The Ghosts of Newbury

SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, I visited the First Burying Ground of the Settlers of Newbury, Massachusetts. My 9th great-grandfather, Robert Adams, is buried there. Robert and his wife, Eleanor Wilmot, arrived in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1635 and lived for two years in Salem before joining the fledgling Newbury community. They acquired a farm and had nine children.

The Burying Ground is located on the High Road just outside the historic town center of Newbury. It’s marked by a modest white sign on the side of the road. The site is a small, well-tended green set back from the road and surrounded by a split-rail fence. There is a gate with two handsome granite posts inscribed with the words, “First Burying Ground of the Settlers” and “Newbury, 1635.” Three dozen or so headstones are scattered about the Ground. Some are quite new or newly refurbished; others are broken or buried and completely illegible. Someone — a cousin, perhaps — restored Robert’s at some point, though it is now so covered by lichen that it is difficult to read.

Another headstone caught my attention. Like Robert’s, it is relatively new or recently restored. It reads:

In the days since my visit, I’ve thought a lot about Robert, Eleanor, and Elizabeth, about public history, about preservation and memory and forgetting and elision.

I’ve admired the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony since I was first exposed to their history and writings in graduate school. I read (and later taught) John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, Anne Hutchinson, John Cotton, Jonathan Edwards, Anne Bradstreet, and others. Studying the Puritans gave me a deeper understanding of one of the important sources of American politics and culture. I was also moved by the strength and substance of their religious commitments, even as I was abandoning my own. And so I was proud to discover many years later that I was descended from an early member of the Puritan project, and I am grateful to later citizens of Newbury for their efforts to preserve this important legacy.

What the Burying Ground does not preserve, or even allude to, is the fact that the Puritans were not, in fact, the original settlers of Newbury or any other part of the Massachusetts Bay. Before the arrival of John Winthrop aboard the Arabella at Salem in 1630, the area was the ancestral home of the Pennacook people of the greater Wabanaki Confederacy. The Pennacook farmed and hunted and fished in the area over millennia; and then, within a few generations, they lost their lands, livelihoods, and lives in decades of armed conflict with the colonists and the citizens of the early American republic. The use of the term “settler” sustains the illusion — long since dismantled by historians and anthropologists — that before the arrival of the European colonists, the American continent was an unsettled wilderness awaiting civilizing forces from away.

The unspoken history of the Burying Ground includes Robert’s wife, Eleanor, my 9th great-grandmother, and mother to his nine children (including Abraham, my 8th great-grandfather). I did not think to note the number of headstones belonging to the women of Newbury, but the Burying Ground’s website, maintained by the Sons and Daughters of the First Settlers of Newbury, lists only the heads of households, that is, men. Back when I was reading the Puritan divines in the early 1970s, this elision would have been par for the course. It is startling now, after so much struggle and progress in the retelling of American colonial history from the perspective of women and with a view to their central roles and contributions.

And then there is Elizabeth, wife and witch, perhaps lying in peace “beyond these walls.” How remarkable, and odd, that this troubling piece of the Puritan story would be so prominently displayed in a context otherwise so conventionally and narrowly arranged. A gesture of inclusion? Of irony? Of protest? And how oddly revealing that no additional information is provided to explain the ambiguous legend of the headstone, which begs so many questions. Who was Elizabeth? What circumstances and processes led to her being declared a witch? And where did she come to rest “beyond these walls”?

As it turns out, the story of Elizabeth’s life is told in other places, including the website of the nearby town of Ipswich. She was married to William Morse, one of the First Settlers of Newbury. In 1679, the Morse household experienced a string of “petty annoyances” that a mischievous neighbor, Caleb Powell, suggested might be the work of “the arch-fiend” himself. In fact, the strange events — sticks and stones hurled against the building in the night, a hog appearing suddenly in the house — were probably the work of the Morses’ troubled grandson, who lived with them. But once the idea of devilish possession was let loose, it had a life of its own. Elizabeth Morse was convicted of witchcraft by the Court of Assistants in Boston in 1680 and sentenced to be hanged. At the last moment, she was given a reprieve and ordered to spend the rest of her life confined to her husband’s house in Newbury.

Beyond the split-rail fence of the First Settlers Burying Ground, the history of the witch trials in New England has been exhaustively documented and interpreted over the last several decades by dozens of scholars. But Elizabeth’s cryptic headstone reminds us of her terrible isolation at the time, and of the gap between academic and public history.

One of the potent lessons of the last several years is the importance of public history — the accounts and understandings of the past that are deposited and expressed in Civil War monuments, public statuary, public festivals, parades, and holidays, mascots, building and street names, public parks, battlefields, burying grounds, and in our received, common-sense understandings of our collective identities and how we came to be who we are. Much of the time, these accounts and understandings lie in the land of the vast, collective unconscious. But sometimes they come rocketing to the surface to become the objects of explicit attention and contestation. That is mostly a good and necessary thing.

A few days after my visit, I wrote a letter to the trustees of the First Settlers Burying Ground suggesting that the site include brief references to the Pennacook people, the women of Newbury, and the history of the witch trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Part of me felt a bit churlish in doing so. After all, how many people care to visit this place, and how many of them care in any way about the changes I suggested? Small changes in a small place. And why quibble over details in this otherwise admirable effort to preserve the past? On the other hand, it occurs to me that a good part of our public history is lodged in such small places, and that small gestures of inclusion in many small places add up. We will never have histories — public or scholarly — that are perfectly inclusive, that avoid every possible instance of elision and forgetting. But we can certainly hope to have histories that are truer to the complexity of what has been lived, one small place at a time.

References:

https://www.sonsanddaughtersofnewbury.org/the-burial-ground

https://www.sonsanddaughtersofnewbury.org/heads-of-families

https://historicipswich.org/2021/06/06/the-witchcraft-trial-of-elizabeth-morse-of-newbury/