Ephraim Huit Gravestone, Windsor, Connecticut

The gravestone of Ephraim Huit at Palisado Cemetery in Windsor, Connecticut, around 1900. Image from Connecticut Magazine, Volume VI.

The scene in 2023:

These two photos show the gravestone of the Reverend Ephraim Huit, who died in 1644. This is generally believed to be the oldest dated gravestone in New England, and it may also be the oldest in the United States. It is located in Palisado Cemetery, which was the colonial-era burying ground for Windsor, the first English settlement in Connecticut.

Ephraim Huit was born in England and was educated at Cambridge. He served as a clergyman in Warwickshire, but he found himself in conflict with the Anglican authorities, apparently because of his nonconformist Puritan views. This may have been what prompted him to emigrate to North America, and he eventually made his way to Windsor, where he was ordained as an assistant pastor of the church in 1639. However, he died only five years later in 1644, when he was about 50 years old.

Among those who had traveled to Windsor with Ephraim Huit were brothers Matthew and Edward Griswold. Both were evidently masons, because Edward is documented as having constructed “the Fort,” a fortified brick house in Springfield, while Matthew was, according to tradition, responsible for carving the gravestone of his in-laws, Henry and Elizabeth Wolcott, here at Palisado Cemetery. Gravestone scholars have likewise attributed several other gravestones to Matthew, including this one here for Ephraim Huit.

The term for this type of grave marker is a box tomb, and it consists of a large flat top that is supported by legs on the corners. In between the legs are four panels, one of which bears the inscription identifying it as the final resting place of Ephraim Huit. Although called a tomb, his body would not have actually been interred in the above-ground space inside it. Rather, his remains would have likely been directly beneath the box tomb.

It is carved of sandstone, which was likely quarried in Windsor. Sandstone was a common material for gravestones in the Connecticut River Valley during 17th and 18th centuries, but it varied in quality depending on its source. Many carvers worked in brown sandstone from the Middletown and Portland area, but this stone tends to be coarse-grained and porous, making the gravestones vulnerable to weathering. Windsor sandstone, on the other hand, tends to have more of an orange-brown color, and it is very fine grained. As a result, gravestones sourced from Windsor have generally survived in much better condition than their Middletown counterparts.

The inscription on the Ephraim Huit stone is carved fairly shallow, but the quality of the material has meant that it is still easily legible nearly four centuries later. Early New England gravestones often have concise inscriptions that give only basic information such as name, age, and date of death. However, this inscription is far more lengthy. It reads:

Who when hee Liued wee drew our vitall Breath
Who when hee Dyed his dying was our death
Who was ye stay of State ye Churches Staff
Alas the times forbides an Epitaph

This last line is particularly puzzling, since it is is an epitaph that says that the “times forbides an Epitaph.” This apparent contradiction is also made more unclear by uncertainty over the meaning of “times.” Did the carver mean it as in there wasn’t enough time to carve a proper epitaph? Or did “times” mean the social, religious, and/or political context of 17th century Connecticut? This latter interpretation seems plausible, since the Puritans generally took a dim view on any kind of elaborate funerary rituals. Could this have been a subversive critique of Puritan society, carved into, of all places, the gravestone of a Puritan pastor?

As for the identity of the carver, there are no surviving records that specifically identify him. It has generally been attributed to Matthew Griswold based on tradition and circumstantial evidence, and it is stylistically similar to several other mid-17th century gravestones that can be found in places such as Hartford, Springfield, and New London. However, it is possible that there may have been another hand involved in making this stone. Matthew’s nephew George Griswold—the son of Matthew’s brother Edward—was also a gravestone carver. His identity as a carver is more firmly established in historical records, and there are dozens of stones that he apparently carved, including many here at Palisado Cemetery.

The bulk of George Griswold’s work dates to the 1670s through 1690s, and his gravestones tended to be small, conventional markers, in contrast to the large box tomb of Ephraim Huit. However, those stones nonetheless show a high degree of skill, leading some scholars to infer that George likely learned from his uncle Matthew. If that was the cause, it seems plausible that he may have assisted in carving the Huit stone. Perhaps the strongest evidence in support of this theory is the lettering on the stone, particularly the letter “y.” On his later gravestones, George Gridswold used a distinctive “y,” with an elongated, curved “tail” that often swooped beneath the preceding letter. Here on this stone, almost every “y” has this feature, with the exception of the one in “LYETH,” which has a standard capital “Y.” This inconsistency might suggest that there may have been more than one carver at work on this stone.

As for the exact date when this stone was carved, it is hard to say. Backdating was a common practice for colonial-era gravestones, with many stones being carved years or even decades after the person’s death. If George Griswold did, in fact, carve some of the letters, then the stone was likely not carved immediately after Huit’s death, since George would have been just 11 years old at the time. But, since the style and lettering is consistent with other mid-17th century stones in the area, it was probably not backdated by much, and was likely carved around the 1650s.

Because backdating was so common during that time period, it is impossible to say with certainty which gravestone is the oldest in New England. There are a handful of others from the 1640s and 1650s, but the Huit stone has the earliest date of any of these. Because of this, and in the absence of any records firmly documenting when a particular stone was carved, the Huit stone seems to have the strongest claim to being the oldest gravestone in the region, and it may also be the oldest dated gravestone in the country. There is a knight’s tombstone in Jamestown, Virginia from 1627, but this stone does not appear to have any dates or other markings.

It would not be until the late 17th century that gravestones would become more common in New England. Early graves may have been marked by wooden markers, or by simple fieldstones, but the idea of permanent, carved monuments was not firmly established in the region until several decades after the Ephraim Huit stone was carved.

Here in Windsor, George Griswold became the first carver in Connecticut to produce gravestones on a large scale. Over the next century and a half, the high-quality sandstone here would continue to draw gravestone carvers to the town, and some of their works can be seen in the background of these two photos. Most visible among these are the three stones directly beyond the Huit stone in this scene. The shortest one, located furthest to the left, marks the grave of John Warham Strong, who died in 1752. His stone was carved by Joseph Johnson, one of the most talented of all the colonial-era carvers in Connecticut.

The two stones on the right, just beyond the Huit stone, were both carved by Ebenezer Drake, another prolific carver in the Windsor area. The stone further to the left marks the grave of Return Strong, who died in 1776, and the one on the right is for his wife Sarah, who died in 1801. The designs of these stones reflect the changes in gravestone carving traditions during those intervening years. When Return died, most gravestones were topped by a winged face that likely represented the soul ascending to heaven. However, by the turn of the 19th century these tastes had shifted to more neoclassical symbols such as willows and urns, as depicted on the top of Sarah’s gravestone.

When Sarah’s gravestone was installed here at the turn of the 19th century, the Ephraim Huit stone was already a relic of a much earlier era. It was also in poor condition, and by the early 19th century it had collapsed. The panel with the inscription was left lying flat and facing up so that it could be read, but the other large panel on the opposite side of the stone evidently disappeared. However, in 1842 it was restored, and a new panel was installed on the other side of the stone, bearing an inscription that commemorated another early Windsor pastor, the Reverend John Warham.

The first photo in this post was taken around 1900, and by this point the gravestone was widely recognized for its historical significance. An 1894 newspaper article described it as “the oldest original monument in the Connecticut valley,” and it also quoted the “quaint inscription” on the stone. In later years, this inscription would also catch the attention of other writers, and it was even featured in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! newspaper cartoon panel in 1958.

Today, nearly 380 years after the death of Ephraim Huit, his gravestone has remained in good condition. It has seen few noticeable changes since the first photo was taken, although the left side of it does appear to be more weathered and eroded than in 1900. Palisado Cemetery is still an active cemetery, with many modern burials, but the oldest stones are here in the southwestern part of the cemetery. The Huit stone is the oldest of these, but there are many other 17th and 18th century gravestones here in the cemetery, providing many opportunities to study the changing ways in which colonial New Englanders chose to memorialize the dead.

Oliver Ellsworth Homestead, Windsor, Connecticut (2)

The Oliver Ellsworth Homestead at 778 Palisado Avenue in Windsor, around 1900. Image from Connecticut Magazine, Volume VI.

The house in 2023:

As explained in an earlier post, this house was the home of Oliver Ellsworth, a prominent Connecticut politician in the post-Revolution era. The main part of the house was built in 1781, but it was later expanded in 1788 with an addition on the right side, and later in the 19th century with the addition of the columns and porch on the right side. The house is located on the east side of Palisado Avenue in the northeastern part of modern-day Windsor, a few hundred yards to the west of the Connecticut River.

Oliver Ellsworth was born in Windsor in 1745, and he grew up in an earlier house on this site. As a young man he attended Yale and the College of New Jersey (modern-day Princeton), and after graduation he became a lawyer. In 1772 he married Abigail Wolcott, and they had nine children who were born between 1774 and 1791: Abigail, Oliver, Oliver, Martin, William, Frances, Delia, William, and Henry. Ellsworth inherited the family house in the early 1780s, and the original house was evidently demolished in order to build the current one in 1781, although it is possible that a portion of the old one was incorporated into the newer structure. He named the house Elmwood, and planted 13 elm trees in the front yard, representing the original 13 states.

In the meantime, Oliver Ellsworth became involved in politics during the American Revolution, including serving as a Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress throughout most of the war. After the war he became a state judge, but in 1787 he was selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, which drafted the current United States Constitution. There, he worked with fellow Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman to create the Connecticut Compromise, establishing the current bicameral federal legislature with proportional representation in the House and equal representation for each state in the Senate.

Ellsworth had to leave the Philadelphia convention before the Constitution was finished, so he did not sign the final draft of it. However, once the Constitution was ratified, he played several important roles in the new government. He was one of Connecticut’s first two senators, serving from 1789 to 1796, and during this time perhaps his most significant contribution was writing the Judiciary Act of 1789. In the Constitution, the structure of the judicial branch was intentionally left vague, to allow Congress to establish courts as they saw fit. This act set the size of the Supreme Court, and it also established a system of lower federal courts and judicial districts.

The first Chief Justice of the United States was John Jay, who served from 1789 to 1795, when he resigned to become governor of New York. George Washington then nominated John Rutledge as the next Chief Justice, and Rutledge served for a few months as a recess appointment. However, the Senate ultimately rejected his appointment, so Washington instead nominated Ellsworth, who was unanimously approved by the Senate. He became Chief Justice on March 8, 1796, and he served in that role for the next four years. At the time, the Supreme Court was not generally seen as being anywhere near as important as the other two branches of the federal government, so there were no landmark cases during Ellsworth’s time, although he did institute the practice of justices issuing a single majority opinion, rather than each justice writing an individual opinion.

In 1799, while Ellsworth was still serving as Chief Justice, President John Adams sent him to France as an envoy, where he negotiated with Napoleon in order to prevent war between the two countries. However, the trip to Europe left Ellsworth in poor health, and he ultimately retired from the court in December 1800. This decision would prove to have far-reaching effects; it came in the closing months of Adams’s presidency, after he had already been defeated for re-election by Thomas Jefferson. However, Adams was still president until March 1801, and as such he nominated John Marshall as Ellsworth’s replacement. Confirmed by the Senate in 1801, Marshall would go on to serve as Chief Justice for the next 34 years, where he played a crucial role in establishing key precedents and upholding Federalist ideals, long after the Federalist party itself had faded into obscurity. Had Ellsworth not retired when he did, his successor would likely have been someone appointed by Thomas Jefferson, which would likely have radically altered the course of American history.

This house remained Oliver Ellsworth’s home throughout his political career, and during this time he entertained visitors such as George Washington and John Adams. Washington’s visit came on October 21, 1789, when he stopped here during his tour of the New England states. He spent an hour here on his way from Hartford to Springfield, writing in his diary:

By promise I was to have Breakfasted at Mr. Ellsworths at Windsor on my way to Springfield, but the Morning proving very wet and the rain not ceasing till past 10 Oclock I did not set out till half after that hour; I called however on Mr. Ellsworth and stay’d there near an hour.

A decade later, on October 3, 1799, John Adams became the second sitting president to visit this house. This occurred exactly a month before Ellsworth departed for France, so it seems likely that much of their visit involved conversation about diplomatic issues and the potential for war with France.

Following his return to America and his retirement from the Supreme Court, Ellsworth came back here to his home in Windsor, where he lived for the rest of his life, until his death in 1807 at the age of 62. The house would remain in his family for nearly a century after his death, and it was still owned by his descendants when the first photo was taken around 1900.

The first photo shows several exterior alterations that had occurred during the 19th century, including the columns and portico on the right side, along with exterior shutters on the windows. Overall, though, it still looked much the same as it did when Oliver Ellsworth lived here a century earlier. There were also many large elm trees in the front yard in the first photo, which were likely the same ones that Ellsworth had planted here.

In 1903, shortly after the first photo was taken, the Ellsworth family donated the house to the Connecticut chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It was then preserved as a museum, and over the years it has seen few exterior changes, aside from removing the exterior shutters. The elm trees that Ellsworth had planted are now long gone, having probably fallen victim to Dutch Elm Disease in the early 20th century, but the house itself still stands as an important Connecticut landmark. It is still owned by the DAR, and it is open periodically for public tours.

William Soper House, Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 1580 Poquonock Avenue in Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

This house was built in 1806 in the village of Poquonock, which is located in the northern part of Windsor, along the banks of the Farmington River. The house was originally owned by William Soper, who was about 36 years old when he moved here with his wife Rebecca and their young children. At the time, the Poquonock church was in the midst of a schism, with a majority of the members favoring Universalism over traditional Christian doctrine, and the church was steadily losing members by the early 19th century. The church appears to have been completely defunct by 1821, but for the next several decades some Poquonock residents held occasional religious meetings, with historian Henry Reed Stiles noting, in The History and Genealogies of Ancient Windsor, Connecticut, that the Soper family sometimes held such meetings.

Aside from these meetings, the village of Poquonock went several decades without a regular church. In his book, Stiles noted that the village was, in the first half of the 19th century, in the midst of “a moral and religious lethargy which had so deteriorated the character of this beautiful portion of Windsor that it was familiarly spoken of in the surrounding country as Sodom.” However, in the 1830s William Soper became one of the leaders in an effort to start a new church congregation. From 1835 to 1841, an assortment of visiting pastors preached at the village’s public hall, with Soper serving as part of a three-man committee that was responsible for finding suitable clergymen, and in 1841 the church was formally established, with John R. Adams ordained as the first minister.

William Soper lived here until his death in 1844, and in his will he left the house to his wife Rebecca, with their son Chester to inherit it after her death. However, Rebecca ended up outliving Chester, and after her death in 1855 the property was divided between their two surviving sons, Ira and Merritt. After Ira’s death in 1861, Merritt acquired the property, and during the 1870 census he was 70 years old and was living here with his wife Maria and their daughter Mary. Maria died in 1874, though, and Merritt died five years later, after falling and dislocating his neck.

During the first half of the 20th century, this house was owned by John B. Parker, a tobacco farmer who had also represented Windsor in the state legislature in 1903. He died in 1930, but his wife Estella was still living here later in the decade, around the time that the first photo was taken. During the 1940 census, she was 82 years old and lived here alone, although she did rent a portion of the house to a young couple, Carroll and Muriel Perry, who paid Estella $10 in monthly rent. Estella died five years later, and at some point afterward the house was expanded with an addition on the right side. However, this scene remains otherwise unchanged, and the house still stands here in the center of the village of Poquonock, more than 200 years after it was built by William Soper.

Joel Palmer House, Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 280 Pigeon Hill Road in Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The scene in 2017:

This house was built in 1766 by Joel Palmer, who moved in here a few years after his marriage to Anna Hayden. Joel was a veteran of the French and Indian War, serving in the 1st Windsor Company in 1755, during the early years of the war. He subsequently married Anna in 1761, and they had ten children who grew up here: Ann, Naomi, Lattimer, Joel, Harvey, Martin, Rubah, Hezekiah, Horace, and Zulma.

Joel died in 1812, and Anna died around 1825, but this house would remain in their family for many more years. By the second half of the 19th century, the property was owned by Martin’s son, who was also named Joel Palmer. This younger Joel was a farmer, and during the 1850 census he was 45 years old and was living here with his mother Nancy, his wife Emily, and their five children: Charles, James, Osbert, Martin, and Maria. However, Emily died later in 1850, and Joel eventually remarried in 1873, to Elizabeth Goodwin.

Census records from the second half of the 19th century give an insight into the crops that Joel Palmer produced here on his farm. In 1870, he had 35 acres of improved land, plus 12 acres of woodland and 12 acres of other unimproved land, for a total value of $5,000. Like almost every farmer in Windsor at the time, he grew tobacco, and his other crops included corn, oats, and buckwheat. A decade later, these were still major crops for him, but the 1880 census also noted that his farm produced 100 bushels of potatoes, 50 bushels of apples, and 10 cords of wood.

The first photo was taken around the late 1930s, as part of the WPA Architectural Survey of historic houses in Connecticut. By this point, the house was no longer in the Palmer family, and the survey documentation listed it as being in poor condition, with an interior that had been completely changed from its 18th century appearance. The yard surrounding the house also seems to have been poorly-maintained, with what appears to be overgrown bushes and weeds in front and to the left of the house.

Despite its condition, the house stood here for many more years, and at some point underwent exterior renovations, including replacing the clapboards with wooden shingles and adding a new front door. However, by the early 2000s the house was abandoned and was again in poor condition. At this point, the surrounding neighborhood had also changed significantly, and open farmland had become housing subdivisions and suburban office parks, with Interstate 91 running less than a quarter mile to the east of here. The house was finally demolished around 2012 or 2013, and today the lot remains vacant except for a barn in the back corner of the property.

John Hillier House, Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 140 East Street in Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

According to local tradition, this house was built around 1650 by John Hillier, one of the original settlers in Windsor. If accurate, this would make this house the second-oldest in the town, and among the oldest surviving houses in the entire country. However, if so, it must have undergone some significant alterations, both on the interior and exterior, because its appearance does not bear any resemblance to typical 17th century New England architecture.

This house is certainly very old, though, dating back to at least the early 1800s, when it was owned by the Hatheway family. The documentation for the first photo, done between 1935 and 1942, notes that the house had been in the family for over 100 years at that point, although it seems unclear as to which members of the family owned the house in the first half of the 1800s.

By 1869, the county atlas showed that Duane Hatheway owned both this house and a neighboring one, with real estate that was valued at $4,000 in the 1870 census. Duane had been married twice before, but his first two wives, Lucinda Barrett and Julia Huntley, both died only a few years after their marriages. He and Julia had two children, Freddie and Cora, although Freddie died in 1863 when he was just 10 days old.

Duane married his third wife, Laura Tooker, in 1866. He was 45 years old at the time, and she was about 25, and they had six children together: Clinton, Adin, Louie, Emory, Annie and Grace. However, despite being widowed twice and losing a young child, Duane faced even more tragedy in his life in 1877, when Clinton, Louie, and Annie died within a week of each other, presumably from an infectious disease that struck the family.

Although Duane was 20 years older than her, he would eventually outlive Laura, who died in 1905. He died the following year, at the age of 84, and his son Adin inherited the property. Adin Hatheway was a blacksmith, and had a shop nearby at the present-day corner of East Street and Clubhouse Drive. He later worked for General Electric, and he lived here in this house with his brother Emory, Emory’s wife Alice, and their daughters, Edna and Ruth. In early 20th century census records, Emory was variously listed as a machinist in a tool factory and as a farmer, but he was also a noted taxidermist and collector of Indian artifacts.

Adin and Emory were still living in this house when the first photo was taken, and they would remain here for the rest of their lives. They both died in February, 1962, when Adin was 92 and Emory was 88. Since then, the clapboards on the exterior of the house have been replaced with modern siding, but otherwise its appearance has not significantly changed in the past 80 years.

William Phelps, Jr. House, Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 124 East Street in Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

According to local tradition, this house was built in 1670 for William Phelps, Jr., the son of one of Windsor’s founders. As a boy, the younger William had immigrated to the American colonies in 1630 along with his father, settling first in Dorchester, Massachusetts, before moving to Windsor. The elder William built a house here on East Street along the banks of the Farmington River, and, according to some accounts, William, Jr. later built this house nearby.

If accurate, the 1670 date would make this house among the oldest homes not just in Windsor, but in all of Connecticut as well. However, there seems to be significant doubt as to the accuracy of this date. The saltbox-style design of the house did not become common until the first half of the 18th century, long after William Phelps’s death, and there is little in the home’s exterior appearance to suggest that it is from the 17th century. The documentation that accompanied the first photo, done as part of the WPA Architectural Survey of historic homes in Connecticut, indicates that the house was probably built after 1700, and it identifies the first owner as William Griswold, while also stating that it was known as the Mather House.

The subsequent history of this house seems equally uncertain. The 1798 map of the town shows two houses on this section of East Street, which were owned by Daniel and Roger Phelps, and the 1855 county map also shows members of the Phelps family living here. However, in the absence of street numbers, it is difficult to pinpoint which present-day house was owned by which person. By 1869, though, the house was owned by Hiram Buckland, a farmer who also owned a neighboring house to the right. The other house, which has since been demolished, seems to have been the larger of the two, and was probably Buckland’s actual residence.

After Buckland’s death in 1887, the property was purchased by H. Sidney Hayden, a prominent landowner and philanthropist. He, in turn, sold the property to the town of Windsor for a nominal fee, to establish a poor farm for the town’s indigent residents. This house, while located on the property, does not appear to have been part of the poor farm, although it was owned by the town for many years, and rented out to a number of different tenants. During the 1920 census, for example, it was rented by Peter J. Reittinger, a clerk for General Electric. At the time, he was 40 years old and was living here with his wife Mary, their three children, and a young nephew.

By the time the first photo was taken, the house was being rented by Elmer J. Norman, who paid the town $18 per month in rent, and was living here with his wife Rose and their four daughters. Several decades earlier, Elmer had served in World War I, and after the war he began working for the Windsor Highway Department. He went on to work for the town until his retirement in 1959, but he lived here in this house until his death in 1980. During this time, he was also responsible for the flags at the adjacent Veterans Memorial Cemetery, which was established on the former site of the poor farm.

In 1961, this house was the subject of a proposal to dismantle it and rebuilt it on Palisado Avenue, next to the historic Flyer House. Around the same time, the other house on the former poor farm property was demolished, in order to expand the veterans’ cemetery. However, this house was never moved, and it survives with few changes from the first photo, aside from more historically-appropriate windows. After more than a century of town ownership, the house was finally sold in 2006, and it is now a privately-owned residence once again. It is probably not as old as the traditional 1670 date, but it is undoubtedly still very old, most likely dating back to the early 18th century, and it stands as one of the few remaining saltbox-style homes in Windsor.