Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Cataloguing Funerals & Burials in Joshua Hempstead’s 18th-Century Diary


The 1678 Hempstead House. Photo from Preservation CT.

Last year, I wrote a blog post about the 17th-century journals of Samuel Sewall, and my work to catalogue all mentions of funerals and burials that he recorded during the 17th and early 18th centuries. Now that my comps are completed and passed (woo!), and a draft of my thesis proposal has been sent off for comments, I can get back into a bit of research for my dissertation…and blog about it as I go.

To refresh your memory, part of my research into the development of 17th-century burial grounds in the colonial northeast of North America is to explore details of how people were being buried in these spaces. By doing so, we can gain a better understanding of how funerals and burials were being carried out at the time, how people were using the spaces, and how these practices have changed through the decades and centuries.

This is my second diary analysis, and it was also written by a Puritan. Joshua Hempstead (1676-1758) of New London, Connecticut, was a shipwright, carpenter, and gravestone carver / letterer, who is most well known today for the extensive diary he kept between 1711 until 1758. Available online through HERE, the diary is an extensive document, over 700 pages, detailing life in the early 18th century in a New England community. While it is a bit beyond the main scope of my project, I thought it would be important to look at examples from the turn of the century as well, for comparison. For those in death studies in this region, Hempstead is well known for his gravestones, especially in the New London area where he was also responsible for constructing many coffins. Due to the many hats he wore in the community, and in direct involvement in death care, Hempstead’s diary offer an exciting look at burials in the period.

Black & Indigenous Burials

As I’ve stated in past posts, one of the topics I’m looking into for my dissertation is that of 17th-century records of Black and Indigenous burials in settler burial grounds. These spaces are typically portrayed as white, but we know that this was not solely the case, and people from many different ethnic backgrounds were being buried there through the 17th and 18th centuries. So far, it has proven difficult to find documentary records of Black and Indigenous burials, due to both the scarcity of the records and the view of who was important from those who were writing them. However, understanding how Black and Indigenous people were visible in these spaces is an important step towards changing how we view these spaces.

For Hempstead’s diary, I chose to look at entries prior to 1720, as I want a comparison of cases against earlier 17th-century examples without straying too far in the mid 18th century. I recorded 125 mentions of funerals and/or burials in the diary from 1711-1719, and within that were seven instances of Black or Indigenous death/burial. Unlike the Sewall diary, Hempstead did mention that these individuals were buried in all but one of the cases, and when he knew them named the individuals. This suggests that he was in attendance at the burial, or at least was familiar with the individuals.

The following accounts are descriptions of the deaths of Black and Indigenous individuals, as the result of settler colonialism. All capitalisations and spellings are from the original text, with derogatory terminology removed except for the first letter, which was instrumental in identifying them in the text.

  • Friday, Dec 6, 1712: “Christopher Stubbins his Indian man named ashan was buried who died Last night – Sich less yn a week” (Hempstead 1901:18).
  • May 1, 1713: “Mary Jackley daughter of Hagar Wright (a free [n…]) was buried who dided last night” (Pg. 22).
Gravestone in New London, 1699 (backdated). Likely carved by John Hartshorne and lettered by Hempstead (photo by author 2015).

Mary’s last name was also spelled ‘Jacklen’. Her mother, Hagar, was born in Africa or the West Indies and had been enslaved and purchased by James Rogers, who promised her freedom when she turned 36. In 1685, an Algonquin man named William Wright/Right indentured himself to Rogers for 6 years in order to purchase Hagar’s freedom, and they were both freed in 1691 (WikiTree). It is likely that Mary was buried in ‘Ye Antientest Burial Place‘ or the Old Burial Ground in New London, CT.

  • Dec 8, 1717: “Richard Christophrs [n…] man Quas was buried died with this distemper yt I have” (pg. 71).
  • Dec 24, 1717: “Old Nanny Jno Coits [n…] woman was buried in ye evening” (pg. 71).

The entry from Dec 8, 1717, displays not only the familiarity of Hempstead with the enslaved people who lived in his community, and likely the attendance of their funerals, but the anxiety that he had over his illness at that point. Noting that Quas died of the same illness that he suffered at that point must have been a frightening moment, and something written with some anxiety. Additionally, the burial of Nanny took place in the evening (anywhere from 4pm onwards, based on other examples), which likely meant after the meetings of the day, and very likely in the burial ground. This was the typical time of day for many funerals, and suggest that she was buried in their tradition at the burial ground as well.

New London Funerals

As with the burials recorded by Sewall, Hempstead does not spend much time describing the location or picture of the burials themselves, and most entries simply read that someone was ‘buried’. This was typical of the Puritans, as well as unsurprising for a working man who had what seemed like endless jobs in his community, including constructing coffins for burials he attended. Here are some of the most interesting entries:

  • Dec 23, 1711: “Saturd 22d fair & snowy. In ye morn before Daylight I went to help Lay out Thomas Way Junr who died at Griffings sick but 6 days. I made his Coffin & found bods & nils, itt Snowed a Little to day. Ye Snow is now near 2: feet. Sund 23 fair & Cold. Tho Way was buried between meetings.” (Pg. 5)
  • Aug 8, 1712: “in ye forept (forenoon, or morning) of ye day I was making Nath Chapells Coffin who died Last night about midnight. Was buried about 5 in aftern.” (Pg. 13)
  • June 28, 1714: “Eliz Dart buried. I was at home in ye foren & at ye funeral in ye aftern at home fencing yards in Smiths Lot.” (Pg. 36)
  • Nov 21, 1714: “Mr. adams Preached al day. In ye forenoon I was out at Amos Tinkers & Josh. We made ye Coffin for his Mothr. Very aged woman of 85 years to a day. She was buried between Meetings.” (Pg. 40)
  • Feb 12-14, 1714/15: “I came home to make a Coffin for Jonat Hills 2d Son who died last night about 9 year old whose name was William. Ye same age of our Stephen. Sund 13 Jonat Hills Son Jonat Died about 11 old. Monday 14. I made a Coffin for Jonat Hills son Jonathan then I went to the funeral of both Jonat & William (Hill) who were buried in one grave.” (Pg. 42-43)
  • Aug 6, 1716: “the body of my dear wife (Abigail) was buried about 2 Clock in ye aftern. It raine stiddy till Late in ye night a Smart Storm.” (Pg. 58)
  • Aug 11, 1716: “I was at home al day Except going to ye funerall of my dear Child who Interred by his Mother about 2 or 3 of ye Clock afternoon.” (Pg. 58)

It is clear that Joshua took pride in his coffin-making work, as he mentions when a coffin he made was being used and who he made it for. It is also interesting to note that he typically mentioned what time of day a burial was taking place, and even if there were meetings (Puritan services at the meeting house) that the burials had to be scheduled around. The diary also details the measles epidemic that hit New England in 1714 – 1715, and the large number of burials that took place during those years due to the illness. One particularly interesting entry was the double burial of Jonathan and William Hill, siblings who died close together and were interred in the same grave, presumably one coffin on top of the other. His entries also tell us that the majority of funerals took place quickly in the afternoon or early evening, and that they buried people all year round, without mention of using a dead house to store bodies until the ground was thawed. This suggests that the climate was not too cold to dig the graves. All of these examples offer a little more insight into how burials were taking place in a community burial ground in the early 18th century.

The old burial ground in New London operated from around 1652 until the end of the 18th century, and hundreds of people were buried there: free and enslaved, Black and white. Joshua was eventually buried there beside his family in 1758 upon his death, and their graves were later exhumed and moved to the Cedar Grove Cemetery, which was established outside of town in the 19th century as a rural garden cemetery. What I have not included in this post is Joshua’s numerous gravestone carving or purchasing entries. Joshua’s brother-in-law was nephew to John Hartshorne, a famous carver in eastern Connecticut, from whom he purchased gravestones to letter, sell, and sometimes install at the burial ground himself. I’ll do a post about that aspect of his work in the future, but the best resource for this is the diary and Ralph Tucker’s 1995 article on the topic.

I think I’ll leave this post there, as I could go on for ages (and I intend to later)! Thank you, as always, for reading!

‘Ye Antientest Burial Place’, New London, CT (photo by author 2015).


Hempstead, Joshua
1901    Diary of Joshua Hempstead of New London, Connecticut, Covering a Period of Forty-Seven Years, from September 1711, to November, 1758. The New London County Historical Society: New London, CT. Available online:

Schaefer, Patricia M.
2021. The Joshua Hempsted Diary: A Window into Colonial Connecticut. Connecticut History. Web article:

Tucker, Ralph L.
1995. The Joshua Hempstead Diary. Markers XII: Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies. Pg. 118-143.

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

2 thoughts on “Cataloguing Funerals & Burials in Joshua Hempstead’s 18th-Century Diary

  1. Pingback: This week's crème de la crème - April 16, 2022 - Genealogy à la carteGenealogy à la carte

  2. Pingback: SHA 2023 Conference, Lisbon, Portugal | Spade & the Grave

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