Exploring the final resting places of historically interesting people
The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor was home to many fascinating people. Some are well known throughout the state and country for their roles in government, business and the military. Others are known to us for their writing, art and activism. There are others still who you will never learn about in school or see a documentary about, yet their lives tell important stories about the past and how the people of the time lived. TLGV’s publication “Notable and Notorious: Historically Interesting People From The Last Green Valley,” tells the stories of some of these fascinating people from the well-known to the lesser-known and it can be downloaded for free from the TLGV website at:
Cemeteries are a wonderful place to learn about interesting people. I enjoy the occasional visit to the last resting place of our fascinating historical figures, and I thought it would be fun to share some of them with you.
The most impressive tomb in the Old Norwichtown Cemetery in Norwich is that of Samuel Huntington. A member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was also the President of Congress when our young nation’s first framework of government, the Articles of Confederation, was ratified. It would be a few months until George Washington would be elected President, thus making Huntington the first Chief Executive of the nation, leading him to also be known as the first “real” President of the United States. Huntington also served as the Governor of Connecticut until his death in 1796.
While you’re in Norwichtown look for the grave marker of Boston Trowtrow. This grave marker tells a story once hidden from history. According to the 1756 census, Norwich had the second largest number of black residents in the Connecticut Colony. Slaves and free African Americans of the era organized themselves not only socially but also politically and elected governors, a tradition originally brought from African culture. In Norwich, Boston Trowtrow was elected governor and served two years. His grave marker reads: “In Memory of Boston Trowtrow Govenor of ye Affrican Trib he Died May 28 1772 at 66.” The grave marker is one of the few that help tell the tale of the black political system from before the Revolutionary War.
Also in Norwich, the Mohegan Royal Burial Grounds are an awe-inspiring place to visit.
The first time I visited the was in 2012. I was struck by beautiful open ground with the tall obelisk inscribed with the name Uncas. This burial ground is where Chief Uncas, who died in 1683, and his descendants are buried. Uncas was one of the most important leaders in our region’s history. His abiding concern for the safety of his people and willingness to cooperate with the colonial settlers all but guaranteed Norwich would become a thriving community and city. Unfortunately, the Mohegan burial grounds were reduced and eroded over time. After literally centuries of trying to reclaim their royal burial ground the Mohegan Tribe was finally able to take ownership and restore it to the condition it is today. Adjacent to the burial ground is a “Circle of Moons” describing the Mohegan traditions of when to plant and to harvest. The Circle of Moons and Royal Burial Ground is located on Sachem Street in Norwich.
At the start of the War for Independence, Lebanon resident and Connecticut Colonial Governor Jonathan Trumbull was the only Colonial Governor to support the Revolution. He supported the Continental Army and established important support lines to Gen. George Washington. He died in 1785 and is buried in a tomb in Lebanon’s Trumbull Cemetery. His home is now one of several historic houses and museums open to the public along the Lebanon Town Green.
Ellen Larned of Thompson was a life-long resident of Thompson and a highly respected historian for her seminal book “History of Windham County.” Understanding the importance of original sources, such as town and church records and diaries, her tireless research into the “social history” of the towns in Windham County helped interpret the region’s impact on the state and country. She died in 1912 and is buried in the West Thompson Cemetery.
Born in South Woodstock, George Washington Wells began his career in the neighboring town of Southbridge at the age of 18 when he co-founded an optical firm. By age 23 he was one of the incorporators of the American Optical Company. Wells would go on to have 26 patents including a method of edging bifocal lenses, rimless lenses and ophthalmic lenses. What he started with American Optical Company was then further developed by his three sons Albert, Cheney and Channing, and would become the largest manufacturer of lenses in the world. He died in 1912 and is buried in the Wells Family Tomb in the Southbridge Oak Ridge Cemetery.
There are a number of interesting “characters” who resided in The Last Green Valley. One of my favorites is Alice Ramsdell of West Thompson. I met Alice in the 1980s at several programs hosted by the Woodstock Historical Society. I did not know of her “notoriety” until after she had passed in 1995. Alice lived at her family farm in West Thompson overlooking the Quinebaug River. Following the devastating flood of 1955, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed three flood control sites on the Quinebaug River, including West Thompson. The Ramsdell home and farm was slated for demolition but Alice had other ideas. When the Army Corps arrived with the eviction notice she met them on the front porch with a shotgun. She refused to leave her home, but after some negotiation it was agreed she could remain on her land until her death if she paid a small lease. She became the first person in New England to take on the U.S. Army Corps and win. Alice is buried in the West Thompson Cemetery.
You may remember the 1970’s film and subsequent television show “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams” depicting a kindly mountain man and his pet grizzly bear named Ben. What you may not know is there really was a Grizzly Adams who also had a pet grizzly bear. John Capen “Grizzly” Adams was born in 1812 in Medway, Mass. and made a living working for showmen by collecting wild animals for display. He went west with the 1849 California Gold Rush and ventured into the wilderness to hunt game for sale of the meat and hides as well as to capture live animals for sale to circuses and exhibits. He kept grizzly bears as pets and was known to visit San Francisco with one named Ben Franklin on a leash. He opened a zoo called the Mountaineer Museum that eventually failed. He then joined up with P.T. Barnum as a performer and partner in Barnum’s shows. He died of meningitis in 1860 due to the reopening of an old wound, the result of a fight with a bear. Barnum erected a stone to mark Adams’ grave in the Bay Path Cemetery in Charlton, Mass.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Over the centuries countless fascinating people (some notable and some notorious) were born here or immigrated to our region to make their lives among our hills and valleys. Their stories help to define the character of our region and the history that makes this region so special. I hope you’ll join me and others as we remember their contributions, celebrate their lives and pass their interesting and important stories on to the next generation.
Information for this column was gleaned from the TLGV publication “Notables and Notorious: Historically Interesting People From The Last Green Valley.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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