St. Claire Pollock lies in an orphaned grave, his monument sequestered just within the northern reaches of Riverside Park. A carved urn in the shape of an acorn sits on an inscribed granite cube above his grave.
Erected to the Memory
of an Amiable Child
St. Claire Pollock
Died 15 July 1797
in the Fifth Year of His Age
I was as indifferent to its presence as were the cars streaming south on the Drive 15 feet away. Four or five mornings a week over the warmer months I would exercise along the upper walk of the Park, starting at the Firemen's Memorial, past Riverside Church, past the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial on what was once called Strawberry Hill, past the seven steps that lead down to the little burial site. For years I did not even pause to read the sign the New York Department of Parks had posted there.
What finally drew me to the grave was the appearance of fresh flowers placed in a makeshift vase, an emptied jar, traces of its label not entirely scrubbed off: at first, a single pink rose, then forsythia, dahlias and zinnias. Someone had adopted this grief.
I imagined that someone driving to the City for work would stop, place fresh flowers there. Or, perhaps someone on a daily walk along the Drive had substituted this grave for one too far away to visit on a casual basis, as are those of four generations of my family.
I began to vary the time of day I exercised. I even considered leaving a note. The more I watched for the appearance of this steadfast flower bearer, the more I began to feel attached to this lone burial site so dislocated from place and family.
It was not just the constancy of these offerings that intrigued me; it was the homeliness of that jar. As a child in Pennsylvania, it was in just such a jar that I would catch fireflies or put freshly cut flowers to take home from the garden. It tugged at me, familiarly.
Eventually the monument became more important than clocking those three miles, so I stopped to read that posted sign.
But the story told there is not definitive, more like a tale handed down through generations than historical fact. That George Pollock owned the land from Strawberry Hill to the Hudson River; of this, the Parks Department is certain. Officials are also certain that in 1800 he sold his property and entrusted this grave site of "a favorite child" to a neighbor, Mrs. Cornelia Verplanck, of whom he touchingly implored, "consider it part of your own estate, keeping it, however, always enclosed and sacred."
There the surety ends. For Mr. Pollock is described as a linen merchant of Scots, Irish or English descent, who was either the father or the uncle of this five-year-old who, probably, fell from the cliff to his death on the rocks by the Hudson below. Mr. Pollock seems almost at a once-remove from fatherly grief for nowhere does he refer to St. Claire as My Son. Yet it was easy to imagine him looking out across his land to the tomb at the edge of the cliff. I wondered if the constant reminder was why he had sold his land.
Dogged curiosity led me to the New York Historical Society, where their private stash of newspapers, books, journals, public and personal records are housed. In its second-floor library, fact-finders sat hunched like crows above heavy tomes, the air freighted with silence. It was intimidating, but the friendly young woman at the desk knew exactly what I was looking for and produced a copy of The New York Mail and Express for April 3, 1897, page 13.
A Mr. James Richards had written an exhaustively researched article on the "Little Child Buried Near The Great Hero." He had sifted through the purchases and sales of the land on Strawberry Hill, spoken to descendants of the owners, and searched the archives of Trinity Church, where he found records of the marriages of two Pollock brothers, but no record of a baptism of St. Claire or of a burial. Still he felt it reasonable to conclude that little St. Claire was George Pollock's son.
Call it stubbornness, for I had no clear idea of what was propelling me to continue the search, except that I was determined that St. Claire's story have a proper end. Over the winter I visited, on more than one occasion, the warrens of offices in the Central Park Arsenal, the Genealogical and Biographical Society, the Municipal Archives, the Municipal deeds register office, the young City's census lists, the newspaper archives at the Central Library, both Trinity Church cemeteries, and the archives of the Parish of Trinity Church. I searched newspapers, census data, historical volumes, burial lists, public papers, maps, correspondences and diaries.
Piece by piece I checked to verify Mr. Richards' findings published in the 1897 article, and eventually found the missing documents that tell this story. George Pollock married Catharine Yates on March 17, 1787. Carlisle Pollock, his brother, married her sister, Sophia Yates, on September 1, 1792. All three Pollock brothers — George, Carlisle and Hugh — were listed as merchants in the New York City Directory.
The 1790s in New York City were a difficult time for all merchants. British ships restricted trade. It was a time of great speculation. Many New Yorkers lost their life savings to stock swindles and financial disasters. Merchants couldn't sell goods. Some importers and merchants formed partnerships and crowded out small businesses. Two-thirds of the land was owned by Tories. The city was radically divided between extremes of wealth and poverty.
In 1975 George Pollock's business was located at 91 Water Street. He also had a business with his brother Hugh at Gouverneur's Lane. By 1801, George Pollock had moved from his home on Strawberry Hill to No. 26 Whitehall Street. He had a store at No. 95 Front Street. What property on Strawberry Hill he had not sold was seized in bankruptcy proceedings on March 12, 1802. His brother Hugh also lost the contents of his home, including every pot, candlestick and curtain to debtors by order of the Sheriff.
It was difficult for George Pollock to leave his home on Strawberry Hill, "having so long — and so delightfully resided on it — that I feel an interest in it I cannot get rid of, but thro' time." He felt not only his own loss but also heightened anxiety that the little child's tomb, on land he had intended as his family burial site, might "fall into the hands of I know not who, whose better Taste or Prejudice might remove the monument and lay the enclosure open." Which is why in 1800 he conveyed that piece of property, previously set apart from the deed of sale to Gulian Verplanck, to the widow Cornelia to consider as part of her estate, adding: "There is a white marble funeral urn — prepared some time past to place on the monument, which Mr. Darley will put up and which will not lessen its Beauty."
The monument was already deteriorating when New York City acquired the land through condemnation proceedings to create Riverside Park in 1872. The Parks Department did consider removing the child's grave, but finally acceded to public sentiment that the tomb of a child was as worthy as that of a general. It was so beyond repair that the Parks Department created a faithful replica of Barre, Vermont granite and dedicated it in 1967. As Mr. Alter Beretta wrote: "The City performs many services, but none can be so heartwarming as fulfilling the wish expressed over a century and a half ago": Mr. Pollock's wish.
One rainy day, I slogged into the archives offices at Trinity Church, hoping some records might have surfaced since the 1897 article. They had. And how easily they were found in the Register of Baptisms in the Parish of Trinity Church. There was the name, St. Claire Pollock, entered as Mr. George Pollock's son. He was baptized by the Reverend Benjamin Moore at the parish on November 11, 1792. Of the 12 baptisms listed on that page, only one lists the mother's name. But I'm sure Catharine Yates was St. Claire's mother, as two of his sponsors were her parents, Mr. Richard Yates and Mrs. Ad. Yates. I was elated. Even further research revealed that St. Claire had had a brother and a sister: George, baptized October 31, 1794 and Lorenza, baptized November 10, 1796.
I stopped my research here. I never discovered how St. Claire had died. Strangely, every place searched for an official record of the death of St. Claire found that year missing. I had been driven to know whose son St. Claire was, and how his grave site came to be so dislocated. I had found answers. I knew who his father and mother, brother and sister were and how he had come to be buried, alone, in a public park. St. Claire's tomb no longer felt orphaned.
But it was not until I began writing this story in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village that tears began to scald my eyes as I recalled my mother, with the same quiet devotion as that flower bearer, visiting our family's graves and placing fresh blossoms at each stone year after year. That was the memory that had tugged at me.
St. Claire's tomb had become a perfect metaphor for my own sense of dislocation from family and the place reserved for me at the cemetery on the hill in Easton, Pennsylvania, where the stones record the names of those who founded the town, its industries and businesses. I have not been part of that continuing story. I was drawn to New York City in 1956.
Jane Churchman is a poet, free-lance editor and writer.