Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

The Old Durham Cemetery: Exploring the early 18th-century


For Easter holiday this year, we had the fortune of traveling to Connecticut to visit my partner’s family, eat a lot of chocolate, and (of course) explore some historic burial grounds. Since this was a short trip we only made it to two, and today I’d like to take you on a little tour of the Old Durham Cemetery in Durham, CT, which opened in 1700!

The modern name of the site includes the word ‘cemetery’ but as you may already know, that term wasn’t utilized in North America until the 1830s, so I’ll continue this post referring to it as a ‘burial ground’ unless using the site’s name. xxx20190421_103722Wow, we’ve moved up a touch into the 18th century with this post! I feel a little out of my depth leaving the 17th century, but truth be told a lot of the same burial customs continued from the late 17th into the early 18th century. We see changes later on as Puritanism began to lose support in CT and MA through the 17th century, but the traditions can still be seen at this site…particularly in the names seen on some of the gravestones, which I’ll absolutely be highlighting today.

The burial ground is located north of the town green on ‘Old Cemetery Road’, on a steep hill slope, facing southeast and cresting the top of the hill to the north. It does not appear to have been associated directly with a church structure. By that I mean, there is no church immediately on the property.

Settlers from the nearby settlements of Killingworth and Guilford had settled in the area known as Cochinchaug in 1669, and the community was renamed Durham in 1704 after Durham City, England (where I used to live!). An excerpt from ‘The History of Durham, Connecticut’ describes the founding of the town:
Durham, on the other hand, was settled after the spirit of dissent had, to some extent died out; after the jealousy of Ecclesiastical encroachment on the right of individuals Churches was somewhat weakened; after the controversies about Episcopal forms had passed by; after the evils of separatism, independency, and Church isolation, and the great advantages of the Consolidation of Churches, recommended by the great synod in Massachusetts, in 1662, and adopted in Connecticut in 1708, were beginning to be felt” (Fowler 1866:3-4).

The burial ground was established between 1700-1703, when a parcel of land was designated for the purpose (Conserve ART 2016). This parcel was likely on the edge of the settlement in the early 18th century, but today is surrounded by residential and commercial properties. If you visit the site today there is a small parking area on the south side, and upon entering the burial ground, the original road trace that lead visitors into the site is still visible between the headstones.


Looking west from the east end of the burial ground, with the road grade in the centre (photo by author 2019).

Landscape archaeology is so cool. You can actually see the road trace very clearly on google earth too! The burials at the site date from the early 1700s through the 1900s, however with the early settlement having dated to the late 1600s, one would expect there to be some earlier burials in the area as well. Whether they are located in this site, leading to it becoming the official burial space, or if they were located on family farms on another site elsewhere, I do not know. (I’d obviously like to know though).


Gravestone of Phinehas Spelman, 1783. (photo by author 2019)

The majority of the gravestone at this site are made from local Connecticut Valley red sandstone, which was cut from one of three historic-period quarries, with larger monuments made from stone sourced from Portland, CT (Conserve ART 2016). Later monuments are made from marble, and there is a single slate marker at the site in amazing condition!

The only issue with sandstone is that it tends to have problems with blistering and delamination or exfoliation. Sandstones are sedimentary rocks, made up of small particles of other materials that have become cemented together with either siliceous or calcium-carbonate material. You can see the beginnings of exfoliation on Phinehas Spelman’s gravestone here, with cracks forming on the face of the gravestone beneath the text. This material will eventually fall off in a sheet. Also note that Spelman died of small pox, as was noted on his grave! The artwork on his grave is similar to many other gravestone in the area, indicating that the carver (whose name I cannot thing of right now, someone remind me!) may have been within the area.


Ephraim Camp, 1725 (photo by author 2019)

Early gravestones at this site show the tendency for less imagery. This style reflected earlier Protestant views that iconography was not as appropriate on gravestones as it would eventually become, although the simplistic nature of these stones can also reflect the economic standing of the families who paid for them. The stone of Ephraim Camp, 1725, depicts the typical gravestone shape of the 17th and early 18th century, with capital lettering, and a whorl or pinwheel pattern on each finial. This symbol is one of many apotropaic marks used on gravestones in colonial North America, and will be discussed at length in my upcoming book! I have a fondness for these simple stones, especially in an area that was predominated by Protestant and Puritan settlers. They reflect earlier gravestone traditions which were less popular during this period, but are more prevalent in 17th-century burial grounds.

Finally, I wanted to touch on the traditions of Protestant naming conventions of the 17th and 18th centuries. You might already be familiar with some of the odd naming conventions that arose with the Puritans in England and New England. Such famous individuals saddled with names like ‘Praise-God Barebone’, ‘Job-raked-out-of-the-ashes’, and ‘Die-well’, or simpler names such as ‘Reformation’, ‘Silence’, or ‘Creedence’. That last one should be familiar if you’ve seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, as the character of Creedence lives with a family modeled after the supposed harshness of the Puritans with their relationship to magic. (fun fact, all those protective marks? yeah those were magic).


Footstone of Amos Johnson, 1776. (photo by author 2019)

Names from this period often reminded those who heard it of sins or virtues, religion, values, and sometimes mortality. The more harsh or dramatic names fell from popularity in the 17th century, but you can see their influence among the 18th century census records…and gravestones. From this burial ground I noticed the following (all spellings reflect the stones):

  • Rejoice Grane Ross
  • Amos Johnson
  • Concourence Johnson
  • Ephraim Camp
  • Damaris & Eunice (siblings)
  • Tryphene
  • Rejoyce Crane
  • Mindwell Norton
  • Mehitabel
  • Phinehas Spelman

I should also note that a high percentage of graves at this site had corresponding footstones, and many of them had the same image as the photo above. Abstract, the ‘wings’ on either side reflect the cherub wings on the headstone carvings and was likely a signature image of that particular carver. Most headstones had the name, the date of death, or initials on them, and some had decoration as well.

If you have any additional information on the Old Durham Cemetery that you’d like to pass on to me, please send me a message, tweet me, or drop a comment below. I’d love to hear from you! This concludes my short tour of the site, and I’d like to leave you today with a fragmented gravestone which startled me slightly, when I saw it from several metres away.


Thanks for reading!


Conserve ART. 2016. Durham Old Cemetery. Conserve ART: Analysis, research, treatment. Website:

Fowler, William Chauncey. 1866. History of Durham, Connecticut. Hartford, Press of Wiley, Waterman & Eaton. Available online at: 

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

6 thoughts on “The Old Durham Cemetery: Exploring the early 18th-century

  1. Awesome- Thank you. I really enjoy your blogs!


  2. We just visited the Old Burying Ground in Salem, MA which also tells an interesting but similar story. Haven’t written a post on it yet though. 😉


  3. Next to the cemetery is a bridge that fell and was replaced in the 19th century, just across from the parking space for the cemetery. It was left and “landmark” under the modern one, with steps and bronze plaque also in Braille to view. Durham, CT has one of the oldest country fairs in in the US. I worked on the archaeology testing for new water to be supplied, an area of contamination from metal box construction. It once had a very early community water supply, but not in the current plans, a new reservoir up Talcott Ridge Rd. north.


    • That’s amazing, I wish I’d know that when I was in the area and could have gone to see! Maybe next time 🙂
      It’s an amazing community, I’m definitely going to visit again!


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