Absent but not Forgotten: Exploring the Mystery Behind Two Gravestones at Minute Man NHP

Archeologists appreciate old gravestones for many reasons, but especially because they can be a great source of information and often provide details that are missing from vital records.  But what we can learn is more than just what has been carved in the stone.   Such is the case with two gravestones in the archeological collection at Minute Man National Historical Park. These gravestones are but two of nearly a quarter million artifacts in the collection.  Archeological collections are important because they are original, site-associated materials that can tell the story of a park-or a town that exists beyond the boundaries of a national park.

The gravestones were of particular interest to me because many years ago I had cataloged the gravestones in two of the colonial burying grounds in Concord, MA. I was very familiar with the cemeteries and the history, significance, and efforts taken to document and preserve them. When I began my career with the NPS, I came across two large gravestones in Minute Man National Historical Park’s museum collection and immediately wondered why these stones were in storage at the park and not in a burying ground. I wondered if they were stones that had been recorded in the late 1800s and were missing by the time I cataloged the standing stones and fragments in 1999.Two gravestones in the Minute Man National Historical Park’s museum collection (photo by the author)

The gravestones were discovered in 1966 during archeological excavations at the Wayside in Concord, MA. Both stones are made of slate and are typical of the neoclassical style with an urn and willow design. Both stones have clear crisp carving and the graded base of each stone is intact. The stones were discovered covering a well on the grounds of the Wayside between the house and the barn. The field director, Leland Abel, noted that “the first trench resulted in the discovery of two tombstones laying facedown, oriented north to south and side by side.” Abel hypothesized that the stones were rejected due to spelling errors. He stated that “the smaller stone is for a small boy, David Buttrick, died October 22, 1833. Buttrick is spelled without the last “c”, though the stone carver attempted to add it later. The other stone is for Jonas Melven, who died April 24, 1834. A mistake in the lettering here was ground out and corrected, leaving a bad scar on the stone. I would guess that the dates on the stones do not necessarily mean that the well was sealed forever at that time. They are easy to lift off and could have served as a cover for many years while the well was in use.”  (Abel, 1966 Field Notes: Snow 1969:7-8)

New England gravestones are notorious for sinking, leaning, or falling over due to an unstable landscape or from the frost heaves of the winter months. The headstones for both David H. Buttrick and Mr. Jonas Melven possess graded bases, so it is highly unlikely that these tall stones were naturally displaced from their original locations. Leland Abel’s assumption that these stones were rejected due to spelling errors may not be the correct interpretation either.

Many of the standing gravestones located in the burying grounds of Concord contain spelling errors. Misspellings were common in colonial New England, not only on gravestones but also on written documents. Spelling was not standardized and many of the stone carvers did not always check with families for specific spelling accuracy. When errors were noticed stone carvers did in fact attempt to add in letters and many of the standing gravestones exhibit these additions. So it seems unlikely that a full size gravestone would be rejected due to spelling errors. If the stones were willingly removed, and not stolen, then what was the reason for their removal?

When a gravestone is removed from the burying ground in which it was originally placed, it ceases to mark a grave. Its original location however may be inferred through genealogical ties or context clues based upon the cultural landscape of the local burying grounds. The age and design of these two slate headstones were key clues for beginning the research into which cemetery they may have come from. Although slate gravestones with urn and willow motif headstones dominate the two oldest cemeteries of Concord, I knew from my previous cataloging efforts that the two stones in question most likely did not come from the Old Hill or the South Burying Grounds. The age of the stones suggested that they might be from the New Hill Burying Ground which opened in 1823. The “New Hill” is now integrated with Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and is known as the oldest section of the cemetery. So I started my research by reviewing the burial plot maps and walking through the cemetery to have a look for myself.

Headstone for David Buttrick October 22, 1833

According to the map for New Hill Burying Ground, plot number 38 is for the Buttrick family. There are currently stones for a few individuals who are directly related to David H. Buttrick (d.1833). There are stones for his paternal grandparents (Lydia d. 1818 and David Buttrick d. 1810) and a brother who died in 1889. I later discovered that the parents of David H. Buttrick purchased a family plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on Sleepy Hollow Road. Both of David’s parents as well as other siblings were given contemporary marble gravestones at the time of their death. I was pleasantly surprised to see that David H. Buttrick also has a stone in this plot. It reads:

Front: David
Back: David H.
Son of David and Rebecca
Died October 22, 1833
Et. 8 month 13 days

Buttrick family plot in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (photo by the author)

Marble gravestone at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery for David H. Buttrick, d. October 22, 1833 (photo by the author)

It is unknown whether the slate headstone was missing or deliberately removed at the time the new marble headstone was erected in the Buttrick family plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Because David died at the young age of 8 months and 13 days, it is no wonder that his parents wanted him to be close to them in burial. Although the old slate stone was removed, the grave may or may not have been exhumed and relocated, therefore the marble headstone may actually be a memorial stone rather than a gravestone. Unfortunately we may never know for certain.

Headstone for Mr. Jonas Melven, April 24, 1834

According to the map for New Hill Burying Ground, plot number 141 is for the Melvin, Abner, and Pollard families. Several gravestones are contained within this plot. Of particular relevance is the adjoining marble headstone for Jonas Melvin, 1833 and Rhoda A. Melvin, 1886. This marble stone reads:

Front: Father-Mother
Absent but not Forgotten

Back:

In memory of                In memory of
Rhoda A. Melvin.         Jonas Melvin.
wife of                              died
Jonas Melven,                Apr. 24, 1834
died Nov 13 1886          Aged 33 yrs.
Aged 78 yrs.

This headstone was most likely erected for Jonas and Rhoda Melvin by their only son, Jonas Melvin Jr. who was born on December 29, 1833 and was only four months old when his father died. The old slate stone that commemorated his father only-and contained the incorrect spelling of the last name Melven instead of Melvin, would have been removed and replaced with the new fashionable marble stone at the time of Rhoda’s death in 1886. Commemorating the parents together was probably important to the son because the father died so much earlier than the mother. After nearly forty five years apart they were reunited again in burial.

 Marble gravestone for Jonas and Rhoda Melvin in the New Hill section of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (photo by the author)

As historic artifacts, the stones present even more questions than they are able to answer.  The most obvious questions are: Who removed the stones? & Who willingly accepted the stones to cover the well at the Wayside?

In 1873 George Tolman, a genealogist and researcher, transcribed the inscriptions in the South and Old Hill burying grounds of Concord, Massachusetts. Tolman states that at the time of his endeavor, the summer of 1873, many stones were becoming weathered by the elements and some stones “had entirely disappeared, either by accident, as having fallen and sunk into the earth or through the wantonness of individuals who had carried them away to serve as well-covers or for other similar uses. One stone at least in the Hill burying ground had been removed from its proper place and made to close the mouth of a tomb, where it still remains covered with earth, and not in position to be read.” (Tolman 1873: Introductory Notes)

In 1902, George Tolman gave a lecture to the Concord Antiquarian Society and stated that: “Even whole unmutuliated stones have been so carried away. One was turned up only a few years ago at “The Wayside,” where it was doing duty as the covers to a cess-pool…of course no one knows where it belongs. As far as poor Mrs. Dorothy Putnam, whose name it bears, is concerned, or as far as her bereaved relatives apparently know or care, she might as well have gone without a gravetstone in the first instance. She died only about 70 years ago. Even those who have had official care of burial grounds have not scrupled to destroy or to remove or to misuse the monuments of the dead: for gravestones have been taken from their places and used to block the doorways of some old tombs….and I very well remember when a former Sexton and funeral undertaker carried away two fine large gravestones to cover his well.” (Tolman 1902:5)

It is key that in both 1873 and again in 1902, Tolman observed that stones were being removed and reused for secondary uses, citing specifically the removal of stones from Old Hill and the discovery of at least one other gravestone at the Wayside. Exactly when the removal and reuse took place is still unknown. If we take the earliest stone date of 1833 and Tolman’s 1873 mention of gravestones being taken away to cover wells- we have a 40-year window. During that time the Wayside was home to well over a dozen families. Both the Alcott and the Hawthorne families are amongst the most well known occupants. These families both made major changes to the household and grounds and left abundant letters and diary entries, but sadly there is not a specific mention of the covering of the well.

With the discovery of new marble stones in place, the initial conclusions drawn by the archeologist and the genealogist must be revisited. Leland Abel’s interpretation of the stones being rejected due to spelling errors seems unlikely because the price of a stone was substantial enough that discarding it would be impractical. There are simply too many standing stones which contain spelling errors to consider this an immediate explanation. George Tolman’s conclusion that the stones were unnecessarily carried away may also be too critical. If Tolman did not see the newer marble stones, he may very well have assumed that undamaged stones were removed for no reason. As tempting as it is to paint a picture of a dodgy Sexton selling gravestones on the side-there may very well be another explanation.

When a family upgraded or simply replaced a gravestone they may have left the disposition of the old stone up to cemetery management. Old gravestones often show up serving as secondary functions as well covers, patio floors, incorporated into foundations and endless other uses. Some may have fallen over on their own and typically stones that are damaged or are fragmented become likely candidates for reuse. Whole gravestones are less common, especially if the graded base is intact and makes it possible for resetting. Each stone requires research into the circumstances that brought the stone to its new location. George Tolman does bring up an important point about historic preservation. Because an old stone no longer marks a grave, it does not negate all value or significance of the older stone. The original stone is still an historic artifact that possesses original mortuary art and reflects period taste in material culture.

The two gravestones at Minute Man NHP tell the story of two families and the tradition of marking graves in Concord. The headstones for David H. Buttrick and Mr. Jonas Melven reveal many clues as to the disappearance of older, original gravestones from the historic burying grounds of Concord, MA. These stones also reveal that Concord’s families did not hesitate to immediately mark the graves and that as time passed on these families willingly updated the graves with more contemporary and elaborate headstones. It is a touching tale and not one that was immediately obvious.

References Cited
Berkland, Ellen P.
1997 “Post Mortem Manipulations: Secondary Usages for a Class of Artifacts-Gravestones.” Report on file. Center for Archaeological Studies, Boston University, Boston.

Paresi, Alicia R., et. al.
1999 Gravemarker Inventory of South Burying Ground, Concord, MA. Unpublished manuscript. On file at Concord Public Works.

Paresi, Alicia R., et al.
1999 Gravemarker Inventory of Old Hill Burying Ground, Concord, MA. Unpublished manuscript. On file at Concord Public Works.

Ronsheim, Robert
1968 The Wayside: Historic Structure Report: Historical Data Section. Minute Man National Historical Park. U.S. Department of the Interior: National Park Service, Division of History, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation.

Snow, Cordelia Thomas
1969 Excavations at the Wayside Concord, Massachusetts. Minute Man National Historical Park. U.S. Department of the Interior: National Park Service.

Tolman, George
1902 “Graves and Worms and Epitaphs” manuscript of a speech delivered to the Concord Antiquarian Society, Patriot Press, Concord, Massachusetts.

1873-1883
The Inscriptions from the Old Burying Grounds in Concord, Massachusetts. Unpublished holograph. On file at Concord Public Library

Toogwood, Anna Coxe
1969 The Wayside: Historic Grounds Report. Minute Man National Historical Park. U.S. Department of the Interior: National Park Service, Eastern Service Center, Washington, D.C.

Town of Concord
N.D. Concord, Massachusetts Births, Marriages, and Deaths 1635-1850, Beacon Press Boston, Massachusetts.

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About Alicia P

Alicia is the Curator of Archeology Collections at NMSC. She has worked for the National Park Service for over 16 years and loves the diversity of the work. As a historical archeologist she is interested in decorative arts especially gravestones, ceramics, and furniture. She loves to travel overseas and appreciates the art and achitecture of the middle east.
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