word. But I was in brush so thick and thorny that movement became very, very difficult, and so it didn’t matter that I knew where I wanted to go. I am sure furthermore that this is not the worst the brush can throw at you. There are briar patches out there you can definitely die in, though perhaps this was just the kind you can get really frustrated in.

The question that emerges from this adventure, for me, is why the hell a graveyard full of historic markers is in such dismal condition? I travel often in this area, which is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, and I have photographed dozens of abandoned structures that have been left to decay and fall down. Some of them are examples of colonial-era hand-built construction techniques. Pictures of many of them are on this site. Yet I don’t feel moved to beat up on the NPS, because I know they don’t have a lot of money, and they have saved and helped NGOs to preserve a number of structures in the area. Still, how much money and effort does it take to keep the brush down at a small, historic burial ground? There must be more to this, and I plan to contact them to find out why they are pursuing this policy of neglect. The Vancampens and others buried here were among the pioneers of our state. When the Federal Government acquired this land they acquired the responsibility to care for the historic places on it, and that responsibility is clearly not being discharged.

  • If you’re interested, there is a list of burials in the Vancampen (or Calno) Cemetery that was compiled by a contractor during the Tocks Island dam project in the 1970’s.

25 thoughts on “Buried in Brambles: The Vancampen Cemetery

  1. Mark, I’ve commented before about this cemetery but didn’t find these photographs until last night. I was thrilled to see some of my relatives’ graves. Would you mind if I used some of the photographs to post on ancestry.com? I would, of course, be giving you credit and an explanation of your efforts. By the way, I think “Heron” was “Theron” and that wives kept their maiden names only for the headstones. My great grandmother actually remarried after my great grandfather’s death but was interred with him there at Van Campen Cemetery and used her maiden name. Lucky for us “genies” (genealogists)!

  2. Hi, PJ. You’re welcome to post those pictures on Ancestry.com. If there is anything else I can do to help let me know, and thanks for stopping by.

  3. There are many small cemeteries scattered throughout the park system on both sides of the river. As you’ve noticed, most of them are quite overgrown. This is actually intentional on the part of the rangers, who don’t want the public to know where any of these cemeteries are located. Probably because they don’t have the manpower to protect them from vandals. I have tried asking rangers about the locations of cemeteries and had them play dumb in response, offering no assistance other than to say that yes there are several around both sides of the park system and that they are technically considered private property.

    The ownership of these sites is somewhat of a gray area, and some rangers will tell you that the park system never acquired ownership of some of these cemeteries. So who owns them? A historical title investigation would probably show that some are still owned by the families that originally used them, or now-defunct religious congregations.

    When the dam project was being planed the government put notices in the papers listing the names from headstones that had been discovered so that families that wanted to could have their relatives remains from these cemeteries relocated [the gov was willing to pay for it iirc]. Graves that weren’t to be relocated were to end up underwater, so it wouldn’t have mattered who owned the graveyard. But now that the dam didn’t happen & isn’t going to happen, no one knows what to do about all these graveyards. I guess the rangers are anticipating everything becoming forest eventually to make the matter moot.

  4. I was here today exploring with a friend and as we were walking my friend noticed a headstone through the woods. As we approached we were stunned to see all of the headstones, foot stones and children’s headstones. What we thought was a small family plot turned out to be a rather large and overgrown cemetery, all with names of Van Campen, Sutton, Cole and DePue. A lot of Marthas and Moses’. Sadness overtook me as I thought of how the goverment took these people’s properties and forced families to scatter. What grieved me the most was seeing these families legacies fade away with the land. This site should be preserved, and after seeing the comments about the rangers playing dumb, they know where everything is. The state didn’t care enough about the cemetery and families to begin with, and you hit the nail right on the head that they will let nature take it’s course and the graves will be yet more stones in the woods.

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Bryan. It’s hard not to have a sense of melancholy when we see once-cherished monuments fading back into the forest. After I first visited the site I contacted the park and had a note back from the chief archaeologist regarding responsibility for the burial ground. The Vancampen cemetery, along with a number of others, were left in private hands when the NPS took over the land. Up until a few decades ago there were some local relatives of those interred there who took it upon themselves to keep it in good shape, but they have since passed on. I wouldn’t let it bother you too much. The fate of this cemetery is, after all, the eventual fate of all cemeteries. Glad you enjoyed your visit, and I hope you found the brambles a lot easier to navigate than I did.

  6. Nice article and thank you. I hope to get up there next year to visit the cemetery. The VanCampens are related to me on my Dad’s Mom Side. It is a shame the cemetery looks the way it does. Thank you Mark for going to the effort. I do hope the federal government will take some responsibility for taking care of this historical place.

  7. Thank you for writing this article. I have my 4th, 5th, and 6th great grandfather’s buried here in this forgotten cemetery. My grandmother was Laura Van Campen. I have been tracing the family lineage for a few years now. I’m thrilled to find this site, and saddened that it is uncared for. I hope to travel to it this year and photograph the grave sites with my husband. My family would be willing to participate in finding a way to preserve and support the upkeep of the cemetery. Please contact me with any information you find that I can follow up with to promote this. I have a public family tree on ancestry that I use to document and share my finds. I’d like to contact the land owners and see if they are open to talking about preservation.

  8. Hi, Laura. Thanks for stopping by. My understanding, as of the last email exchange I had with the NPS about two years ago, is that the plot of land containing the cemetery is in private hands. So you would likely need to begin with either the NPS itself, or the local township clerk, in order to determine who the owner currently is. The cemetery is located in the former Pahaquarry township. I think, but cannot say for certain, that the Pahaquarry records were transferred to Walpack. You might start with the historical society there, which has offices off of Main Street in the old village. Good luck! If you decide to visit the graves be careful of the brambles.

  9. Hi Mark, I just came across your article on the Van Campen Cemetery. It was so much fun to read because I had the same experience when I was there in 2007. I traveled from Iowa to go to “VanCampen Day” in October of 2007. My grandmother was a Van Campen so I wanted to see the old family homestead. I had such a wonderful experience until I got to the cemetery to see how over grown it was at that time. I too, tried to move through the cemetery and had the same feeling and many scratches that do described. Thank you for sharing this and the photos. I hope that some day something can be done to clear this area again. I was also wondering if I could use some of your photos to add to my Van Campen family tree. Thank you again. Doug

  10. Hi, Doug. Thanks for stopping by. You’re welcome to use any of the photos for non-commercial purposes.

  11. Stumbled onto this website with its beautiful photos and interesting articles.

    I knew a man who had once took part in keeping such burial sites maintained further up river within the park. Most were originally small neighborhood burial grounds or family plots.. stated as exemptions within deeds – connecting them to the original family or founders.

    The National Park Service therefore neither owns nor has any responsibility to care for these plots. When there were family descendants living, often they used to take care of such sites in the past. Sadly, many left the area or have themselves passed on. Most park rangers truly do not know the names of these burial grounds or where they are – just that they do exist.

    As to the one in Pahaquarry – that township was dissolved in 1997 and was added to Hardwick Township, Warren county, NJ. I would assume the records are now there or at the Warrren county level. Great project for an Eagle Scout or history group.

  12. This has been a great experience pouring over these photos and comments. My Great Grandmother Elizabeth Schoonmaker-DePue-Van Campen was buried here February 1828. Thanks for the legacy you have left to us. Abandoned cemeteries are difficult to preserve as the counties and townships do not have the funds for upkeep unless they are located in a municipality. These cemeteries are hallowed ground and have been consecrated by those who are buried there. If I win the lottery, I will preserve it.

  13. I spend a lot of time in this area mostly north by Flatbrookville and Walpack. I had planned on hiking what I refer to as the southern part of the park this spring. With out a doubt rich in history. I planned on hiking to the Depue grave site but will look for this one with the appropriate gear. If we do make it in as always we will leave flowers and take nothing but photos. I feel strongly that these places should be maintained at least by mowing. Out of curiosity is there a noticeable path into it or a maker off the lane. Not clear of the satellite imagery.

  14. Hi, Mike. I haven’t been there in four or five years now, so I am not sure what the current conditions are. The last time I was there no path was evident from the lane north to the graves, however two of the newer stones were just visible from the lane, which is how I finally found it. I was told that one of the houses on the property burned last year, so there may have been further disruption to the area since my last visit. Good luck, and have fun.

  15. Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of
    the pictures aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.
    I’ve tried it in two different internet browsers and both show the same results.

  16. Thanks for the heads up. I just ran through the gallery in Chrome and everything appears to be loading. Perhaps it was a temporary network issue. I’ll keep an eye on it.

  17. Hi Mark
    If you have the time could you scribble a rough map for me and send to my email. I just cant find it. I must be in the wrong area. Leaves are coming down now gonna try again.
    Kind Regards
    Mike

  18. Mike, see this map: https://www.google.com/maps/@41.0558865,-75.0036935,18z

    That side road leads east off of Old Mine just south of Millbrook, and runs past the old Ribble place. Just north of the road is a low bit with a creek. On the other side of it is some higher ground and the cemetery is there. Let me know if you still can’t find it, and perhaps we can get together and I can show you where it is.

  19. It is interesting to note that there is a rear entrance to this old burial ground as I have entered into it many times and have the SCARS to prove it. Back by the red barns, deeper into the woods, far behind the main cemetery there are a few more scattered graves with the remains of old metal post, most likely a separate family plot. A ranger told be that it is surviving family members responsibility to maintain this cemetery as it is NOT considered Federal land. What? He may be right about that. I was there in July of 2014 and NO FLAGS were placed on the veterans graves as is the custom of doing so. It is impossible to do that honorable deed in this tick-ridden old cemetery. So if the facts are true – where are the relatives that most likely still live nearby?? There are VanCampens, Depues, etc. names still found in Warren County! I am heading back this spring to attempt more rubbings. I hope I make it out alive…. anyone UP FOR A CEMETERY TRIP ??

  20. If it’s behind the red barns then you would be talking about the old Depue burial ground, off Hamilton Trail. It’s a different, and much smaller, cemetery, but just as interesting.

  21. Mark, I just found your photo gallery of the Calno-VanCampen cemetery. Prior to that, I was prepared to gather all my tools and ammunition and take a day to
    clean it up. We have the necessary equipment. Now, I’m wondering if it’s a lost cause! What do you think? If we could get a “group” together and meet some comfortable day this Spring it might be a possibility to get the job done. A group of my Ribbles are buried there! Is there any interest in this group project? We’re in!

  22. Hi, Marie. Well, two things worth bearing in mind: the first is that my photo trip out there was something like five years ago now, so I really don’t know what the current condition of the site is. The second is that these cemeteries, most or all of them as far as I know and definitely the Van Campen plot, were not deeded over to the government during the whole Tock Island fiasco, so they remain private land. That said, I’d certainly be a fan of anyone who had the means and determination to keep it up. The fate of old cemeteries is more often than not to fade away. Good luck!

  23. Wow, this is amazing. I was a VanCampen up until my mother married and my step father adopted me. I grew up in Rochester, NY where my grandfather Albert VanCampen relocated to for work from Wilkes-Barre/Beaumont area in PA. You know I can look at the family tree we have in the family and look back all the to 1659 when we came over, but until I found this I never really quite understood how prolific the VanCampens were.

    Thank you so much for this article and the time you took to photograph the stones you could find. I’m living in Brooklyn and it’s safe to say I’ll be making a pilgrimage out there this Spring.

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