Niagara Falls

The Cemetery Stone Investigators (CSI) at Oakwood Cemetery: Mission #1: Locate the Whitney Sisters and Little Brother

It’s a most sacred task, but someone has to do it.  About a year ago, two young boys from Niagara Falls uncovered the grave of Willie Richardson.  Just a little fist-sized section had surfaced and it bothered the boys that a person was being swallowed up into the earth.  So they used whatever makeshift tools they could find and peeled back the earth and grass until Willie was revealed.  He died in 1864.  Not much is known about Willie to this day.  We know his father was a guide on the river.  We know he was buried in Oakwood.  That’s about it.  But he will always be Brendan Kratts’s and Jason Hake’s favorite resident at Oakwood Cemetery.  They feel that, in a way, they resurrected someone.  For one person who had lived a very long time ago had almost disappeared but now he is remembered. 

The story of Willie Richardson hit the newspapers and the boys decided to make uncovering lost souls their sacred task and the Cemetery Stone Investigators (CSI) were born.   They have found other missing persons, too, including Rachel Preston Parsons—who was born in 1765, and Lolly Todd Childs who may be a relative to Mary Todd Lincoln!  

Brendan Kratts and Anthony Conghi from Channel 4 Jason Hake and Anthony Conghi from Channel 4

On Sunday, July 22, 2012, the CSI (Cemetery Stone Investigators) at Oakwood Cemetery set out on Day #1 of a very important mission:  locate the graves of The Three Sisters and Little BrotherThe Three Sisters and Little Brother, refer to the Whitney children—the real people behind the names of the world famous islands at the brink of the Horseshoe Falls.  Local lore reveals that back in 1816, General Parkhurst Whitney, a founder of Niagara Falls and a hero of the War of 1812, ventured out to the little islands as an ice bridge had formed during that infamous “year without a summer.”  Because of their precarious position the islands that teetered at the edge of the cataract were virtually impossible to get to until the ice created a natural bridge that one year.  The Whitney girls were the first white girls to ever step foot on those islands and somewhere along the line it was decided to name the islands after them:  Asenath, Celinda Eliza and Angeline.  The smallest island on the outskirts eventually became known as “Little Brother,” after their little brother, Solon Whitney. 

A vintage postcard showing the Three Sisters IslandsUnfortunately the Whitney graves have experienced the same fate as many other 150 year old graves.  Time has not been kind and they have not easily weathered the storms of three centuries.  Asenath, born in 1809, faired the best of the sisters.  Her tombstone, though modest for her place in society, still stands.  Jillian Kratts, who portrays Asenath in our Stunters Tours, was more than happy to pose for a picture beside her grave. She helped her brother, Brendan, and his best friend, Jason, as they gathered their shovels and buckets and set out to uncover the latest history mystery in Oakwood Cemetery.  Luckily, Asenath is quite readable, though she stands unprotected in Lot #62 under a hot sun with not a tree in the general vicinity.

Jillian Kratts, who portrays “Asenath Whitney” in Oakwood’s, Where the Stunters Rest tour, poses beside the grave of Asenath Whitney.

Sister:  Asenath B. Whitney (Kowalewska)
Island:  The First Island
Who Was Asenath? 

If you have visited the Three Sisters Islands, Asenath was the namesake for the first island you stepped foot upon.  It was also known, at different times, as First Sister Island and Moss Island.  There has always been a bit of controversy as to when the islands became officially known as the Three Sisters Islands—different historians will give you a different story.  We do know, however, that today, the first island is Asenath, and we do know that Asenath, the woman, lies in her grave at Oakwood Cemetery.  

Asenath was born on January 22, 1809, in Geneva, New York, the first surviving daughter of General Parkhurst and Celinda Whitney.  Interestingly the most unusual name “Asenath” is Egyptian in origin and means “she belongs to her father” or “gift of Isis.”  Likewise, Niagara’s Asenath was not your ordinary woman.   She was only one year old when her parents came to the wilderness that was Niagara Falls.  Her father worked as a surveyor and was the first to plot out Goat Island.  Asenath, whose father also created the first library in Niagara Falls, was a brilliant and highly educated woman.  She was a scholar and a linguist and was fluent in a number of languages.  In 1822, her father brought her a very special and historic gift—a piano.  It was the first piano in Niagara Falls and Asenath soon after became an extremely accomplished musician.  Her courtship and marriage in 1837 was something straight out of a fairy tale, for the dreamy Asenath met and fell in love with a Polish gentleman and teacher of languages named Count Piotr de Kowalewska.  An officer with the 10th Lithuanian Lancers and a noble man who was forced to flee his homeland following the Revolution when his estates were confiscated,  the count brought some new exotic and romantic flair to the family.  Four children were born to the Kowalewska’s:  Linda Alice, Olympia, Frederic, and Helena.   All of them were gifted in music, the arts and languages.  Asenath died on September 6, 1859, and was buried here, in Oakwood Cemetery.  She is beside her parents’ broken down graves; Celinda and Parkhurst Whitney languish to her right.  Her husband, the Count, died in Havana, Cuba, in May of 1854.  We are not sure at this point if he is buried in Oakwood or not.  Another history mystery for another day!

Day #1:  July 22, 2012
Sister:  Angeline Whitney Jerauld
Island:  The Second Island
Where is Angeline?

Pete Ames got things going

Although we know that all three sisters (and little brother) are buried in Oakwood, Angeline’s grave has proven to be much more of a challenge for the CSI.  A scorching sun baked the already blanched grounds this Sunday morning as Oakwood historians Pete Ames and Dorothy Rolling searched over the old yellowed maps for the grave of the second sister, Angeline.   It became apparent that all signs pointed to the fact that Angeline is buried not too far from her parents and her sisters and brother in the Dexter Jerauld Lot.  According to the books, she is buried in Lot 64 somewhere beside Louise Jerauld (who was partially hidden behind a tree and quite blanched herself) and directly in front of the monument for Harriet and Dexter Jerauld.  A penciled in note revealed a not so pretty fact:  “marker not good.”  There was no marker to be seen for our poor Angeline.  Where can it be?

CSI digging in Lot #64

Jillian looking for possible remnants of Angeline’s stoneThe CSI wasted no time at all.  They marked out the spot where she was plotted to reside and Pete began to dig.  The CSI team dug deeper and sifted thru the dirt and clay.  Red ants climbed up their legs and as they wiped the sweat from their eyes it became apparent that this was not going to be easy.  Their excitement would peak each time their shovels hit against a piece of stone.  Unfortunately they were all broken pieces of stone.  They separated the stones from the dirt and vines and grass.  Sifting through those pieces will be a job for another day.  Finally several unusual pieces of stone surfaced.  These larger chunks may in fact be pieces of Angeline’s tombstone, for there was evidence of concrete on these stones. Dorothy Rolling, town of Niagara historian and an expert on cemeteries, knew that there was no other reason for random concrete and stone that far down into the earth.  It must be part of a stone that had been pieced back together at one point.  If only a piece can be found with some lettering. 

Town of Niagara historian, Dorothy Rolling, noticed that these pieces of stone, containing cement, may be remnants of Angeline’s grave marker 



After several hours of hard work, it was time for the CSI to pack up.  Hopefully Day #2 will bring us closer to the final remains of Angeline Whitney!


Look for our next installation of CSI’s search for the Three Sisters and Little Brother and the story of Angeline Whitney Jerauld.    

Some of the equipment used by CSI










Oakwood has its angels….

For Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, NY by Michelle Kratts

Have you ever thought of placing a flag beside a veteran’s grave on Memorial Day? Maybe this year will be a first for you.  In years past there was no greater event than Memorial Day.  Thousands lined the streets in a procession that led to Oakwood Cemetery.  Every single home and business along the way proudly draped itself in the red, white and blue.   This was the day our city honored our most esteemed citizens, our veterans.     There were some special homes, some special graves, that the veterans, themselves, insisted upon honoring each Memorial Day.  They belonged to three most spectacular women: Elizabeth Letitia Porter, Margaret Elizabeth Breckinridge, and Julia Averill Griffen.  They were Army nurses during the Civil War, angels of the battlefield, and now Oakwood’s special angels. 


Elizabeth, Margaret, and Julia were the cream of the crop of Niagara Falls society. They were not ordinary women at all and the wounded men knew that.  They sacrificed lives of comfort and privilege, of pianos and afternoons memorizing love poems, for every sort of degradation, disease and despair the world could offer.  They gave a chapter of their girlhood to shoes caked in a strange mix of dirt and blood, dresses splashed with the insides of men, to typhoid and erysipelas.  Saturday night dances included struggling with a broken down man on the way to the surgeon’s table.    There were times they were able to make it home to Niagara, to recover from illness and exhaustion, but they inevitably found themselves longing to return to the battle lines.   The love of their country and their fellow man was tattooed onto their souls and stayed with them even into Death.


Elizabeth, the exceptionally intelligent, highly cultivated daughter of General Porter (hero of the War of 1812, Secretary of War under John Quincy Adams) and Letitia  Breckinridge (a southern belle with an impeccable pedigree), was born at Black Rock (Buffalo) on April 19, 1823. For a time she was rumored to have been “the woman Mr. (Millard) Fillmore intended to lead to the altar.” Perhaps a bit reckless in speech, she was known to often boast to European royalty that her family “owned the Falls.”    When the war broke out she was firm and steadfast in her convictions.  In May of 1861, she inherited two slaves from her grandfather’s Kentucky estate and promptly freed them.  She was at the forefront of the women’s aid society in Niagara Falls and in 1862 left with her brother’s regiment for Baltimore where she served for many months as an Army nurse. In 1863, when she was back in Niagara Falls on sick leave, she roused herself to come to the aid of a returning infantry unit that had also returned with most of its men gravely ill.  She nursed them back to health and even insisted that they take her carriage and team for a tour of the Falls.   In June of 1864, she bravely brought her dear brother, Col. Peter A. Porter’s, lifeless body back to Niagara Falls where he was laid to rest in Oakwood Cemetery.  Her experiences during the war rendered her an invalid and she died in Niagara Falls on January 28, 1876.  She sleeps in the Porter plot at Oakwood, a giant in our history,  sadly mostly forgotten by residents of the city she loved most of all. 


Margaret Breckinridge was Elizabeth and Peter’s first cousin. Born in Philadelphia on March 24, 1832, her grandfather had been a senator from Kentucky and the Attorney General of the United States under Thomas Jefferson.  When her beloved older sister married their dashing cousin, Peter A. Porter, Margaret also came to live in Niagara Falls.  She found the beautiful Porter home to be a most interesting resort for the meeting of literary and scientific minds, a shelter for the poor and homeless, possibly the hub of Niagara’s Underground Railroad, and the center of all local society.  With the outbreak of war, she, too, along with her cousins, volunteered her services.  Most of the time she served as a nurse on the hospital boats that travelled up and down the Mississippi.  Soldiers never forgot her.  She sang to them, read to them.  They said it seemed she didn’t walk, she flew.   How strange they thought it was for such a high-class lady to come and find herself bothered by them!  In a letter to a friend she wrote of this and remarked that she had “come so many miles on purpose to be bothered.” 

When Peter was killed at Cold Harbor in June of 1864 she was heartbroken.  Perhaps her relationship with him was more intimate than publicly revealed for loved ones hesitated to break the news knowing it would utterly devastate Margaret.  And it did.  She met Elizabeth in Baltimore and accompanied Peter’s body back to Niagara Falls.  The blow was ultimately too great for her and her broken down body succumbed to disease and exhaustion.  She died of typhoid fever on July 27, 1864, just a month after Peter.  She was only 32 years old.   I believe her tomb may be the most beautiful in all of Oakwood.  It is inscribed as follows:  “A life most precious and most beautiful such as consecrated to God and to duty and laid down in its prime in her devotion to her country and to humanity.”


Perhaps one of the most interesting of the angels of Oakwood is Julia Averill Griffen.  Born in Hudson, New York, to Jane Hardick and Isaac Griffen, her paternal grandfather was a Quaker.  When she was 13 her family moved to Stamford, Ontario, where her uncle, Cornelius, owned and lived in the Clifton House.   During the Gold Rush of 1849, Cornelius attempted to make his way out to California, but met his demise before he arrived.  His wife moved to Suspension Bridge and the other Griffens followed her to Niagara Falls.  At the onset of war, Julia’s brother, Cornelius enlisted, and then, she decided that she must serve as well. 

She went to New York City for training and then on to Washington, D.C., where she worked under Dorothea Dix.  She spent much time on the front and was taken prisoner following the battle of Winchester.  After being paroled, she served more time at the front with the army of the Potomac.  The men of Col. Porter’s 8th NY Heavy Artillery met with her among the wounded and the prisoners and made note of her kindness and skill.  When the war had ended, she found herself chronically ill with asthma due to time spent upon the battlefield.  She fought the US government year after year for the right to a pension.  Finally, in 1888, by a special act of Congress, she was awarded a military pension.  She was so beloved for her service to her country that on Memorial Day celebrations the veterans of the G.A.R. honored her by lowering their flags upon passing her home.  She died on December 18, 1891, at the age of 60 and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery. 


Usually, it is our custom to honor soldiers on Memorial Day, but the soldiers of Niagara Falls made a habit of honoring these three women.  Years have passed and most of us have never heard these names, yet there were men who had them upon their lips as they marched into heaven.  It was 150 years ago when three angels came from Niagara Falls and gave their lives for their country.  Perhaps on May 31, 2011, we should remember Elizabeth, Margaret and Julia and place a flag upon their graves.   It’s the least that we can do.