Cemetaries · Historical Landmarks · Massachusetts

Kicking Off October with the Old Burial Grounds Cemetery in Ashby MA

DSC_0759It’s the first day of October which means my favorite holiday of the year is coming up – Halloween. In celebration of this I have decided to make this month’s travels themed. So welcome to the first entry of my Haunted New England Tour! I will try my best to go to locations that are haunted, creepy, abandoned, surrounded by local myths and legends, stalked by cryptozoological beasts, or part of our brutal history. Of course there will be a number of cemeteries and this month could be a great way to get all you history and psychology buffs involved as New England is the site of many murders and mysteries! I shouldn’t have any problem finding new places to go!

DSC_0778I am starting out with a familiar stomping ground for me – the graveyard behind the town common in Ashby. If you’re wondering what the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery is I am told cemeteries exist on their own while graveyards are consecrated ground adjoining a church. It took me way too long to figure out what this particular graveyard was called. I had to stare at Google street view for quite a while! But the Church is the First Parish Church (Unitarian Universalists) and the graveyard behind it is called The Old Burial Grounds. It’s hidden from the street and you can’t get to it from there so I don’t think it has many visitors. I don’t believe the church has a parking lot, which again, is not unusual for New England. Many of the older churches in the center of town have carriage houses or stables to park your horses but no place to park your cars. Such is the march of time! On this particular day I parked behind the 873 Café (which a great place for breakfast!) and walked past two parking lots and over a small stone wall to get into the graveyard. Sadly, since dying my hair an outrageous shade of orange I seem to be attracting attention. A couple, patrons of the café, spied my antics and followed behind me. If I was allowed to take photos of the stones they were going to go check them out too! They took a bit to settle down but ambled from one section to the next calling each other over to share what they found. I am so happy to encourage this sort of exploration and in complete strangers no less!

DSC_0798But anyway this cemetery is mostly slate stones which are the older stones you can find here, mostly dating to the 1700’s. These stones were particularly beautiful as they clearly had several different artists, all adding their own unique signature styles to familiar symbology. This was the first time I found a triple-headed stone. There’s usually one or two double-headed stones here and there, most often married couples or more grimly the gravesites of slaves, infants, or peasants (as double stones are cheaper than two separate stones…) From what I could guess these appeared to be siblings, all children, all dying in the third year of their life. Another sad find was a double stone for a twenty three year old woman in the late 1700’s who died four days after giving birth and one day after her infant died. Was this due to complications, disease, or a broken heart? We may never know but there did seem an inordinate amount of children here, even considering the time period.

DSC_0750Because of its age this graveyard is littered with Revolutionary War soldiers. I have become accustomed to seeing their stones, usually easy to spot because of their metal war plaques and the small American flags that are placed at each. During my first visit here I noticed a very lonely little stone at the very back left corner. It was just a square marble post, looking more like a property marker than a gravestone. It was showered in pennies. In New England this is an old tradition that denotes respect for an important historical figure. Who could it be? I wandered closer and read the stone, “PRINCE ESTABROOK NEGRO GREATON’S CO. 3 MASS REGT REV. WAR.” I must admit this confused me greatly. Was Negro his last name or was he black? And if he was black… we had black revolutionary war soldiers?! I didn’t have a penny to leave that first time I visited but I did today and it seemed to mean a little more because I knew who it was now after looking  his story up.

DSC_0755Prince Estabrook was indeed a black man and also a slave. On April 19, 1775, after requesting and being granted legal permission from his owner, he became the first black man to become a revolutionary war soldier (yes, I said first, not only.) He fought and was wounded in the battle of Lexington and Concord, the first battle of the Revolutionary War. His service was on and off from there until the end of the war. We know shockingly little other than that. We have no idea why he volunteered to fight for a country which was enslaving him, we have pretty much no details of his personal life, only that after he eventually won his freedom he lived in Ashby Massachusetts with the son of his previous owner, dying at around ninety years of age. He does not appear to have been honored in any special way during his life and on his death he was buried outside the graveyard’s official boundaries, forever segregated. This explains why his stone was so… isolated. It was moved at some point in recent history to at least be within the graveyard’s official grounds. Only in 2008 did he get recognition being mentioned on a memorial facing the Lexington Green where he fought.

Though I know a lot of history I am continuously shocked at just what went down in our past. It never occurred to me that such a historical figure even existed and the fact he did and we know almost nothing about him is disheartening. Still, he’s not completely forgotten. A book that took seven years of research is available now. It’s called Prince Estabrook, Slave and Soldier by Alice Hinkle. I ponder what it details it has in it – perhaps where he was from or the circumstances of his enslavement? Or where he got his name… Prince seems such an unlikely name! And Estabrook clearly came from his owners. Did he not have his own name even as a free man? Guess I will have to order the book and find out!

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