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Early History Articles

 An article that was written about St. Peter's in 1874:

St. Peter's Church article in "Appleton's Journal", 28 November 1874


The First Church of the First First Lady

 Abbreviated History


Article in the Alexandria Gazette, September 30, 1848

Alexandria Gazette

Early picture and article of St. Peter's. 

Union occupation during Civil War


This is an early history article presented by Steve Avent to the New Kent Historical Society

The parish of St. Peter's was established by the general court of Virginia on April 29, 1679.  There were at that time two churches in the parish: one was the "upper church", located about three  miles west of the present village of Old Church, near a town on the Pamunkey River named Newcastle, now vanished. The second was called the "lower church" to distinguish it from the other and was also called the "broken back'd" church, referring apparently to some structural weakness in the building.

This church was the precursor to present day St. Peter's, and was most likely located some three 1/2 miles west of the present church, near where routes 608 and 606 meet. St. Peter's parish must have been a rather difficult place for its ministers. From 1680 to 1700 the parish had 12 ministers. In a letter to the Lord Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, dated April 12, 1697, the Rev. Nicholas Moreau, who had come to St. Peter's in 1696, said that he had "got in the very worst parish of Virginia and the most troublesome". Hopefully, things have settled down a bit since then.

At a vestry meeting held the 13th of August, 1700, the following vestry order was made: "whereas the lower church of this parish is very much out of repaire and standeth very inconvenient for most of the inhabitants of the said parish, (it is) therefore ordered that as soon as conveniently may be a new church of brick 60 foot long and 24 foot wide in the clear and 14 foot pitch with a gallery 16 foot long be built and erected upon the main road by the school house near Thomas Jackson's."

Thomas Jackson lived next door to St. Peter's, in a house which still stands called "Marl Hill", and it was he who sold the original acre of land upon which the church was built. It also fell to him to see that the construction of the new church was carried out. He burned brick, hauled cypress shingles from the Chickahominy swamp, burned lime for mortar, and delivered nails to the carpenters. There has long been a persistent legend that the bricks came from England, but it is much more likely that they were made locally, here in New Kent County. The remains of a colonial-era kiln have been found just west of the church.

The main road referred to by the vestry, by the way, that is, the old colonial stage road, is the dirt road you saw on your right and left as you entered the church gates. The school house they mentioned stood just outside the present-day church gates on the west side of that road.  Construction began in 1701, and by 1703 services were being held in the church. The present church, which measures 64 x 28 feet, is basically identical to the church as it would have looked in 1703, except for the tower, which was built sometime between 1722 and 1740, and the present slate shingles, which were originally cypress. The final cost for the completed church was 146,000 pounds of tobacco.

In 1719, a churchyard 100 ft square was enclosed with a wall 4 ½ feet high and 14 inches thick, specified "to be in all respects as well done as the capitol wall in Williamsburg". This wall is now gone, though some traces of it still remain in the churchyard.

St. Peter's main claim to fame is its connection with George and Martha Washington. Martha Dandridge was born at Chestnut Grove plantation in New Kent county on June 2, 1731. She married Col. Daniel Parke Custis, a vestryman and former churchwarden of St. Peter's, in June, 1749. In 1757 Col. Custis died, leaving Martha a widow with two small children. On January 6, 1759, the rector of St. Peter's parish, the Rev. Mr. David Mossom, who is believed to be buried beneath the chancel of the church, solemnized the marriage of the widow Custis to Col. George Washington.

A great controversy has raged since then as to the actual location of the marriage ceremony. A strong case can be made for St. Peter's church as the location, though many people believe it took place at the Custis plantation, "the White House" which stood 3 miles away on the Pamunkey River. No less a personage than Robert E. Lee, who was married to Martha Washington's great-grand daughter, believed it took place in St. Peter's church. Be that as it may, another first lady, Letitia Christian Tyler, the wife of Pres. John Tyler, was baptised in the church in 1790.

Following the revolution, St. Peter's, like most churches associated with the Church of England, fell into disrepair and basically was abandoned for a period of about 20 years. One early writer stated that the building was open to the weather and was frequently used by wandering cattle as a refuge during stormy weather. In a letter written in 1814, Samuel Mordecai writes of marching through New Kent county during the war of 1812 and states that one night he "dozed in a pew of St. Peter's church, an ancient structure but not quite in a ruinous state."

Beginning around 1820 the Presbyterians began using the church and it was they who saved it from destruction. They worshiped here until 1843, their minister living in the small room over top of the tower, at which time an Episcopal minister named Rev. Edwin Dalrymple was sent by the bishop to revitalize the old parish. The Episcopalians and Presbyterians shared the church for a time, by alternating the liturgy from week to week, until 1856, when the Presbyterians built a church of their own and left St. Peter's.

In the summer of 1862 war came to New Kent County, and the church paid a high price due to its central location in the county and its proximity to the main roads. The historian Douglas Southall Freeman wrote:

"St. Peter's is located in a district that had strategic importance during the Revolution and during the War Between the States. Past it moved armies and raiders. Hundreds of soldiers, Confederate and Union, rested in the churchyard. Confusing reports of hurried marches often are clarified by references to halts at. St. Peter's. It is one of the few famous buildings in New Kent that survived the devastation of war, which makes it doubly precious."

The division of Union Gen. "Bull" Sumner camped here much of May 1862 (there are several Matthew Brady photographs of Sumner and his men camped here hanging in the parish house), and the commander of the Union army, Gen. George B. McClellan, an admirer of George Washington, visited the church at that time. He later wrote:

"The Washington marriage ceremony took place in St. Peter's church. Finding one's self alone within that historic building, it was a natural impulse to invoke the aid of God to enable me to serve the country as unselfishly and truly as did the great man who often worshiped there…"

Sad to say, not all of our northern visitors shared Gen. McClellan's sense of reverence for the old church. The building was used for stables and storage space, and was heavily vandalized. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in 1871 that

 "The church itself was broken and battered, and rendered wholly unfit for use. The old massive stone font, in which the children of two centuries had been baptized, was broken and scattered in fragments over the floor. The chancel was torn down, the pulpit and desk broken and defaced, and not a sash was left in the windows".

Gen. Robert E Lee wrote in 1869:

"I visited St. Peter's this past spring. It is 3 miles from the White House and in better days I was able to give it more attention. During the war it was made a stable of by federal cavalry. The pulpit, chancel, doors, windows, etc. Were broken and destroyed. Since the cessation of hostilities the neighbors and others have in the best way they could restored the doors, windows, floor and stoves, and procured the services of Mr. Kepler to preach for them every fortnight. On these occasions he makes the White House his resting place, going down every alternate Saturday and returning Monday or Tuesday. The pulpit and chancel ought to be restored, and the whole church made worthy of its associations. It is one of the old colonial churches, is beautifully situated on the road from New Kent courthouse to Richmond in a grove of native oaks, and is the church where Gen'l Washington was married and attended in early life." You can still find, by the way, the names and units of several of Sumner's men carved into the bricks of St. Peter's. Martha Washington's girlhood home, the White House Plantation, which was owned by the family of Martha's great-granddaughter, Mrs. Robert E. Lee, was used as a supply base by Union forces and then burnt to the ground .