Exploring Burial Grounds in The Last Green Valley

Exploring Burial Grounds in The Last Green Valley

“Farewell vain world

and friends that weep for me

Dust and a shadow

these I leave with thee”

  • From the epitaph of Joshua Manning, the great Windham carver, cut by his own hand.

One might think the reason for this column is that Halloween is Saturday, the night when children dressed as ghosts and goblins make house calls with screams of “trick or treat.” I wonder how many kids today hold their breath when passing a cemetery. My older brother told me if I didn’t hold my breath I would wake a spirit with my breathing. We would fill our lungs to capacity and urge mom to please speed up a bit until we passed the rows of stones.

As adults we’re more comfortable in a cemetery. Perhaps it’s because we’re paying our respects to family and friends or checking out the neighborhood for a future residence. For those interested in local history, burial grounds provide a wealth of information and enjoyable places to walk in the open air (without fear of waking a spirit). They are also a popular topic for Walktober walks, and this year a handful of fascinating cemetery and burial ground explorations were offered. I attended one in Chaplin in person and two in Norwich “virtually” and each was well done and very informative.

I have been on several walks led by Rusty Lanzit in his town of Chaplin. His walk at Chaplin Street Cemetery caught my eye, so I signed up and, on a sunlit October morning, headed out to Chaplin. Rusty led us to several gravestones of differing types and styles. He revealed to us the lives of those interred as well as the stone carvers who created the headstones. The variety and beauty of the stones was of great interest to all who attended.

Rusty had learned about the Chaplin Cemetery from James Slater, a UConn professor and author of “The Colonial Burying Grounds of Eastern Connecticut and the Men Who Made Them.” Rusty told me “I was lucky enough to walk the Chaplin cemetery with Dr. Slater about 35 years ago. I took furious notes as he strolled through the cemetery, pointing to elaborate headstones and talking about the stone carvers who created them. I still have those notes and have referred to them often; they are the basis of this walk.”

The walk got me interested in learning more, so I searched online and purchased Slater’s book. I discovered the work and lives of nearly 100 stone carvers and charts where their stones are located. These carvers worked in 60 towns east of the Connecticut River. Slater’s research and focus were on stones made during the Colonial era up to 1805, and account for some of the earliest headstones of the white settlers who resided in the region.

One of the interesting facts about the gravestones is the connection between the raw stone used to towns in eastern Connecticut and, in some cases, to the person the headstone was made for.

Slater’s book cites interregional differences, with the 18th century Connecticut gravestones east of the Connecticut River falling into four major categories:

  • Red and brown sandstone from the Connecticut River Valley
  • Granite-schist “gray” stones from the inland heart of eastern Connecticut
  • Slate stones from Boston and adjacent towns in eastern Massachusetts
  • Slate stones from Newport, Rhode Island and adjacent towns in the Narragansett River Basin

An important point Slater makes is, “Major port cities, and towns and villages located along important water-ways, have a much higher proportion of stones that were produced a long distance away than do inland rural graveyards. Anyone who has tried to move even a small Connecticut granite gravestone will not find the reason for this difficult to understand.”

One stone carver I recognized from Slater’s book was John Hartshorne from Franklin. He was the first stone carver described in the book and Slater was the source of information for Hartshorne’s listing in TLGV’s publication “Notable and Notorious: Historically Interesting People from The Last Green Valley,” which I am quoting here:

The first stone carver to use artistic designs in eastern Connecticut was John Hartshorne, who moved to Franklin in 1722, at the age of 70, from Essex County, MA. He moved to Connecticut to be with his married daughter and family.

About half of the towns in The Last Green Valley have Hartshorne stones in their early burying grounds, a total of 121. Hartshorne is credited with establishing the Eastern Connecticut Ornamental Style, a stone carving tradition that influenced the craftsmen who would follow him through the rest of the century.

Hartshorne’s work was very distinct. The stone was usually granite-schist, gray in color. The top was formed into a semi-circle shape (a “lunette”) with small round appendages not unlike ear lobes. Although the stones were only about two feet in height, the lunette was carved with faces including round staring eyes, nose and a dash for a mouth. The area around the face was filled by one of two readily identifiable patterns: an abstract bird or a coiffure-like motif. The matching lobes on each side of the lunette were usually filled with a rosette or four-heart motif.

Most of Hartshorne’s work seems to have been done between the ages of 70 and 85. He carved 185 stones in 15 years, an average of 12.3 stones per year.

The two “virtual” Walktober programs about cemeteries are with Dave Oat of the Norwich Historical Society and include “Notables of Yantic Cemetery” and “Ye Antient Burying Grounds of Norwich.” I have watched both, as well as the other virtual walks offered during Walktober, and the nice thing is you can experience these informative walks anytime. The link to both of Dave Oat’s virtual walks, and the others can be found at:


If this column has piqued your interest in gravestones you may want to check out the CT Gravestone Network website full of up-to-date information and programs on the subject. http://ctgravestones.org/

Slater’s book is a wonderful and informative resource about early gravestones of our region, and I recommend it to those interested in the topic. I was able to easily find it online for purchase. It is important to note that in his book, Slater pays tribute to Dr. Ernest Caulfield “without whose published papers and, more importantly his unpublished manuscripts this work could not have been accomplished.” I have also found and ordered one of the Caulfield’s publications to add to my library.

Both Slater and Caulfield came to their deep interest and devotion to researching and studying the headstone carvers of the Colonial era from unrelated careers. Caulfield was a respected Hartford pediatrician and Slater was a trained entomologist, a UConn professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology.

In closing I’ll note that the word cemetery is from the Greek word for “sleeping place” implying the land that is designated as a burial ground. The term graveyard primarily refers to a burial ground within a churchyard. Many of the burial grounds in The Last Green Valley provide both clues and answers to learning our region’s history. Admission is free to visit these “sleeping places” but for some the visit lasts an eternity.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join us as we enjoy it, care for it, and pass it on.

Information for this column was taken from a walk and talk in the Chaplin Street Cemetery with Rusty Lanzit, TLGV’s publication “Notable and Notorious: Historically Interesting People from The Last Green Valley,” and “The Colonial Burying Grounds of Eastern Connecticut and the Men Who Made Them,” by James A. Slater, first published on 1987 by the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences with a revised edition in 1996. The quote and attribution at the top of this column is taken from the title page of Slater’s book.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org


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