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.

George B. Boomer Monument, Worcester, Massachusetts

The monument at the gravesite of George B. Boomer at Rural Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts, around 1895. Image from Picturesque Worcester (1895).

The scene in 2021:

These two photos show the gravesite of George B. Boomer, a Civil War officer who was killed in action during the Siege of Vicksburg on May 22, 1863. Born in Sutton, Massachusetts in 1832, Boomer grew up in the Worcester area, but later moved west to St. Louis, where he was involved in bridge building. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he found himself in a border state that had divided loyalties. Missouri ultimately remained in the Union, as did Boomer, who helped to raise a regiment of Missouri soldiers.

Boomer was commissioned as colonel of the 26th Missouri Infantry Regiment in 1862. He suffered serious wounds at the Battle of Iuka in September 1862, but after his recovery he returned to action, including participating in the Vicksburg campaign. Vicksburg proved to be a major turning point for the Union during the war, and Boomer fought with distinction, including at the Battle of Champion Hill, a major Union victory on May 16, 1862 that directly led to the Siege of Vicksburg. He was also involved in the Battle of Big Black River Bridge on the following day, and in the assault on Vicksburg itself on May 22. However, this assault proved unsuccessful, and the Union sustained many casualties, including Boomer, who was killed instantly by a gunshot wound to the head.

He was initially buried in Louisiana, then in St. Louis, before his remains were eventually returned to Worcester. His funeral was held at the Third Baptist Church on June 28, and he was subsequently buried here in Rural Cemetery. Less than a week later, on July 4, Union forces finally succeeded in taking the city of Vicksburg. This, combined with the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg a day earlier, proved to be a decisive blow that the Confederacy was never able to recover from.

George Boomer would ultimately be memorialized here by the large monument that is shown here in these two photos. It is 27 feet tall, carved of Connecticut sandstone, and it takes the form of an ancient Roman victory column with a large eagle at the top. It was designed by local sculptor and gravestone carver Benjamin H. Kinney, and it was installed here in early 1865, shortly before the end of the Civil War. On the monument, he is referred to by the rank of Brigadier General, as do many other contemporary accounts of his military career. However, it seems unclear as to whether he actually received this promotion, because other sources indicate that the highest rank that he held was that of colonel.

The first photo was taken about 30 years after the monument was installed here, and more than 125 years have passed since then. During this time, very little has changed here except for the landscaping of the cemetery, which now features much larger trees than in the first photo. Otherwise, though, the cemetery looks much the same as it did in the 1890s, and many of the gravestones from the first photo are still easily recognizable in the present-day photos, including the Boomer memorial, which still stands as one of the most distinctive monuments in the cemetery.

Bancroft Monument, Worcester, Massachusetts

The monument to George and Elizabeth Bancroft in Rural Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts, around 1895. Image from Picturesque Worcester (1895).

The scene in 2021:

These two photos show the final resting place of historian and politician George Bancroft and his wife Elizabeth. Although he spent much of his life elsewhere, George Bancroft was a native of Worcester and was born here in 1800. He died in 1891, and his body was subsequently returned to his hometown, where he was buried here in Rural Cemetery. Then, two years later a large granite monument was constructed on the plot, as shown here.

As a historian, Bancroft’s magnum opus was his extensive multi-volume History of the United States of America, from the Discovery of the American Continent. However, he also had a successful career in politics and diplomacy. He served as Secretary of the Navy under James K. Polk from 1845 to 1846, and during this time he established the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. He then served as the U.S. Minister to the United Kingdom from 1846 to 1849, and he was later the U.S. Minister to Germany from 1867 to 1874.

George Bancroft’s first wife was Sarah Dwight, from the prominent Dwight family of Springfield. They lived in Northampton and later in Springfield, where Sarah died in 1837. He subsequently remarried in 1838 to Elizabeth Davis Bliss, and they were married for nearly 50 years until her death in 1886. She was interred here in Worcester, as was her husband after he died five years later.

Their grave monument is one of the largest in Rural Cemetery, and it was designed by prominent architect Paul J. Pelz, whose most famous work was the Library of Congress building in Washington, D.C. The monument is 22 feet high, made of Vermont granite, and it features four large pillars with a dome above them. The original intent was for a bust or statue of Bancroft to be placed in the center of this space between the pillars, but this evidently did not happen. In total, the monument cost $7,000, and it was installed here in November 1893.

The first photo was taken within about a year or two after the monument was installed, and not much has changed in this scene since then. There have obviously been more burials since the 1890s, but overall this particular section of the cemetery remains essentially the same, including the same gravestones from the first photo. Aside from Bancroft, other prominent burials here in this scene include Bancroft’s sister Eliza and her husband John Davis. He had a lengthy political career in the first half of the 19th century, including serving as a U.S. representative, governor of Massachusetts, and U.S. senator. They are buried beneath the rectangular gravestone near the road on the right side of the scene.

Old Hadley Cemetery, Hadley, Massachusetts

Gravestones at Old Hadley Cemetery, around 1905. Image from History of Hadley (1905).

The scene in 2021:

Hadley was settled by European colonists in 1659, and incorporated as a town in 1661. Around the same time, this burying ground was laid out in a meadow just to the northwest of the town center, with the earliest known burials dating back to 1661. Among these was John Webster (1590-1661), who had served as governor of Connecticut before relocating to Hadley. As was the case for most of the other 17th century burials here, his grave was not marked by a stone, although a monument to him was installed in the cemetery in 1818 by his great-great-great grandson Noah Webster, the famous lexicographer and dictionary author.

The earliest surviving gravestones in the cemetery are two matching tablestones for Rebecca and John Russell. They died in 1688 and 1692, respectively, and their stones were installed in 1693, although they are not visible in this particular scene. Otherwise, though, gravestones were rare here until the 1710s, when Hadley resident Joseph Nash began carving gravestones. He used tan sandstone, and his gravestones were typically small, irregularly shaped, and with crudely-cut lettering. Despite the primitive appearance of the stones, he was evidently popular because his work appears in most of the early burying grounds in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts. Several of his stones are visible in this particular scene, including those of Mehetebel Marsh (1694-1739) on the far right, and Aaron Cook (1641-1716) and Sarah Cook (1644-1730) near the foreground on the far left side.

The two large tablestones in the center of this scene are for Joanna Porter (1665-1713) on the left and her husband Samuel Porter Jr. (1660-1722) on the right. Joanna was the daughter of Aaron and Sarah Cook, and she was also the mother of Mehetebel Marsh, so this was evidently their family plot. Tablestones were relatively uncommon because of the high cost, and were typically only used for clergymen and other prominent town residents. In this case, Samuel Porter was a wealthy merchant, and he also served as a representative in the colonial legislature, and as a judge and county sheriff. The Porter tablestones were not carved by Joseph Nash, as this was likely seen as too costly of a job to leave to a rather amateurish local stonecutter. Instead, these stones appear to have been carved by the Stanclift family in Middletown, Connecticut, who specialized in monuments such as these.

The Mehetebel Marsh gravestone was likely one of the last that Joseph Nash carved before his own death in 1740. By this point, gravestones in Western Massachusetts were starting to become more refined, in part because of an increased number of stones brought up the river from the skilled Middletown-area carvers. Among these was the gravestone of Samuel Porter III (1685-1748), the tall stone just to the right of the tablestones. He was the son of Samuel and Joanna, and although he died less than a decade after his sister Mehetebel, their two gravestones show the vast differences in skill level between local carvers like Nash and the professionally-trained carvers of Middletown. His gravestone was carved by the prominent Johnson family of Middletown, and its design suggests that it may have been carved somewhat later, perhaps in the 1750s or early 1760s.

The carvers from the Johnson family dominated the gravestone business along the Connecticut River Valley during the mid-1700s, but there were also some skilled local carvers who emerged in Western Massachusetts during this period. Foremost among them was Nathaniel Phelps of Northampton, who was active from the 1740s until the 1780s. Aside from Joseph Nash, perhaps no other 18th century carver is better represented here in Hadley, and one of his gravestones stands in the lower center of this scene, marking the grave of Joanna Porter’s brother Samuel Cook (1672-1746). This stone is a close imitation of the Johnson family’s style, but Phelps would subsequently develop his own style, and he occasionally carved highly ornate gravestones that featured full-body figures of angels. Among these was the gravestone of Sarah Porter (1741-1775), the wife of Samuel and Joanna’s grandson Elisha Porter. Her gravestone is visible in the background of this scene; it is the fourth one from the left in the back row.

By the early 19th century, gravestone styles had shifted away from the ornate carvings of the 18th century. Instead, these gravestones tended to either have generic designs of willows and urns, or no images at all. And, rather than sandstone, these 19th century stones were typically carved in slate or marble. Most of these burials were further to the east of the original section of the cemetery, but there are several 19th century marble stones here in the old section, including one in the back row in the distance for Nathaniel Porter (1709-1779). Although he died in 1779, the style of his gravestone suggests that it was probably carved at some point in the first half of the 1800s.

Aside from Nathaniel Porter’s backdated gravestone, perhaps the most recent gravestone in this particular scene is that of Elisha Porter (1742-1796). Like his grandfather Samuel had done many years earlier, Elisha served as sheriff of Hampshire County, and he was also a colonel in the state militia during the American Revolution. His gravestone is carved in marble, and it has a fairly plain design that is decorated only with an urn in the upper part of the stone.

More than a hundred years would pass between Porter’s burial in 1796 and when the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century. It is hard to say to what extent this scene changed during that time. Colonial-era burial grounds were often laid out in a somewhat haphazard manner, and during the 19th century many were rearranged into orderly rows of gravestones, often with little concern for whether the stones on the surface corresponded to the remains underground. This was often done for aesthetic reasons or to make maintenance easier, but it seems unclear whether it happened here in Hadley. However, the 18th century gravestones here are all arranged in parallel rows, suggesting that perhaps their positions may have been adjusted at some point.

Today, nearly 120 years after the first photo was taken, the background of this scene has changed significantly. Rather than the open meadows of the first photo, there is now a house directly to the west of the cemetery, with a tall hedge marking the property line. However, here in the foreground the cemetery has remained remarkably unchanged during this time. Sandstone gravestones are often vulnerable to weathering and erosion, and many in the river valley are badly deteriorated, especially those from the Middletown area. Here in Hadley, though, the stones have generally remained well-preserved, and this cemetery is one of the finest colonial-era burial grounds in Western Massachusetts.

King’s Chapel Burying Ground, Boston

The scene in the King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston, around the 1920s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The scene in 2021:

King’s Chapel Burying Ground is the oldest cemetery in Boston, dating back to the very beginning of the European colonization of the area. According to tradition, the first burial here was Isaac Johnson, one of the wealthiest and most influential of the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He had extensive landholdings, but he died in September 1630, only a few months after his arrival in the New World. As the story goes, Johnson was buried on his property in Boston, and as other people died in the coming months and years, they were likewise buried here.

In reality, there is no contemporary evidence to indicate that Johnson was even buried in Boston, let alone in this specific plot of land. The earliest account of this story was written nearly 50 years after the fact, in the diary of Judge Samuel Sewall. But, one way or another, this site became a burial ground very early in Boston’s history, although the exact date is uncertain. It would remain the town’s only cemetery until 1659, when Copp’s Hill Burying Ground was established in the North End.

There are no surviving gravestones from the early burials here. The oldest is dated 1658, for William Paddy, although this stone had an interesting history. Paddy was presumably buried here at King’s Chapel, but the gravestone itself was discovered buried under the street next to the Old State House in 1830. It seems highly unlikely that Paddy would have been buried there, and there were no human remains in the vicinity, so the stone was probably removed from the burying ground at some point, perhaps in the 1700s, and repurposed as something else. In any case, it was safely returned here after its discovery in 1830, and has remained here ever since.

Gravestones became more common here during the late 1600s and early 1700s, often with highly ornate, intricate carvings decorated with images of skulls and other symbols of death. Perhaps most notable among them is the gravestone of Joseph Tapping, a large slate stone that stands at the entrance to the graveyard. It is dated 1678, and it features a scroll pediment at the top, and beneath it is a large hourglass atop a winged skull. Beneath the skull is a striking image of a skeleton, likely symbolizing death, trying to extinguish a candle while Father Time tries to restrain him. Another notable gravestone is that of Elizabeth Pain, dated 1704. It likewise features a skull and hourglass, but it also has a large coat of arms carved into it. This design somewhat resembles a capital “A,” which has led some to speculate that this gravestone inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter.

In the meantime, in 1688 King’s Chapel was built on the southern portion of the graveyard. It was the first Anglican church in a town that was otherwise dominated by Puritanism, and this was the only land that the church officials were able to acquire. It was originally built of wood, although it was later rebuilt with stone in 1754, as shown in these two photos. The church was not at all affiliated with the graveyard, but, because of its proximity, it came to be known as King’s Chapel Burying Ground, and the name has stuck ever since.

The graveyard continued to be used throughout the 18th and into the early 19th centuries. However, by that point Boston was growing rapidly, and the old burial grounds such as this one were becoming overcrowded and, in the minds of many, posed health risks. So, in 1831 the Mount Auburn Cemetery was established in Cambridge and Watertown, in the suburbs of Boston. In contrast to the crowded, urban setting here, this new cemetery would be laid out like a rural park. And, while the old graveyards featured gravestones with grim, Puritan-era reminders of death, Mount Auburn would have monuments that were generally more neoclassical in style.

By the time the first photo was taken around the 1920s, King’s Chapel Burying Ground had not been used as an active cemetery for many decades. And, in the meantime, many of the old gravestones had been rearranged during the 19th century, evidently to create more orderly rows of stones. As a result, the location of many of the stones no longer corresponded to the site of the remains that they were intended to mark. This practice continued after the first photo was taken, and today the arrangement of the stones is very different from a century ago, as shown in the present-day photo.

Today, King’s Chapel Burying ground is a popular stop on the Freedom Trail, and a nice summer day will find many tourists circulating through the old graveyard. None of the particularly famous gravestones are readily visible in this scene, although the obelisk in the center of the photo stands out amid the otherwise relatively small colonial-era stones. It marks the gravesite of Thomas Dawes, a builder and architect who was also a militia colonel during the American Revolution. Just beyond the obelisk is a tomb that was long believed to have been the final resting place of William Dawes Jr., Thomas’s cousin. He had been one of the riders who, along with Paul Revere, warned of the advancing British redcoats before the Battles of Lexington and Concord. However, it appears that he is actually buried at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.

Aside from the graveyard itself, a few of the surrounding buildings are still standing from the first photo. Most notably is King’s Chapel itself, which remains an active church, although it has been a Unitarian congregation—rather than Anglican—ever since the end of the American Revolution. Further in the distance, on the right side of the scene, the other survivor from the first photo is the Tremont Building. Constructed in 1895, this office building still stands at the southwest corner of Tremont and Beacon Streets, and it is currently part of the Suffolk University campus.

Bigelow Chapel, Watertown, Mass (2)

The Bigelow Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The chapel in 2021:

These two photos show a closer view of the Bigelow Chapel, which was featured in the previous post. The Gothic Revival-style chapel was originally built in 1846, and it was designed by noted architect Gridley J. F. Bryant, along with one of the founders of Mount Auburn Cemetery, Dr. Jacob Bigelow. However, while the design was sound, the construction work was shoddy, including the use of poor-quality stone. As a result, the chapel was in danger of collapse within less than a decade, and had to be deconstructed and rebuilt.

This work was completed in 1856, and the first photo was taken around a decade or two later. The building would continue to be used as the cemetery’s chapel until 1898, when a larger one was built near the entrance to the cemetery. The old chapel then became the first crematorium in the state, and over the years the interior was renovated several times, although the exterior has remained well-preserved in its original appearance.

In 1936, the old chapel was named in honor of Dr. Bigelow, and in 1970 it was expanded with a new wing, which now houses the crematorium. The newer chapel, now named the Story Chapel, remains the primary chapel here at Mount Auburn, although the Bigelow Chapel is still used as a meeting space for a variety of events.