Once a year, few are the proud who remember:

The Philadelphian who founded of the Marines is buried here.

Every Nov. 10 for perhaps two decades, a simple sunrise ceremony has taken place at the unlikely site where Samuel Nicholas is buried:

The Quaker meetinghouse at Fourth and Arch Streets.

It's an obscure ritual at a hardly noticed resting place - an almost-unknown tomb of a well-known soldier - partly because no gravestone marks the spot and no sign or engraving commemorates his life.

The Society of Friends, renowned for its pacificism, has preferred to keep the matter quiet.

About 6:40 a.m., hearty chanting heralded the approach of a contingent of men and women.

"Back in 1775, our Marine Corps came alive!" was one of the lines they bellowed.

So was, "It's freezing out."

The cadence grew louder, as about 48 souls, most of them in sweatsuits, jogged double-file through the Arch Street gates, one block west of the Betsy Ross House.


Soon they were standing silently, on a herringbone brick walkway west of the long two-story brick building, under a semi-skeletal canopy of towering trees.

A reading commemorated the life of the Marine Corps' first commandant, authorized to recruit the first battalions by the Continental Congress 233 years ago on this date. Leading the Marines during the Revolutionary War, Major Nicholas launched a successful assault on British forces in the Bahamas and ferried Gen. George Washington across the Delaware River for the famous Battle of Trenton.

That the observance falls on the day before Veterans Day is mere coincidence.

A wreath with red and white carnations and a red bow was placed upon a wire stand, followed by a minute or more of silence.

Then the group was off, except for Capt. Phillip Peche, 31, who stayed behind to explain.

The 48 paying homage - who ran 3.5 or so miles from the University of Pennsylvania - included about 40 ROTC cadets from Penn and Villanova, as well as three second lieutenants and a gunnery sergeant from Quantico, Va.

The ROTC program he helps manage, he said, is officially a Navy program, but cadets can opt to join the Marines.

"I think it's great to introduce the newest members of the corps to the history," he said.

The precise whereabouts of Nicholas' remains are a mystery, he said.


The only other identifiable gravemarker on the grounds is the one in southeast corner for 19th-century mayor Richard Vaux.

Some reports say Nicholas was buried on the east side of the building, but no one really knows, said former director Helen J. File.

"We don't have a clue," she said.

The ceremony has been going on for more than 20 years, and usually the wreath was hung at the eastern end of the property, she said.

For one reason, there was a wrought iron fence to hang it on.

"The other thing is it was out of sight," she said.

File, who was director for 28-1/2 years, allowed the annual ceremonies as long as they were small and quiet.

"Without any guns and no fanfare," she said.

Not knowing his grave's location isn't surprising, said current director Nancy Gibbs. Quakers don't subscribe to fancy headstones, and cemeteries go, it was anything but exclusive.

As many as 20,000 people - including thousands of casualities of the late 18th-century yellow fever epidemic - may have been buried on the property, which William Penn chartered as a cemetery in 1701, she said.

Yes, the meetinghouse, finished in 1811, was built atop remains, she said.

"They're still here," she said. "They're under our feet. They're under our parking lot. They're under our walkways."

In the late 1990s, a written request was made to install a small marker just for Nicholas.

"It was denied," File said.

Nicholas was a Quaker until he decided to fight for the country's independence and started recruiting at Tun's Tavern to form the Marines, according to accounts.

He was then expelled - Quakers call it being "read out of meeting," Gibbs said.

Research never could confirm whether he attended meetings again later in his life, File said.

Nevertheless, his remains were buried there.

Unmarked by any stone.

Or any tourist board.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.