Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

‘Guilford’s Town Greene’ – a vanished 17th-century burial landscape in Connecticut

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The alternate title to this post is: ‘Guilford’s Town Greene’ – The burial ground that if you give me a moment, I will never stop talking about’. If you’ve heard me speak at a conference or lecture, or…ever… you’ve probably heard me use it an an example of a curious burial landscape, one that has seen endless change, interaction, and ultimately erasure. It’s a very interesting case study in the changing views of death in Western society as well, so if you’re here for the modern death aspect, read on!
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The town of Guilford, Connecticut was founded in 1639 by a group of Puritan settlers lead by Henry Whitfield. The land that the town was built on was purchased, (the legality of that purchase is likely questionable), from the Eansketambawg (English name: Quinnipiac) people, and was modeled after New Haven with square blocks around a central green (Smith 1877:37; Bloomer 1994:58). The Green in the centre of the settlement would contain, among other things, the first burial ground of Guilford. 

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Henry Whitfield’s house, Guilford, CT. Photo by author, 2015.

Like many Puritan settlements, there was no church or meeting house connected with the burial ground at first (this changed later on when Guilford joined the New Haven Colony for protection). For the first few years, the Green looked much the same as it does today, rolling grass, spare trees, and graves of the colonial dead. Shortly after joining the New Haven Colony however, buildings began to appear on the grass. Later records indicate that gravestones were used to mark some of the burials, and while there were some buildings around the space, the burial landscape remained fairly unbounded.

This reminds me of other Puritan burial grounds in New England; unrestricted, multi-functional spaces that were as much a space for the living as they were for the dead. People could freely move around the area…in fact cattle used to graze amidst the graves on the Guilford Green! Once the building constructions began, this meant that the space was a little more difficult to move around and likely had some restricted areas, but the burials were still present and visible in the centre of the town.

It seems like the burial ground, and indeed the entire Green, stayed a jumble of buildings and headstones from the 17th to the 19th century. Churches, schools, a blacksmith, cattle, living and dead all together in the heart of the small coastal community. In 1800, however, the Green had a visit from a critic. His name was Timothy Dwight, an academic, and he was traveling along the coastline of New England and New York writing about the towns he visited along the way.

This square, like that in New Haven, is deformed by a burying ground, and to add to the deformity, is unenclosed. Instead of producing those solemn thoughts, and encouraging those moral propensities, which it was intended to inspire it renders death and the grave such familiar objects to the eye, as to prevent them from awakening any serious regard… Nor is it unreasonable to suppose, that the proximity of these sepulchral fields to human habitations is injurious to health.” (Dwight, 1823:513)

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19th-century map showing the empty Green. Image from Joseph Bergin Architect P.C. 

Not a few years later a fence was constructed around the smattering of historic graves which had once been so accessible and open to visitors. In 1817 all of the headstones had been removed to a new burial ground established outside of the town and in 1824 the uneven ground caused by decomposition and settling of earth into graves had been leveled, effectively erasing the historic burial landscape from the town (Smith 1877:37-38; Bloomer 1994:60; Sexton 2002:4). It is likely that Dwight’s clear and public condemning of the burial landscape in Guilford is at least partly responsible for its erasure (the town had been considering removing ‘evidence of settlers’ from the Green since 1793), but let’s not discount the impact that 19th-century society’s changing interactions with mortality had on the burial ground! 

The early 19th century, as many of you probably already know, was a time of changing traditions in America, especially surrounding death. People moved away from a more stereotypical churchyard or burial ground model and embraced the newly popular ‘garden cemetery’, which is a defining characteristic of death in the 1800s. The classic death’s heads on gravestones became less and less popular as they were replaced with other designs over time such as the cherub, willows, hands, flowers, and other images that could be interpreted as ‘softer’. Death was becoming something that was no longer a regular part of peoples’ lives; people would start to die more often in the hospital than at home. With the rise of embalming during the American Civil War, the funeral industry became more privatized than it had ever been. Dwight’s words could be seen as an early representation of an already growing disparity between living and dead at the end of the 18th-century and into the 19th-century.

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The Guilford Green. Photo by author, 2015.

Today, the Guilford Green looks much like it did in the 17th-century: grassy with scattered trees and paths. Not one of the historic signs along the edge of the park suggests that one of the earliest uses for the Green was as a burial ground…and certainly none of the signs mentions that nearly 400 years later, a burial ground the Green still is. As far as I’ve been able to tell, not one of the graves was re-located at the time when the gravestones were removed and the ground leveled (Dee, 1998). The fact that the use of this space as a burial ground is not indicated on any public signage appears to be a deliberate modern continuation of the erasure of this burial landscape which took place 200 years earlier. Guilford’s burial landscape still stands though, in the heart of the town where it always had. In many ways, it has returned to its original design, open and accessible.

Would people treat the Green differently if it was loudly explained that there are dozens of graves beneath the grass? Some people would, potentially. While the 17th-century Puritans interacted freely with the space out of an understanding, not a fear of, mortality, modern engagement is only carried out because it is uninhibited by the knowledge of the burial landscape still present in the grass. If it was made a more obvious aspect of the modern landscape, some individuals may not be a keen to visit, or may wish for the remains to be removed. I find the hidden burial landscape a fascinating subject, but not everyone feels the same!

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If you are interested in the topic of interaction with burial landscapes, keep following this space! I’ve got a paper in the works discussing different aspects of burial landscapes, both visible and lost.

Cited:
Bloomer, Nona. 1994. Guilford, Connecticut – The Guilford Green. Places Journal, Vol. 9: 56 – 65. Electronic document, http://escholarship.org/uc/item/8fc3x8mk, accessed June 6, 2017.

Dee, Jane E. 1998. Bones Beneath Your Feet: Unmarked Graves Might Be Closer Than You Think. Hartford Courant, Collections. Electronic document, http://articles.courant.com/1998-10-31/news/9810310176_1_prison-inmates-town-bones-beneath-your-feet, accessed June 6, 2017.

Dwight, Timothy. 1823. Travels in New England and New York, Vol II. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Sexton, James. 2002. The Guilford Green: An Ever-Changing Landscape. Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. Electronic document, http://www.towngreens.com/DOCUMENTS/tg_guilford_case.pdf accessed December 6, 2016.

Smith, Ralph Dunning. 1877. The History of Guilford, Connecticut. J. Munsell, Printer, Albany, NY. Available online at: https://archive.org/details/historyofguilfor00smitiala

Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage Specialist / Illustrator.

3 thoughts on “‘Guilford’s Town Greene’ – a vanished 17th-century burial landscape in Connecticut

  1. Pingback: View of the Putnam Burying Ground, Saratoga Springs, New York State | Spade & the Grave

  2. The hurricane of 1938 reminded some townspeople that the Green had been a burial ground. It was reported that many of the uprooted trees from the storm were found to have bones mixed in amongst the exposed roots.

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