Published: October 24, 2000
Little Village of the Dead:
An outstanding example of the cemetery as a source of cultural and historical insight is in the heart of downtown Hartford. Established in 1640, it is the oldest surviving historic site in one of America’s oldest cities. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, annually receives thousands of visitors from around the world each year.
A new illustrated self-guided walking tour brochure offers visitors an entertaining and enlightening entrée into , which is located at the intersection of Main and Gold streets. The walking tour highlights a dozen markers, the oldest dating from the 1660s, the newest erected in 1998. These specific stones are representative of the fascinating stories and extraordinary artistry awaiting one who enters or indeed almost any of the “little villages of the dead” as historian Kevin M. Sweeney has vividly characterized the thousands of historic cemeteries throughout New England.
was the final resting-place for the great majority of Hartford residents who died between 1640 and 1807 – an estimated 6,000 men, women, and children. Throughout its 175 years of active use, a gravestone was an expensive luxury that perhaps only one out of every 10 people could afford. The earliest count, done in 1835, found 563 stones in .
Centuries of constant exposure to the punishing New England weather, air pollution, carelessness, and vandalism had by the mid-Twentieth Century destroyed at least 100 of the stones originally installed in , many of which were brownstone, which is exceptionally vulnerable to the elements. In addition, like so many irreplaceable artifacts, has not always been appreciated or cared for with respect. As early as 1737, Hartford’s First Congregational Church was granted permission to erect a new meetinghouse on one corner of the graveyard. That structure was replaced in 1807 by the current brick church, designed by patron of the arts Daniel Wadsworth. That church, boasting a soaring ornate white Baroque-style three-stage spire, as well as stained-glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany, recently completed a major restoration. It is the first stop, and the only building, on self-guided walking tour.
Commercial structures and other buildings encroached upon edges of over the years as downtown Hartford grew into a densely populated urban center, whittling it away until it reached its present size of approximately four acres. The total disregard for the site’s historic contents that prevailed at different points in time was shockingly demonstrated in 1902 when workers digging a cellar under part of the church hit as many as 20 intact coffins. The laborers broke open the wooden boxes, shoveled out the bones, and carted them off like so much trash.
Organized efforts to preserve were undertaken periodically, beginning as early as 1836. A major state-of-the-art restoration project launched in the 1980s that continues to this day has resulted in the repair, restoration, or total replication of more than 100 stones, making a case study in the possibilities – and occasional pitfalls – of saving historic graveyards.
Today approximately 415 gravestones still stand in . They are eloquent messengers from the past, as gravestones included on the self-guided walking tour demonstrate. The chiseled words alone often provide stirring glimpses into the world of two or more centuries ago. Personal tragedy on a scale almost incomprehensible in the modern era is described in the epitaph for 41-year-old Mary Skinner, who died in 1772 and was buried “with 10 of her Children by her Side who all Died Soon After they ware Born.” The high esteem in which the Reverend Samuel Stone, second pastor of the First Church of Christ, who died in 1663, was held is expressed in an epitaph describing him as “New Englands Glory & her Radiant Crowne,” and declaring “Hartford; Thy Richest Jewel’s Here Interred.”
In many cases the inscriptions don’t begin to tell the story, as demonstrated by the gravestones for Richard Edwards and his wife Mary, which are included on the self-guided walking tour. The plain, unadorned marker for Richard, who died in 1718, and the forbidding death’s heads on that for Mary, his second wife, who died five years later, give no hint that this couple were two of the three key figures in an early Connecticut scandal involving adultery, questionable paternity, insanity, and divorce – details of which are provided in the walking tour brochure.
The imagery carved into gravestones, which were the major form of sculpture produced in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England, is as revealing as the words. Size counted when it came to gravestones in colonial Connecticut. In the 1600s and 1700s the most prestigious grave marker – the “Cadillac” of gravestones as Antiquarian & Landmarks Society director Bill Hosley terms it – was a massive brownstone slab laid flat atop four brownstone legs approximately three feet high. Quarrying and transporting the materials for these “tablestones” as they were known was by itself so expensive that to have one as a gravemarker was a powerful statement of the deceased’s wealth and prestige.
Decorative carving began to appear on gravestones in in the late 1600s. Over the course of the next century this ornamentation evolved dramatically in response to both changes in the Puritan religious faith that dominated Connecticut and in the technical skill and artistic creativity of the carvers. The earliest decorated stones, like that of Phenias Willson, whose gravemarker dated 1692 is included on self-guided walking tour, bear the image of a hollow-eyed skull, often with bat-like wings.
This “death’s head” is believed to symbolize the early Puritans’ grim emphasis on human mortality and the moldering away of the flesh. Beginning around 1730 the death’s head became more human in appearance, more sophisticated in design and execution. These “angel’s heads,” like the one on the gravestone on the walking tour commemorating the death in 1766 of Richard Bernham, are believed to symbolize the soul’s flight to heaven, with the emphasis now on the blissful afterlife that awaited the righteous. Some scholars have attributed this dramatic change to the intensely emotional religious revival that began in the late 1730s that has become known to history as the Great Awakening.
The final stage in the evolution of gravestone ornamentation in occurred around 1800. Rising nationalism and secularism swept away the religious imagery, replacing it with Neo-classical images of mortality, such as the urn and willow. A striking example of this new artistic sensibility on walking tour is the broken column, symbolizing the cutting down of greatness, that marks the grave of Jeremiah Wadsworth, Revolutionary War veteran, influential figure on the local and national political scenes, pioneering industrialist and financier, and patron of the arts, who died in 1804.
The men who carved these stones developed their own individual, distinctive artistic styles. Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground “contains some of the most intriguing and beautiful gravestones in Connecticut,” according to Bill Hosley. Hosley also notes that Hartford’s lack of a local source of stone and the town’s far-flung cultural and commercial ties led residents to commission gravemarkers from beyond the immediate area, with the result that “is a veritable catalog of the art and craft of stonecutting in early Connecticut.” The self-guided walking tour includes fine examples of the work of such well-known Connecticut carvers as Gershom Bartlett and Aaron Haskins, both of Bolton; James Stanclift of Portland; and Isaac Sweetland of Hartford.
A few dedicated craftsmen today carry on the gravestone carver’s tradition. Allen Williams of the Chester Granite Company in Otis, Massachusetts, displayed impressive artistry and accuracy in carving a number of reproductions of gravestones for , including that for Connecticut Courant newspaper publisher Ebenezer Watson, who died in 1777. Nick Benson of the John Stevens shop of Newport, R.I., carved an entirely new stone that bears witness to the enormous potential of an historic graveyard to be a force for new insights and a broader understanding of history.
The stone memorializes more than 300 African Americans, slave and free, who were interred in . It had its genesis in research conducted by a group of Hartford middle school students into the blacks who were buried there. The students took their findings and launched a campaign to erect a memorial to these forgotten figures from Hartford’s past. The result was a black slate stone carved by Benson with imagery based on an Eighteenth Century stone in Newport, R.I., that was carved by an African American to mark the grave of an African American. The stone, installed in 1998, has earned inclusion on the Connecticut Freedom Trail of important sites in the state’s African-American history.
walking tour brochure was produced by Association, Inc., a private, non-profit group dedicated to preserving and interpreting the historic graveyard. Major funding was provided by a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council Cultural Heritage Development Fund. Copies of the brochure can be obtained free of charge by calling 860/561-2585; or by writing to Association at P.O. Box 231257, Hartford, Conn. 06123-1257.
The brochure is also available at many tourist information sites around the state, including the Old State House, The Connecticut Historical Society, the Greater Hartford Tourism District office, the Greater Hartford Arts Council, and the Legislative Office Building information desk in Hartford, and the Bradley International Airport Welcome Center in Windsor Locks.
The gates to , to which entrance is free, are open 10 am to 4 pm Monday through Saturday, and 10 am to 2 pm on Sunday, April 1 to November 30. is open by appointment only December 1 to March 31. For appointments, call 860/561-2585 or call the Hartford Guides at 860/522-0855. Group guided tours can be arranged by calling 860/561-2585.
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