When a church is more than three centuries old, it's almost impossible to construct a list of the "most interesting" or "most important" events of its history. That's especially true with Trinity Church Wall Street, whose history so closely parallels that of New York City and even the United States.
More than three years ago, just as the pandemic had changed the world, we published an article listing 10 things to know about Trinity. Curated by archivist Marissa Maggs and former archivist Joseph Lapinski, who have an in-depth knowledge of Trinity's storied and valuable archives, this list provides an introduction to our vast collection of writtings, recordings, and artifacts that traverse the history and stories of our parish and New York.
Trinity Church Charter
Trinity Church’s charter, granted in 1697 by King William III, serves as our incorporation document, and lays out, legally and spiritually, how we are to exist as a parish. It establishes the rules of a Vestry, the succession of Rectors, and even the bounds of the first land that was granted to us. Within the Charter, it even states that Trinity is responsible for paying a nominal rent in the form of one peppercorn (yes, that kind of peppercorn) annually to the Crown.
Queen Anne’s Land Grant
As part of our charter in 1697, Royal Governor Benjamin Fletcher leased Trinity church a parcel of land, known as the King’s Farm, along the western side of Manhattan for a term of seven years. Using modern references, that land stretched from today’s Fulton Street north to Christopher Street, and from Greenwich Street (which at the time, abutted the Hudson River) east to Broadway. At the end of those seven years, in 1705, Queen Anne, who had assumed the throne during the initial lease, chose to permanently grant that land, now known as the Church Farm, to Trinity for “a lasting foundation of its support.”
Three Church Buildings
There have been three buildings on the land where Trinity Church currently stands, land which was purchased from the Lutherans in 1696. The first church, built in 1698, faced west towards the Hudson River. It burned down in 1776 during the Great Fire of New York, which burned between 10 and 25 percent of Manhattan’s buildings at the time.
The second church, which opened in 1790, lasted only a few decades, when heavy snow in 1839 caused the roof’s support beams to collapse. Architect Richard Upjohn was brought in to repair the second church but decided to completely rebuild instead.
The third church opened in 1846 and still stands today.
Trinity Church was once the tallest building in New York City
It may be easy to forget—as the newly constructed 26-story Trinity Commons office and community building looks down on the third and current Trinity Church—but when it was completed in 1846, Trinity Church held the title of tallest building in the United States for 23 years, until it was surpassed in 1869. However, it remained the tallest building in New York City all the way up until 1890, when The World Building was the first skyscraper to surpass Trinity’s 281 Foot Spire. Trinity Church dominated the city’s skyline up to that point.
The Chapel of All Saints
While Trinity Church was recently closed to undergo its extensive rejuvenation, The Chapel of All Saints remained open and functioned as Trinity’s main worship space for weekday services. Now that Trinity’s rejuvenation is largely completed, the Chapel of All Saints is closed to receive its own rejuvenation.
The Chapel of All Saints was constructed as a memorial chapel, on the north side of Trinity Church, in 1913 in memory of The Reverend Dr. Morgan Dix, our ninth Rector.
Morgan Dix was one of our longest tenured Rectors, serving 46 years from 1862-1908. He was born on All Saints Day, hence the name of the Chapel. His cenotaph—the stone statue of Rev. Dix to your right when you walk into the chapel (lower photo below)—is commonly mistaken for his tomb. But Reverend Dix is interred under the altar of The Chapel of All Saints.
It is so stated in Trinity’s Charter that it and all the rights, properties, and privileges described therein would be granted to us provided we pay King William III—and any of his heirs or successors—a yearly rent of...“One Pepper Corn”. And yes, this is a pepper corn like those used in a pepper grinder.
The term “peppercorn” is often just a metaphor for a very small payment, something to bind a legal contract—and often not to be taken literally. And this seems to be the case with Trinity because it doesn’t appear we ever actually paid a yearly peppercorn in rent. Until, Queen Elizabeth visited in 1976 and our then-Rector, Dr. Robert Parks, presented Her Majesty with 279 years of back rent in the form of—279 pepper corns. Queen Elizabeth II accepted this symbolic gesture on the front steps of Trinity Church, where a plaque commemorates the event.
Trinity’s Archives has fielded a lot of questions over the years about the Soldiers Monument—the large stone monument in the northeast corner of the Churchyard. Some have even asked if it is the spire of a previous Trinity Church (Note: It is not). But it does have its own interesting history.
First, it was erected in 1852 and is dedicated to the American soldiers who died in British captivity, throughout New York, during the Revolutionary War. During that war, when the British occupied the city, they often used storehouses and ships docked around the city as prisons. Many of those men died as prisoners. This monument is dedicated to them. There is another component, however. New York had once requested Trinity to allow the city to extend Albany Street all the way through to Broadway, paving over a strip of the North Churchyard in the process. While somewhat exaggerated, there is a tale told at Trinity that the Vestry scrambled to erect this monument specifically to block that extension, theorizing that the City wouldn’t dare tear down a Revolutionary War memorial for such a plan.
The oldest burial in Trinity Churchyard that is documented by a legible headstone is that of Richard Churcher, who died in 1681 at the age of 5. This is notable because Trinity wasn’t even founded until 1697 and highlights the fact that the North Churchyard, in particular, has always been used as a burial ground—and was actually The Old Dutch burial ground since long before Trinity purchased it, and the land just south of it (from the Lutherans), to plant the first Trinity Church. So while the Churcher headstone pre-dates Trinity Church, we can be certain there are many more souls buried in the North Churchyard that far pre-date Trinity’s existence.
But it is important to highlight the fact that the Hamiltons are joined by many other notable individuals whose lives help tell the stories of Trinity’s distant past.
Other famous burials include:
- Robert Fulton—inventor and engineer of the first successful steamboat
- Albert Gallatin—founder of NYU, member of Congress and Secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson
- Francis Lewis—the only signer of the Declaration of Independence buried on Manhattan Island.
- Several delegates to the Continental Congress, including Walter Livingston, John Alsop, Luther Martin, and John Morin Scott.
And, there’s Elias Neau—a French Huguenot refugee who came to New York in 1685. He was later captured by a French privateer near Jamaica, imprisoned, and given a life sentence as a galley slave. He was released in 1698 by King William III (the same King William who granted Trinity its charter) and, upon his return to New York, Neau dedicated his life to the education of enslaved Africans and the Native people here in New York, and even served as a Trinity Vestryman from 1705-1713. Neau’s work laid the foundation for Trinity’s involvement in the realm of education throughout the 1700s.
Whales and Wrecks
“Whales and Wrecks” is a nickname for one of the more idiosyncratic documents in Trinty’s Archives: a 1696 patent from Royal Governor Benjamin Fletcher stating that all shipwrecks and drift whales that wash ashore in New York Harbor become property of Trinity Church. While it may sound strange today, it was a way for Fletcher and the Royal Government to recognize that the church could use any kind of benefit in its early days. Whales and shipwrecks were potentially a considerable source of income. The patent, as far as we know, has never been enacted.
This article is based on an earlier story by Joseph Lapinski and Marissa Maggs in March of 2020