How the Headstone of the Son of a Revolutionary War Hero was Returned to its Rightful Place

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A Sleepy Hollow Homecoming

by Dana White – 

L to R: Ossining Historic Cemetery Conservancy board members (from left) Patty Bassak and Jane Botticelli, along with research librarian Martha Mesiti (right), solved the mystery of the missing headstone. —Photo By: Dana White

This fall, scores of Halloween tourists will descend on the Old Dutch Burying Ground and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. While Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman may be the main attraction, an 18th century sandstone grave marker near the back entrance to the Old Dutch Church offers a less spooky and more moving tale. Recently restored to its original spot after being vandalized and misplaced, the headstone of little Frederic Van Wart, dead at one month of age, adds fresh nuance to one of the most famous events of the American Revolution: the capture of Major John Andre.

This tale of history lost and found begins at Sparta Cemetery in Ossining, two miles north of Sleepy Hollow on Route 9. Second only to the Old Dutch in age and importance on this side of Westchester County, Sparta is owned and maintained by the Town of Ossining. On September 15, 2018, members of the Ossining Historic Cemeteries Conservancy, a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of Dale and Sparta Cemeteries, were cleaning headstones at Sparta, a monthly ritual during the spring and summer.

Patty Bassak, an OHCC board member, happened upon an abandoned headstone near the crest of the cemetery. It was lying broken and face-up among some bushes. It bore an iconic soul effigy on top, a winged skull that symbolizes the soul’s flight to Heaven. The top third of the gravestone was broken at an angle. Bassak thought it looked older than many of the other headstones in Sparta, more like those found in the Old Dutch Burying Ground. Bassak cleaned the stone and wrote down the inscription: In memory of Frederic son of Isaac & Rachel Van Wart who died Jan’y 18, AD 1790. Aged 1 Month and 7 Days.

Bassak called over OHCC president Jane Botticelli. Together, they wondered if the dead baby’s father was the same Isaac Van Wart who stopped and searched Major John Andre, the British officer who was smuggling Benedict Arnold’s plans for West Point to New York City. “We knew there was a famous Isaac Van Wart, which prompted further digging,” says Bassak.

Bassak searched for the Van Wart family on Findagrave.com, a website that includes information on nearly 200 million gravesites in the U.S. She discovered that Isaac and Rachel Van Wart, Frederic’s parents, are buried in the cemetery of the Elmsford Reformed Church in Elmsford, but that Frederic was buried in the Old Dutch Burying Ground. So, what was his headstone doing under a bush in Ossining? A visit to the Old Dutch revealed an empty spot where Frederic Van Wart’s headstone once stood.

 

Martha Mesiti, former Ossining Town Historian and reference librarian at the Mount Pleasant Public Library in Pleasantville, offered her help. She located a 1953 book about the Old Dutch Burying Ground that showed every headstone including Frederic’s, before it was removed, probably by vandals. When she discovered written proof of his brief life using genealogy notes at the Westchester County Historical Society, she said “Bingo! Researchers live for putting the pieces together like this,” Mesiti said.

After this confirmation, Botticelli contacted Aubrey Hawes, president of the Friends of the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground, a nonprofit that assists in restoration, maintenance and promoting awareness of this historic landmark. “We knew the stone had been missing, but weren’t sure for how long,” says Hawes. On November 5, he went to Sparta to see the stone, and recognized it as belonging to little Frederic Van Wart.

Baby Frederic was born and died ten years after his father became a war hero. In 1780, Corporal Isaac Van Wart was 22 years old and married to Rachel Storms when he and two other militiamen, John Paulding and David Williams, were patrolling for looters on what is now Route 9. British spy Major Andre was traveling on foot with the plans for West Point tucked in his boot. Van Wart stopped and searched him, and Benedict Arnold’s scheme to hand West Point—and possibly the war—to the British Army was exposed. Afterwards, Van Wart and his compatriots were handsomely rewarded for their deed with a silver medal presented by George Washington himself, as well as farms and large pensions.

After the war, Isaac and Rachel Van Wart went on to have five children, Frederic being the third. Surely the vandals who broke his headstone decades ago and then dumped it in Sparta Cemetery had no idea they were desecrating the grave of a child of an American hero who is honored with a monument at Patriots Park in Tarrytown, at the very spot where Major Andre was arrested.

Cemetery vandalism has long been a problem in Westchester and elsewhere, especially in the 1970s. As renowned Westchester historian Gray Williams put it in a 2007 article in The New York Times, “These are nooks of history that are easily forgotten, and they get vandalized.” With the blessing of Ossining Town Supervisor Dana Levenberg, plans were made to return Frederic’s headstone to its rightful place. “I saw it as a great way to connect Sparta Cemetery and the Old Dutch,” says Levenberg. “It needed to go home.”

First, the headstone had to be removed and repaired. Hawes contacted Bob Carpenter, a sculptor and carver who restores historic headstones. “I get excited putting them back together, especially Revolutionary War soldiers,” says Carpenter, who grew up in Sleepy Hollow. “They have stories to tell, if people are willing to listen.”

Carpenter met with Botticelli, Bassak and another OHCC board member, Bill Losee, at Sparta Cemetery. “I got on my knees and dug him out and put him in the back of my car.”  Carpenter then drove to the Old Dutch Burying Ground. Hawes had staked the spot where Frederic Van Wart’s headstone belonged. Carpenter suspected there was a third piece to the headstone, the base, and began to probe the ground for it, with no luck.

“By accident, I looked to my left, and behind this large sandstone marker five feet away I see a piece of red sandstone sticking out of the ground. I pulled it out and cleaned it off and carried it down to my car,” Carpenter recalls. He compared it to the bottom of Frederic’s headstone, and it fit perfectly. “Sure enough, this was the missing piece. I was over the moon!” Finding the base meant the stone would sit high enough that the full inscription could be read.

Carpenter took the pieces of the headstone home to Yonkers, where they spent the winter on his living room table. “I was waiting for the weather to break so I could bring it back to the Old Dutch, put it together and set it.” As he thought about the child’s brief life, he became attached to his story. “Looking at baby Frederic’s stone on my table all through the winter, it grew on me. I wanted to do a good job, to make it look as original as possible, for him.”

After the winter, Carpenter put the headstone back together at the Old Dutch Burying ground, using techniques he learned in Germany as an art student, which are “closer to the middle ages than the 21st century.” Over half a dozen sessions, he carefully reset the bottom piece and filled in the earth around it. He then attached the middle and top pieces using “very expensive German glue.” To fill in the gaps left by missing parts, he re-created and colorized the stone, touching it up until it was a near-perfect match.

When the work was finished, Hawes organized an unveiling of the re-set gravestone for June 1, 2019. The guest list included Sleepy Hollow mayor Ken Wray and his wife Lynn Moffet Wray, as well as several Van Wart descendants. Carpenter set up a display of his stone-cutting tools and methods. The ceremony began in the Old Dutch Church, with an eloquent speech by head docent Deb McCue, who recounted the history of the Van Warts, and ended with a stirring performance of The Ballad of Major Andre. Outside at the gravesite, Jeff Gargano, pastor of the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns, asked the attended audience to imagine Frederic’s parents standing on this very spot, “their hearts breaking because their little boy has died. Think of the great sadness, the hopes dashed, a future for their son cut off…. So today we stand here to honor their love and their grief. What was lost has been found.”

One of the guests in attendance was Gregg Van Wert, a direct descendant of Isaac Van Wart’s brother Abraham (the “Van Wert” spelling occurred when “Van Wart” was misspelled in the Congressional Record). The New Jersey resident never knew baby Frederic existed since the headstone was missing for so many years. “It’s easy to visualize,” he says, “given the Sleepy Hollow and the Irving connection, some kids one moonlit Halloween night, kicking it over and taking it as a prank.”

For Van Wert, baby Frederic’s homecoming was bittersweet. “We’ve always been very happy and proud of our ancestor, hailed throughout his life as a hero. The harsh reality is that during Colonial times, life was hard. To lose an infant at that age had to bring sadness into his life. Given all the glory that Isaac received, he probably would’ve given it all back just to have his son alive.”

Dana White is the Ossining Village Historian and a board member of the Ossining Historic Cemeteries Conservancy.

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