What we know today as the Timbuctoo Cemetery was established as part of the Zion Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal African Church in 1854, according to the corporation certificate and deed on file at the Burlington County Clerk’s office. The deed specifies that the premises were "granted and released ... to be used as a place of religious worship according to the form of government and discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in America, and as a place for the burial of the dead of such as are in connection with said church or the descendants thereof, (and such others as the majority of the Trustees for the time being may permit) forever."
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was first established in New York City in 1796. It became known as the Freedom Church for its association with the anti-slavery movement, and its most prominent members included Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. Cheryl LaRoche discusses how mapping Black settlements “visually clarifies and exposes the relationship between African American churches, settlements, and historic Underground Railroad routes,” noting that most Black settlements had churches that were active on the Underground Railroad. Given Timbuctoo's strategic location adjacent to the Rancocas Creek and various accounts that associate Timbuctoo with Black people who escaped slavery in the South, it is clear that Timbuctoo had a role in assisting escapees, and the church was the center of the community.
It is noteworthy that the oldest remaining gravestone in the cemetery is from 1847, seven years before the 1854 deed that transferred ownership from Peter Coppuck, a White Mount Holly resident, to the church trustees. The texts of the deed and certificate, as well as this gravestone suggest that the church was operating and using the burial ground before the incorporation date. While it was not uncommon for churches to operate without incorporation during this period, the presence of a gravestone that precedes church ownership of the property raises questions. It could be that Coppuck rented the premises to the church until they were in a position to buy it.
Today, eleven gravestones remain in the cemetery and eight of them are US Colored Troops that fought in the Civil War. The predominance of military gravestones led the cemetery to be referred to as the Timbuctoo Civil War Memorial Cemetery in recent years. However, a geophysical survey conducted in 2009 identified at least 60 unmarked gravesites. On this basis, the eleven stones that remain today represent a fraction of the total number of graves. The absence of stones on most of the gravesites has been attributed to the fact that stone grave markers were a luxury that was limited to people of means or recipients of veterans’ death benefits. Rank and file citizens frequently had wooden grave markers that would not survive time.
The three non-military gravestones in the cemetery all have the last name Parker. They are all relatives of David Parker, who was one of Timbuctoo’s first settlers in 1826, and who was arguably the most prominent member of the Timbuctoo community for several decades. His first wife, Eliza Parker, died in 1847. He second wife, Matilda, died in 1870. There is also a stone for his son Frisby, who died in 1872. Those stones can be seen here.
We honor the memory of the 11 deceased whose names we know, as well as 59 or more others whose names we don’t know yet. A research project that is ongoing is identifying additional names.