The Oldtown Burying Ground

Through the generosity of Annie Jaques these grounds have been much improved in appearance during the last few years. Yet there is something to be done by those having authority in Town and Parish, as well as others, in preventing the occasional mutilation of gravestones…

The Oldtown Burying Ground by Isaac w. little

The Burying Ground across the street from the First Parish Meeting House contains about three acres, two thirds of which is known as Old Yard, the land of this part formerly belonging to Anthony Morse who exchanged it with the Town for other lands about the time of the removal from the Lower Green, and to accommodate those who wanted the place for the Meeting House. The acre t the southern end was given by Dr. Nathan Noyes in 1841 and is called the New Yard. These yards-grounds were first used for the burial purposes at the Northwest corner, not including a strip running along the front of thirty-five or forty feet in depth on which stood the Meeting House of 1646-1660 and a portion of the House built in 1700. Up to eight years after this latter date the graves were all within a space of less than 125 feet square.

When the last named House was built about half of it was south of the southerly line of  these graves, the northernly part at the street end resting on the reserved from, while at the rear it extended over the graves those buried in the southwest corner of this original lot. To nearly the time of extending these grounds for burials – 1708 – this was the only burying place in Town except a small lot in “Lower Oldtown”. The “First Settlers” as far as known being all dead – the last alive was Maj. Robert Pike of Salisbury, who died in 1706, John Easton of Rhode Island dying sometime before, it seems reasonable to conclude then that a very large proportion of those who had landed on the north bank of the Quascacunquen in the spring and summer of 1635, and those who settled here in the few subsequent years, with many of their descendants, were buried in this small lot. If the number of interments here averaged only one per month for the sixty-two years following the removal of 1646, 744 persons were buried within the space mentioned above during this period, of these early graves, not one in the fifty is marked by a stone to tell who sleeps below.

“The record of the greatest age is to the name of Mrs. Deborah Jaques Adams who died in 1839 aged 99 years and 45 days”

aThe headstones that stand slowly so thickly now on this same ground were erected to the memory of those buried here in more recent days; for be it known, in some portions of the old yard the bones of the father rest not but are disturbed by irreverent hands of their descendants including some even of the present generations. On the few gravestones that have guarded so long ‘O’er some old bones that rot below, we learn that the Reverend James Noyes died in 1656, Isaac Brown 1674, Rev. Thomas Parker 1677, Richard Dumer and Capt. Paul White 1679, Mrs. Frances Dumer, widow of Richard 1682, Mrs. Ann Orday 1687, Richard Dumer son of Richard 1688, Hull Sewall 1689, Rev. John Woodbridge 1695, Rev. John Richardson 1696, John Sewall and sister Mrs. Hannah Toppan 1699, Henry Sewall 1700, the Hon. Col. Daniel Pierce Esq 1704, Tristram Coffin and wife 1705. To decide who occupied the large number of these unknown graves is best answered in the words of the poet, “It is a question idle all”, yet who will doubt that here rested when life’s labors were ended, that old sexton and former owner of this land Anthony Morse, “Ye first Schoolmaster Anthony Somerby”, that persistent champion of equal rights, the contention Edward Woodman. John Tilletson reckless and irreverent the libelous Joh Webster, John Emery who committed the grievous sin of harboring Quakers, William and Elisabeth Morse of witchcraft notoriety, John Eels and Thomas Turvill. Newbury’s first paupers, and scores of others who were more or less active participants in the “long Church quarrel” that for a quarter of a century so disturbed the conservatism of the neighboring Churches, and for a way of settlement seemed a standing puzzle to the County corts.

As early as 1808 the ground was improved for burial over a small space opposite to the easterly end of the meetinghouse to the south, and very soon after along a portion of the front strip, then down the easterly slope fastest toward the northerly line, then southerly, taking up the more undesirable lots near the pond, many graves being made near the easterly line and in the fully during the century, even up to the present time. The northwest corner also afforded room for sheltering the horses of the churchgoers for more than a century in stables and in the lee of the meetinghouse. The last of these stables was built by Henry Rolfe about 1753, at the southerly end of Deacon Daniel Knight’s barn. This barn stood upon the premises now in possession of C. E. & X. Adams and made a part of the division fence between the land of its owner and the Parish from the line of street eastward. The first stable south of the Meetinghouse was built by John Pearson as early as 1753 at the southerly limits of the old yard, Richard Kent built the second one at the westward of Pearson’s. The third one was built by John Coffin, westerly from Kent’s, and stood nearly out of the line of High Street at what was then called, “Pettingell’s Field”. Three years later a “way” was laid out, running from the street eastward bound south on what is now the north line of the “new yard”, then called “Pettingell’s Field”, although owned at the time by the widow of Moses Noyes. This way at the street end as it passed the three stables mentioned was 26 feet wide, at the easterly end was 35 feet. Liberty was granted to 24 person – men and women – to build stables along the northerly side of this way, that in length were to be 134 feet with room to get into them from the south. If these stables were all built, it is certain that but a few of them remained here up to the present century. The Coffin stable after all the others had disappeared held its ground a full century or more, and was finally demolished by being overturned into the street one night by a party of mischievous fellow about 1852. It was afterward rebuilt by its owner Capt. Richard Coffin, and remained on the lot granted in 1750, until 1869 when it was finally removed from the neighborhood, and the lot abandoned to the Parish, or exchanged for a lot across the street.

“The oldest stone in this place is to the grave of Isaac Brown, 1674.”

In 1835, a vestry was built on the easterly end of this way, from money contributed by 66-persons only eight of whom are now living. In 1856, Daniel Luny bought the building and moved it into Rolfe’s Lane (Ocean Avenue) where it has since been used for a dwelling house. After the removal of the vestry, the land on which it had stood was quickly taken up for the burial lots. In 1869, the year after the Meeting house (built in 1806) was burned, the land which it had occupied (which included the graves that had been covered by the House built in 1700) with the unoccupied space at the south, where horses had been left for many years during Sunday services was laid out into burial lots and sold at public auction by vote of the Parish. At the same time Daniel Lunt mouth the old hearse house which he removed April 30th, leaving these grounds free for the first time of any building for 223 years. The wall on the street was completely this year by Joseph H Currier who built the central part. The northerly end was built in 1823 by Sewall and Eben Woodman, and from the “jog” around to the easterly side, opposite, by the south principally built by Williams and Marden, soon after the gift of the land by Dr. Noyes. Many of the trees around the wall, front and south, also on the easterly side of the street opposite these grounds, and for some distance below, were furnished and set out at the expense of John Chickering about 1840-1841.

The oldest stone in this place is to the grave of Isaac Brown 1674. The stones to the graves of Mesrs. Parker, Noyes, Woodbridge, Toppan, and Moor were placed there by subscriptions, about 33 years ago, to replace the ancient monuments that had fallen down a generation before, except in the case of Mr. Moor who had non previously. Capt. Paul White who as a trader did business a little south from where the Newburyport Market House now stands. Two centuries since was the earliest born of anyone buried here (1590). The record of the greatest age is to the name of Mrs. Deborah Jaques Adams who died in 1839 aged 99 year and 45 days. Miss Sally Johnson who died in March of the year 1879 and is buried here, attained a still greater age 99 years and 8 months. The name of the minister of the parish who died here is omitted on the tomb stones, while a score of early deacons lie in graves unknown. A number of Town Clerks too, have no record here, and those old Sextons whose hands during two centuries made at least four thousand graves, and raised not less then twenty score of these memorial stones for others, seem to have been sufficiently honored while living by the annual election to office and the petty fees it brought them, for no inscription here tells the name of either, except Humphrey Richards, who is incidentally mentioned on the gravestones of one of his decendents.

We have some evidence that from the list, liberty to bury here has been allowed to no one class or condition in life more than another, as witness; Nancy. daughter of Daniel and Mumbo Sarvants to Mrs. Joanna Cottle Probably the Indian and Nergo salves of White, Dole, Dummer, Kelley, Plumer, Jaques and others found equality at last in this old yard. There seems to have been some difficulty in building and keeping in repair the fences around this land, as many votes were passed by Town and Parish in early days regarding them. Dr. Peter Toppan, who owned the adjoining land north, and John Webster, were fined more than two hundred years ago, for getting over the fence line and cutting down trees on the land that is called the “burying place” and there seems to have been no front fence for the considerable periods in later days ‘Chairs’ the riding vehicles of a century or more ago, were driven in among the graves, probably at funerals, and the Parish committee were ordered to “debar them from continuing the practice”. The fence that separated the “old yard” from the “new” was taken away at the easterly end, soon after the Parish accepted the latter, while the westerly part remained some years later, being partly made by an old house and farther eastward by a barn, the former occupied by a family up to 1850 when it was torn down. A century previous to this last date, this was the homestead of Nicholas Pettingell whose son sold it to Moses Noyes, whose house stood but a few feet south of where stands the house of Dr. Withington. The Pettingell land ‘new yard’ and Morse Land “Old Yard” were probably bought for “house lots” from off the John Woodbridge farm. Of the number here from 1646 to the present time there is a wide difference of opinion, but from the records of the deceased sexton of the Parish, and an average of the most reliable estimates of the living, the tenants in this “dwelling place” must be at least six thousand.

Through the generosity of Miss Annie Jaques these grounds have been much improved in appearance during the last few years. Yes, there is something to be done by those having authority in Town and Parish, as well as others, in preventing the occasional mutilation of grave stones, and in preserving the inscriptions that are fast becoming obliterated on some of the older stones still standing, also those broken by the burning o the Meeting House in 1868 and more decidedly to stop the encroachments that have been so much complained of in the years past on the old lots where no representatives of the families remain to defend the last resting places of their ancestors, there being almost positive evidence that in some cases the same grave has received the remains of three or four persons and possibly belonging to as many different families.

– Isaac W. Little

Copied 1934 by Margaret Pritchard

In April 1999, Dick Cunningham found this information and it was typed on an old machine and very hard to read so he retyped it over. He found the information very interesting and hoped others would as well.

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