Burial Hill Steps, Plymouth, Massachusetts

The steps leading up to Burial Hill in Plymouth, seen from School Street around 1921. Image from Illustrated Guide to Historic Plymouth Massachusetts (1921).

The scene in 2023:

As explained in more detail in the previous posts, Burial Hill is an important historic site in Plymouth. It was here that the Mayflower Pilgrims built their first fortifications and meetinghouse, and later in the colonial period it became the town’s primary graveyard. It remained in use as a graveyard for many years, but by the late 19th century it had become an important tourist attraction, featuring historical markers and monuments to some of the Mayflower passengers. New paths were also constructed through the graveyard, including granite steps—shown here in these two photos—leading from the town center to the top of the hill.

Today, not much has changed here in this scene. Burial Hill remains a popular destination, both for its role in the early years of the colony, and also for its many 17th, 18th, and 19th century gravestones that stand on the hill. The steps, which were installed sometime around the late 1890s, are still here, and on the left side of both photos is the First Parish Church in Plymouth, which was constructed in 1899.

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.