This is a very preliminary and summary account of some of the findings of an extensive research project to study the tombstone carvers whose stones are found in the early 19th century burying grounds of southern Central New York. My research focuses exclusively on the locally procured and carved shale and sandstone grave markers and the identification of the artisans who carved them. A cluster of carvers have been identified in the Town of Virgil, Cortland Co., NY and it appears that they all trained under one man, Caleb Whiting Jr., and later worked under a master carver, Asa Joiner, before going on to their own businesses. In some instances the following generations carried on the trade, but eventually adapted to carving marble which entirely replaced the native stone by about 1850.
In compiling the data for this subject I also collected notes on many other tombstone carvers across NY State. Please check my Inventory and Geographical Index of Upstate New York State Tombstone Carvers.
The hills of Cortland County, as well as the neighboring counties of Chenango, Tompkins, and Otsego, hold a particularly fine grade of shale and sandstone that early settlers immediately recognized as being suitable for building and other purposes. The quarry industry in the region has a long history, with the giant flagstone pits of the mid to late 19th century being very well known and often described in historical, geological, and engineering texts. Never noted in these sources is the earlier use of the these stone deposits by the local populations who split the exposed facies to derive building stone, well caps, steps, and tombstones in the days before the railroads made importation of marble from Vermont inexpensive.
In the earliest days of the settlement of the region, from the 1790s to 1810s, burials were primarily marked with wooden planks or rough fieldstones (if they were marked at all). Many of these fieldstones survive today but few bear any inscription and indicate that trained carvers were not available in the region for the first decade or two. After about 1812 a carver is found in the region who appears to be the same as that known in the Connecticut River Valley as the Rockingham Carver (Windham Co., VT). Several other folk carvers were also located at this time in Otsego County and the Hubbard Brothers, Roswell and Norman, were carving some very beautiful stones in Sherburne, Chenango County as early as 1819.
It appears that the Cortland County Carvers didn't come to the area until nearly two decades after settlement. The earliest is one David H. Manrose Jr. who lived at Freetown on the eastern edge of Cortland County. He was there in the late 1820s and died while traveling through Ohio in 1828. The style of his carving is not known and it is assumed that since he was relatively young he had not practiced the trade long. At the same time that Manrose died John Crandall, who had also been a resident of the Freetown area moved to Norwich, Chenango County where he began the carving of tombstones. His stones are incredibly detailed and are found throughout the Norwich area. The gravesite for this carver is the only one I have found and, sadly, it is marked only by a non-descript marble slab. His descendants went on in the quarrying business and the Crandall family is still known today for their excellent stoneworking skills.
In the 1810s and 1820s four particular families came into the Town of Virgil in southern Cortland County. It seems that they came out of Windham County, VT, but I have not been able to settle this. The Whiting, Sweet, Moore, and Joiner families all settled near the corners of the towns of Virgil, Harford, and Lapeer between Babcock Hollow and Frank's Corners. Each of these families, as well as the Sterling, Baker, Gee, Congdon, and Terpening families who lived as neighbors were involved in the tombstone business in some way. It seems that Caleb Whiting Jr. was the master carver before he moved to Ithaca and Binghamton, and then it seems that Asa Joiner became the charge of the business. Whiting was also a blacksmith, and it is presumed that the others carried on other trades as well.
Asa Joiner was born in Rutland County, Vermont in 1811 and probably came to Cortland County about 1820. Despite the fact that Asa Joiner lived in the area until between 1850 and 1855 no written record (deeds, etc.) were found regarding his activities and he is entirely erased from local memory. His claim to fame, though, are the finely carved stones which dot the country and village cemeteries in Cortland, Tompkins, Madison, Onondaga, Broome, and Chenango counties. Those are just the counties in which his signed stones are found, and hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of his unsigned work are found in each of these counties as well as those surrounding, from Pennsylvania to the Erie Canal and the Delaware River to the heart of the Finger Lakes.
It is probable that Joiner was not the sole carver of these thousands of stones and it is clear that he had a number of people working under him. It appears from analysis of carving techniques that Joiner outlined or scribed the design and lettering while his workers did the actual carving. This is not proven, though. Whitings stones, and perhaps Joiner's early work, had a very heavy and rounded decoration, but it was very detailed and little of the stone was left uncarved. The decoration of Whiting's stones are primarily geometrical in form, with wonderfully symmetrical petal clusters, leaves, vines, urns, and other details including a very distinctive lettering style. Joiner's later work is also purely geometrical and the designs include fans of leaves, unusual cog/gear-like clusters, spindled columns, and webbing. What is particular about Joiners work is the easily recognized format of decorative elements. Joiner's work is clearly derived from the earlier work of Whiting and Joiner made an art out of the geometrical designs. Although the elements are used frequently they are not based on tracings or preformed patterns, but on the dimensions of the available stone. Since it was difficult to shape the stone from the quarries the decorations were laid out based on the proportion of the stone, thus, while the elements may be exactly the same for many stones, the measurements of each element was different from stone to stone. Analysis of the designs show that the urns and fans are all of the exact same form, but they come in many sizes which are determined by the dimensions of the stone.
I have yet to find out the fate of Asa Joiner. He was last listed on the 1850 Federal Census as a stone cutter in the Town of Harford (Babcock Hollow) and he is not found in New York on the 1855 or later census records. It is reported that he went out west with his family (wife Roxanna, children James, Lydia A., Eunice, William R., and Francis M.) but that is all I have been able to deduce from his sparse record. Philo Perry Moore went on to carve marble headstones for a number of years, and I have recently received word from a descendant that he ws born in 1821, left Cortland County in the mid-1850s, was married in 1857 in Chester Township, Eaton Co., Michigan, and died May 19, 1903 and is buried in Potterville Cemetery on Vermontville Road, Charlotte, Eaton Co., MI. I have yet to find if his tombstone was one of his own creations. Caleb Whiting Jr. went to Binghamton with Congdon, may have been in Penn Yan for a while, and then spent his later years in Ithaca. John Terpening went to Dryden where he carried on the tombstone carving business a couple miles west of (the site is now an auto repair garage and totally destroyed). Eber Sweet stayed in Virgil and had an extensive and quite long-lived marble tombstone business at several locations in the hamlet of Virgil; I am told that his business has been handed down through a succession of owners and is still active today, but I don't know the present name. Henry Sterling went off to Canandaigua where he and his sons carried on the stone cutting and masonry business; they being responsible for building many fine stone buildings, walls, and monuments in that place. Barnabas Baker has only recently identified as a carver and no research has been done on him.
There is so much to write, and even more to learn! I recently made a trip to the Township of Whitingham in Windham County, VT, and was told that there had been Joiners there, and I'm sure that some of the other families came from that area also. It is also clear that the famed "Rockingham Carver" ended up in southern Central New York - all food for thought and follow-up research!
The following pictures illustrate the transition from the natural and unmeasured (but still very calculated) carving of Caleb Whiting Jr., to the very defined and geometric designs of Asa Joiner. The dates of the stones are not necessarily to be relied upon as the date at which the stone was made as it may have been many years before the stone was created for the deceased. For example, Asa Joiner appears to have begun carving stones about 1830, but the date on one of his signed examles is 1815, when he was but 4 years old! Because of this acknowledged problem in dating the stones researchers have long relied on seriation sequencing (measuring gradual changes in design through time) to determine the order in which the development of tombstone designs took place. For more information on this be sure to read James Deetz In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (1977)