Researching History Using High-Tech

In my last post, I shared the story of a centuries-old dwelling in Paramus that is in danger of being torn down. I opined about my concerns when it comes to preserving New Jersey’s past. Well, I am happy to share a story about trying to learn more about individuals in unmarked graves in one of the oldest cemeteries in the country. And I am proud to say it is in my hometown of Belleville.

A team of researchers from Rutgers are using high-tech equipment, including ground penetrating radar, to search for Chinese immigrants possibly buried in the basement of the Belleville Dutch Reformed Church. This church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Reformed Dutch Church of Second River, was founded in 1697. The church was rebuilt in 1725 and again in 1807. The current church building was built in 1853.

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Belleville Dutch Reformed Church Photo by Jim.henderson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58082293

Throughout its history, this church has been a place of significance. During the American Revolution, the church’s steeple was used as an observation post. There are over 62 Revolutionary soldiers buried in the adjacent graveyard – the most of any cemetery in the country. It was also used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, which helped those enslaved in the south find freedom as they traveled north.

Later on, Chinese immigrants made Belleville their home. Those immigrants believed to be buried on the church grounds worked on the Trans-Atlantic Railroad. After the work was complete, the immigrants returned to Belleville because of its growing Chinese community. Belleville was home to the original “Chinatown” in the United States. Earlier this year a marker was placed at the church to serve as a memorial to those who helped build the railroad and, in turn, expand America.

I am proud to call Belleville my hometown and am excited to learn what is discovered on the property of the Reformed Dutch Church of Second River.