I've written before about how to find clues in old letters and how they can be really powerful for telling a family story. Sadly, my own family stopped being packrats sometime between the 1970s recession and the invention of email so there is very little paper floating around in my siblings' attics to get excited about. But somewhere along the line, postage stamp collecting became popular again and old "covers" (stamped envelopes) began popping up on online auction sites. For a genealogist, online auctions can be like unexpected gifts sent by a favorite uncle if a letter is still inside the envelope!
I have been conducting a community study to compile a census of who lived in my colonial town in the early 1700s, well before the first national census was taken. In the process, I've "met" some wildly interesting families who were the foundation of the modern town's celebrated character. For example, any real estate agent will tell you about how the town's school system is rated in the top 10 in the state. What they don't know is how the priority for topnotch education was set when the first private school was established in 1780. (see my previous post "Private Schools of Northborough, Mass. (1700-1900)"). Following the earliest town families into the 1800s has also been an excellent rabbit hole to fall into and I marvel to see how their strong principles and beliefs endured through time.
One well-known family was that of Reverend Joseph Allen. The town minister ran a boys' school from 1818–1852 and his family's story won my heart. I even have a long-standing automatic search on eBay that has sent me everything from a book authored by his granddaughter to a photo album bought in a dusty old shop on the Gloucester (MA) waterfront. This week, an 1843 letter "cover" popped up on eBay and not only was the original letter included, but (bless the seller's soul) he uploaded clear images of all of the pages.
Happy dance ensued (my apologies to anyone peering through my office window at the time). Why? Because there aren't many 175-year-old letters kicking around to give a front row view of local history. And because this one tells the story a girl spending time at a boys' school, so it will prove to be an even more unique slice of life… one that will now not get lost to time.
In 1966, the town of Northborough, Mass. celebrated its 200th anniversary of becoming a town. The first inhabitants on the physical land were there decades before the 1766 separation from the parent town of Westborough. This map, created by the Anniversary Committee in 1966, identifies many of the historical homesites going back to 1660.
While the general layout of the town hasn't changed much over the last 50 years, one major event changed the character: the building of Rt. 290. In the sections where the highway overpasses could not be built, roads were either rerouted or cut in 1/2 and turned into cul-de-sacs. So if you are headed for an address on Howard Street, you'd best check a map first to see which end you have to get to first!
A full size version of the map is here.
Taking a break from my inside job, I went on another field trip of sorts to a gravestone rubbing workshop offered by the Gravestone Girls at a local cemetery. What was different about this trip was that it wasn't important WHO was there but WHAT .
If you live in New England, chances are pretty darned good that somewhere in your town is a very old, and possibly neglected, early colonial burial ground. It is there that your earliest settlers buried their families quickly and went back to the task of survival in the wild new land.
The cemeteries of that era are not particularly inviting and pretty, but within that utilitarian piece of historical land is an amazing amount of art and poetry. If you have ever had the chance to wander the landscape of an old burial place and read a few inscriptions, you know exactly what I mean.
One headstone in the Howard Street Old Burial Ground (Northborough, MA) for a town hero who fought in the War of the Revolution, is inscribed as follows:
in memory of
Colonel LEVI BRIGHAM,
who departed this life
February 1st 1787 :
Aged 70 Years.
There were several common symbols chosen by families to express a specific message regarding the passing of their loved ones. For example, the artwork of the capstone for Col. Brigham includes an angel (the wings are a dead giveaway...pun intended), which was the symbol of the messenger between man and God. Additionally, the text added to the stone often provided insight into the character or demeanor of the deceased, offering a message for the living to heed as they headed toward their own Judgement Day. Iconography of these early stones is very interesting, and more information can be found at The Association for Gravestone Studies.
Gravestone rubbings serve many purposes, depending on what interests you. The image of a stone is like a photograph, documenting the genealogical information about an ancestor. Or you might find the iconography or inscription interesting and want to preserve it as a objet d'art. With specific care and methods, a rubbing can be done without harming the original stone, and some common sense and a little homework ahead of time can help make your project a success. (Tip from the workshop: place a sheet of plastic or plastic bag over the surface of the stone and secure with masking tape prior to applying the paper layer. This protects the stone from the rubbing medium accidentally touching the stone through a tear in the paper.)
The rubbing in the photo above, while not done by me personally, was given to me at the end of the workshop. The Brigham gentleman that belongs to this stone was a soldier in the War of the Revolution and descendant of the town's first settler, John Brigham.
What made the gift special? The artist who thoughtfully let me take her debut work home is also a Mrs. Brigham ...from the same family who has lived in the town of Northborough from day 1. To me, she is my new local hero. And you can now understand more why I truly love "Finding New Stories in Old Places!"
Sudbury, MA - I braved the threat of the incoming “snowstorm of the season” this afternoon to go check out the Revolutionary War Cemetery in Sudbury, MA, established in 1716. It is the oldest cemetery of modern Sudbury and holds the remains of 47 soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War. Also buried there are Revolutionary era leaders and historical figures, such as Colonel Ezekiel How, second innkeeper of the historic Wayside Inn. The oldest existing stone is from 1727 and if you are interested, a list of the names on the stone markers is available from the Historical Society.
My quest today was to move along the trail of John Brigham (1644-1728) in hopes of finding clues about his burial. My John Brigham, as I have learned, was not only the pioneer settler of what is now Northborough, MA but also a prominent settler of nearby towns Marlborough and Sudbury. When he died in 1728, he had been a long-time resident of Sudbury, but was also reported to have stayed with his daughter Mary (Brigham) Fay in Northborough. As none of the three towns has a burial record for our John Brigham, where did he go? His church membership and death were recorded in Sudbury, so that is where I headed to find a clue or two.
I located only two headstones in the burial ground for Brigham, neither of which was for John or one of his 3 (yes, 3) wives. Located at opposite ends of the property, they were possibly infant brother and adult sister. Curiously enough, the burial for the adult Mary Brigham is located at the end of a row that has a large gap between it and the next marker, a small footstone engraved “M.B.”
Now whether or not the little footstone belongs to Mary is difficult to tell, particularly as there is a relatively generic footstone already located behind her headstone, but no matter. What does matter is that this cemetery is arranged with many “family groups” where headstones with the same surname take up a row or two. In a small historic cemetery such as this, with closely placed burials in neatly arranged rows, any “empty” spaces are quite possibly unmarked graves where the stones fell and were buried under the sod over time. As serendipity would have it, the property has a Ground Penetrating Radar project planned for it this year and the goal will be to identify probable unmarked burials.
At the end of my visit, the snow started falling and my inked notes started to bleed…but before heading home, I felt I had discovered a possible burying place for members of the Brigham family that lived during the time of my John Brigham. That alone made it a good day at work.
You can find the photos and transcriptions of the Brigham headstones at www.billiongraves.com. A virtual tour of historic Sudbury is available on the town's Historical Society website.
Allen, Rev. Joseph. History of Northborough, Mass., in Various Publications and Discourses. Worcester: 1880.
Beth Finch McCarthy