Burial Hill Watch Tower Site, Plymouth, Massachusetts

The site of the colonial-era watch tower on Burial Hill in Plymouth, around 1896. Image from Guide to Historic Plymouth (1896).

The scene in 2023:

As explained in several previous posts, Burial Hill in Plymouth was the site of a 17th century fort that was constructed in 1621 by settlers who had arrived on the Mayflower a year earlier. Over the years, the defensive works here on the hill were expanded, including a brick watch tower, which was built in 1643. However, these structures were no longer needed after the end of King Philip’s War, and they were subsequently dismantled.

By 1679, the hill was in use as a graveyard, and this would continue throughout the colonial period and into the 1800s. Over time, though, burial trends in New England shifted away from traditional colonial-era graveyards, with their rows of headstones that featured skulls and other grim reminders of death. Instead, ,mid-19th century New Englanders began to prefer more park-like landscaped cemeteries, which reflected changing societal views on death and mourning.

However, even as its use as an active graveyard decreased, Burial Hill became the site of renewed interest in the early history of the Plymouth colony. A number of monuments were added here to commemorate Mayflower passengers who may or may not have actually been buried here, and there were also markers installed to mark the locations of the 17th century fortifications that once stood on the hill.

The presumed site of the old fort is marked by one such monument, although the location of the marker appears to have been based on tradition rather than on archaeological evidence. However, the site of the 1643 watch tower is more firmly established, thanks to 19th century excavations that uncovered bricks and other remnants of the tower. The 1878 book Old Plymouth: A Guide to Its Localities and Objects of Interest provides an account of the watch tower and the discovery of its remains:

A little to the north of the site of the old fort, another tablet marks the place of the brick watch tower erected in 1643. The locality of this tower is still plainly discernible by the remains of the bricks discoloring the earth in the path, and the four stone posts set in the ground mark its corners. The brick foundation is still there, about a foot below the surface, and the old hearthstone on which the Pilgrims built their watch fires, still lies where they placed it on the southerly side of the enclosure. The location of the tower was discovered several years ago in digging a grave, when the sexton came upon the foundation.

The top photo was taken about 20 years after this description was written, and it shows the site of the 1643 watch tower. In the foreground is an oval marble marker, evidently the tablet that is mentioned in the description. In the lower right corner of the photo is a low granite post, one of the four that marked the corners of the tower. The other three posts would have also been here at the time, although they are not readily visible in the photo.

Today, more than 125 years after the top photo was taken, not much has changed here at this site. Most of the gravestones appear to still be here, although some have been encased in granite in an effort to better protect them. The granite posts are also still here, as is the oval marker that explains the history of the site. There does not appear to have been any archaeological work here in the intervening years, but presumably the original brick foundation and the hearthstone are still below the surface.

Burial Hill Fort Site, Plymouth, Massachusetts

The site of the 17th century fort on Burial Hill in Plymouth, around 1916. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The site in 2023:

As explained in the previous post, Burial Hill was the primary graveyard for Plymouth throughout much of the colonial era. However, prior to its use as a graveyard, the hill was the site of a fort that the English settlers constructed in 1621. The hill is located directly to the west of the town center, and from here defenders had expansive views of the entire harbor. The original fort was reconstructed two years later with a larger structure, and over the years other defensive structures were built nearby, including a brick watchtower in 1643.

The fortifications here remained in use until 1676, when they were dismantled at the conclusion of King Philip’s War. By 1679, the hill had become a graveyard, and the earliest surviving stone here dates back to 1681. There would be many more burials here throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In this particular scene, the older burials are generally closer to the foreground, while the more recent burials are further in the distance, and generally have larger gravestones, often made of marble.

By the late 19th century, Burial Hill had become more of a tourist destination than an active graveyard, and at some point around this time several white marble markers were installed at points of interest. Among these was the oval marker in the foreground of these two photos, which indicates the approximate site of the old fort. This would later be joined by a more substantial monument further in the distance, which can be seen in the second photo. This was installed here in 1921 to commemorate the fort, and it originally included two 16th century English cannons, although these were eventually removed in 1985 to protect them from weathering.

Today, aside from the 1921 monument, not much else has changed here in this scene. Some of the gravestones appear to have been moved around a bit, but most are still recognizable in both photos. Also visible in these photos are the two historic churches at the foot of Burial Hill. In the distance on the left is the Church of the Pilgrimage, which was built in 1840 and remodeled in 1898, and on the right is the First Parish Church, which was built in 1899.

Burial Hill Cannons, Plymouth, Massachusetts

Cannons and a historical marker near the site of the Pilgrim fort on Burial Hill in Plymouth, in October 1921. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Plymouth Tercentenary Photographs collection. Photographed by Edward P. McLaughlin.

The scene in 2023:

These two photos show a monument on Burial Hill that was installed as part of the 300th anniversary celebration of the start of the Plymouth Colony. Burial Hill is located about a quarter mile west of Plymouth Harbor, and it rises about 120 feet above sea level. Prior to its use as a graveyard, the early Plymouth colonists constructed a fort here, since the elevated land provided expansive views of the town and the harbor.

The first fort here was built soon after their arrival in 1620, but a larger, more substantial one replaced it two years later. This second fort, which also served as the town’s meetinghouse, was located on the southeastern part of the hill, near the spot where these two photos were taken. Governor William Bradford described it in his journal Of Plymouth Plantation, writing:

This somer they builte a fort with good timber, both strong & comly, which was of good defence, made with a flate rofe & batllments, on which their ordnance were mounted, and wher they kepte constante watch, espetially in time of danger. It served them allso for a meeting house, and was fitted accordingly for that use. It was a great worke for them in this weaknes and time of wants; but ye deanger of ye time required it, and both ye continuall rumors of ye fears from ye Indeans hear, espetially ye Narigansets, and also ye hearing of that great massacre in Virginia, made all hands willing to despatch ye same.

The defenses here on the hill were subsequently expanded, including the construction of a brick watchtower in 1643. By 1676, though, it was no longer necessary following the end of King Philip’s War. The structures here were dismantled, and by 1679 the hill was in use as a graveyard. The oldest stone on the hill dates back to 1681, and the hill would continue to be used as an active burial ground throughout the colonial era and into the early 19th century.

By the late 19th century, the story of the Mayflower had become a key part of the country’s founding narrative, aided in part by popular depictions of the Pilgrims, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, The Courtship of Myles Standish. This interest in Plymouth carried into the 20th century, eventually culminating with the tercentenary of 1920-1921.

It was during this tercentenary celebration that a new portico was constructed above Plymouth Rock, but there were also other monuments installed around Plymouth during this time, including one here on the site of the old fort, which is shown in these two photos. This monument was sponsored by the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, and it originally featured two bronze cannons, which were donated by the British government. The bronze plaque between the cannons describes the history of both the site and the cannons, and it reads:

Brass cannon like these were named by Bradford and Winslow in the annals of Plymouth as mounted on the first fort, 1621, and were still in use in 1645 when the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts under its commander Major General Gibbons joined the Plymouth company under the command of Captain Myles Standish to fight against the Narragansett Indians.

These pieces are from the collection in the British National Artillery Museum. They were the only cannon of that period and of English manufacture in the collection “in consideration of the greatness of the occasion, the tercentenary celebration of the landing of the Pilgrims, and the good will of the English nation, the government, on behalf of the British people, have made this gift to the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts.”

On the right is a “minion” of the time of Mary, 1554, with a rose and the letters M.R. (Maria Regina) and is inscribed “John and Thomas Mayo, brethren, made this pece anno dni 1554.” On the left is a “Sakeret” of the time of Edward the Sixth with a shield and three lions passant inscribed “Thomas Owen made this pece for the ye’l of carnse vhan ser Peter Mevtas vas governor and captayn, anno dni 1550.”

They were transmitted through the Honourable Artillery Company of London, chartered 1537, and placed here by the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, chartered 1638, and dedicated October the 4th, 1921.

The keynote speaker at the dedication event was William H. P. Faunce, the president of Brown University. He took the opportunity to advocate for stronger ties between Britain and the United States, and he also addressed some of the concerns that some Americans evidently had about British human rights violations. Faunce pointed out that, while many would point to British actions in Ireland and India, America was likewise guilty of injustices against other groups of people.

The cannons would remain here for over 60 years, but they were ultimately removed in 1985 to protect them from the effects of weathering. The one on the left was returned to Britain, and the one on the right is now on display at the Pilgrim Hall Museum here in Plymouth. Then, in 2020, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company donated a replica cannon to the town. It is intended to eventually be placed here on Burial Hill, but as of May 2023 it has not yet been installed.

William Bradford Monument, Plymouth, Massachusetts

The William Bradford monument at Burial Hill in Plymouth, around the 1920s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library; photographed by Leon Abdalian.

The scene in 2023:

These two photos show a scene on Burial Hill, not too far from the site of the photos in the previous post. In the foreground of the photos is a memorial obelisk for William Bradford, one of the leaders of the Mayflower Pilgrims who served as governor of the colony for many years. In the foreground are the gravesites for other members of the Bradford family, and further in the distance is a mix of different gravestones from the 18th and early 19th centuries.

William Bradford was born in England in 1590. As a young man he joined the Separatist group that left England for the Dutch Republic, where they sought greater religious freedom. Then, in 1620 he traveled with the Separatists to the New World, landing first at Cape Cod—where his first wife Dorothy died after falling overboard from the Mayflower—and then to Plymouth, where the settlers experienced a harsh first winter in New England. The colony’s first governor, John Carver, died in April 1621, and Bradford was subsequently elected to succeed him. Bradford would continue to serve in that capacity for many years. With the exception of several short intervals, he remained as governor until his death in 1657 at the age of 67.

The exact location of William Bradford’s gravesite is uncertain. During the early years of the Plymouth Colony, Cole’s Hill was the main burial site for the settlers. By contrast, Burial Hill was not definitely in use as a graveyard until much later in the 1600s. Combined with the fact that gravestones were generally not used until the late 1600s, it makes it difficult to determine where many of the Mayflower passengers, including Bradford, were actually buried.

By the early 19th century, it was widely believed that Bradford had been buried here in this plot on Burial Hill. Several of his family members are buried here, including his son William Bradford Jr., whose gravestone is in the foreground on the right side of these photos. However, the belief that Governor Bradford was buried here was based on tradition, rather than historical documentation.

Regardless of the actual site of his final resting place, this site is now marked by the memorial obelisk that stands in the center of these two photos. It was dedicated in 1835, and it is made of marble with a granite base. The main inscription reads:

Under this stone
rest the ashes of
Willm Bradford
a zealous puritan &
sincere christian
Gov. of Ply. Col. from
April 1621 to 1657
(the year he died
aged 69)
except 5 yrs
which he declined.
Qua patres difficillime
adeptisunt nolite
turpiter relinquere

The final three lines are a Latin phrase that translates to “What our forefathers with so much difficulty secured, do not basely relinquish.” Aside from this, the stone also features a line of Hebrew, which can be seen directly above the inscription. According to an 1835 newspaper article reporting on the dedication of the monument, this Hebrew inscription is taken from Psalm 16:5 and reads “Jehovah is the portion of my inheritance.”

By the time the first photo was taken, the monument had been here for nearly a century. This was no longer an active graveyard by then, but it was a popular tourist attraction, likely aided in part by the well-publicized 300 anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in 1920. In the background of the scene are two 19th century churches: the 1840 Church of the Pilgrimage on the left, and the 1899 First Parish Church on the right.

Today, hardly anything has changed since the first photo was taken. The monument is still standing here, as are most of the other nearby gravestones. Some have been encased in granite in an effort to protect them, although this likely occurred sometime in the mid-20th century, because this conservation technique is generally not practiced anymore. The churches in the background are also still standing, although they are mostly hidden from view by the trees in the second photo.

Burial Hill, Plymouth, Massachusetts

The view looking southeast from near the top of Burial Hill in Plymouth, on October 22, 1929. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library; photographed by Leon Abdalian.

The scene in 2023:

These two photos show the view looking toward the center of Plymouth from Burial Hill, the main colonial-era graveyard in the town. This site offers expansive views of Plymouth and the harbor further in the distance, and it was here on this hill that the Pilgrims constructed a fort in 1622. This fort also served as the town’s meeting house, and it was protected by a palisade. The fort was enlarged several times over the years, and it was also joined by a brick watchtower here on the hill in 1643.

After the conclusion of King Philip’s War in 1676, this site was no longer needed for defensive fortifications. The structures here were dismantled, and by 1679 the hill was in use as a graveyard. This was not the first burial ground that was used by European settlers in Plymouth. During the first winter of 1620-1621, the dead were evidently buried closer to the harbor on Cole’s Hill, and that site remained in use until at least the 1640s. As  result, most of the Mayflower passengers were likely buried there in unmarked graves, rather than here on Burial Hill. The oldest surviving gravestone on Burial Hill is dated 1681, which is long after most of the Mayflower passengers had died.

Burial Hill continued to be used for new interments until around the mid-19th century. By that point, trends had shifted in favor of newer, park-like cemeteries, rather than the old colonial-era graveyards such as this one. Instead, Burial Hill came to be recognized for its historical significance, both in terms of its use as a fort in the 17th century and also for its variety of intricately-carved headstones, which often feature skulls and other grim reminders of death.

In the meantime, downtown Plymouth continued to grow and develop over the years. The first photo, taken in 1929, shows two churches in the background at the foot of Burial Hill. On the left is the Third Congregational Church, also known as the Church of the Pilgrimage. This building was constructed in 1840, but it was subsequently remodeled in 1898 to give it more of a Colonial Revival appearance. The church to the right is the First Parish Church in Plymouth. It was built in 1899 on the site of an earlier church building, and it has a Romanesque-style design that resembles the style of church buildings that existed in England prior to the Pilgrims’ departure.

The trees in the present-day scene make it difficult to see the churches and other buildings at the base of the hill, but not much has changed in nearly a century since the first photo was taken, and both church buildings are still standing. Here on Burial Hill, the scene has likewise remained essentially the same. Most of the gravestones from the first photo are still here, although some have since been encased in granite in an effort to better protect them. Because of its significance to the early history of Plymouth, Burial Hill was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

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.