New Light on the 'Old England' Connection:

The Harpers of Harper's Ferry

by Tony Johnson
Oxford, UK.

drawing of church from 1820
British Villagers seek U.S. help to restore 800-year-old church.

Recent research in a tiny village deep in the English countryside is throwing new light on the early roots of the Pennsylvania connection with England. The village is called Noke in Oxfordshire. This small community, which lies five miles north of the famous University City of Oxford and has a population of only one hundred, can justly lay claim to being the original home of the Harpers, one of the early settlers.

John Harper (the grandfather of Robert Harper, who set up the original ferry at Harpers Ferry), was a Quaker who would have been 48 years old when he left England with his wife and five children. In 1682 they set sail for America aboard the Welcome, one of the ships in William Penn's fleet, arriving some months before Penn himself. They purchased 500 acres of land in the new colony of Pennsylvania, and settled close to Philadelphia, the township to which the Harpers gave the name of Oxford. John Harper and his wife Ann are buried there. His interesting and historic tombstone commemorates his roots:

John, son of John Harper, of Noke in Oxford Shire in Old England, arrived in Pennsylvania the 2d of August, 1682, who died ye 29th of April 1716, aged 83 years

So it was well before 1700 that the Harpers were firmly established in America, together with seven of their eight children: John, Joseph, Josiah, Mary, Charles, Elizabeth and Ralph, the youngest two having been born in the New World (their eldest daughter Bridget did not accompany them to America). Robert Harper, the founder of Harpers Ferry, was descended from their second son, Joseph.

Back in Noke in Oxfordshire in Old England, exciting new research in the churchyard has identified what is probably the tomb of John's father (died 1667) and grandfather (died 1617), which makes him a contemporary of William Shakespeare (Shakespeare would no doubt have often passed by Noke, as the village lies within half a mile of the old London-to-Worcester road, the shortest route to Stratford at that time). The Harpers (or Harpurs) appear in the earliest of the parish registers (1575), and probably lived in the village for generations. They were leading landowners and farmers.

Unfortunately, by 1870 the Harper tomb in Noke had become so dilapidated that it was dismantled. The churchwarden made a note in the parish register that states, "This day took down and removed fifteen or sixteen inches nearer the S. wall of the Church, the Altar Tomb of the Harpers, father & son, the Tomb having become insecure by age—the stones bearing inscriptions are laid beneath the top slab of the Tomb." By then there were no Harpers remaining in the village, John's eldest daughter being the last recorded family member entered in the Noke baptism register in 1669.

Although we are told what was supposedly inscribed on the old Harper tomb, the two inscriptions today lie buried beneath the capstone of the monument and are no longer visible, although a large stone overgrown with grass close to the church porch may give a clue to its location. An old etching has been found, drawn in 1822 (50 years before the tomb was reduced to ground level) showing a tomb in this position, which seems to be the one to which the note refers. It is hoped some time in the future to investigate these stones, confirm the discovery, and then rebuild the Harper tomb.

This small English village has become increasingly concerned about the maintenance of its 800-year-old church, and has formed a group called the "Friends of St. Giles, Noke" to assist with the funding of the repairs to the fabric, history and American connections for future generations. For those interested in this intriguing story and supporting the friends of the church, you can visit the English website, with a full list of families dating from 1574 and other interesting information. Here you can check your own family name against the village records. The site can be found at: home.btconnect.com/stgiles_noke


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This story was published on February 6, 2002.