Gravestone Evolution in America From the First Settlers to the Early Victorian Era
Having preserved monuments for the last 15 years in the country’s oldest cemeteries, I have been intrigued by the history I uncover when taking the time to look for clues in the landscape around me, and in the stones themselves. A historical graveyard, and all that goes into it, is a kind of ancient puzzle, that I hope will intrigue you as it does me.
By understanding the craftsmanship of early stone carvers and tracing the sources for the different kinds of stone they used, I gain appreciation for the resourcefulness of the people of the time. Noticing the progression of fads and styles in the religious and iconic symbolism of gravestones as I work on them puts another piece of the puzzle together, giving indications about the fears and hopes of our colonial ancestors. Taking time to appreciate the aesthetic thinking that went into the early ‘planned’ cemeteries, and recognizing the ingenuity of these early ‘landscape architects’ has provided a source of endless fascination for me.
By looking at cemeteries with a mason’s eye, an artist’s heart and a historian’s curiosity, I have gained admiration for the artistry of our colonial ancestors, and an appreciation for the challenges they faced and the vision they possessed to create these living outdoor museums. It would be impossible to relate all that I have learned, but I will attempt to give an overview of the historical progression of graveyards in Colonial and Victorian America and point the reader to particular examples of places to visit, that hold our history not only in story, but in stone.
Historic graveyards can be found in nearly every part of America. They range greatly in size, shape, and style, depending on the region, landscape, and religious influences upon which they were built. Burying grounds were an important aspect of nearly every colonial American town, and were most often located directly adjacent to a church, meeting house, or beside the town’s green.
In the earliest colonial period, the local landscape and availability of land had a great influence on the exact location of graveyards. Sometimes hilly terrain was selected for the site of a burying ground, as the land was difficult to farm or build on. Rocky locations were traditionally known to be difficult to farm, much to the future grave- diggers dismay.
Unfortunately, there are very few existing original records remaining from the very early colonial era, so a great deal must be determined, based on what remains, the gravestones themselves.
Early Colonial graveyards tended to be used, or filled, in the order of need, not sold in lots to families. Gravediggers may have purposely left spaces for relicts or consorts, for the spouse who was still living, but the earliest graveyards show evidence of people making due with what was available. Little planning, but much care, went into these burying places, which indicates a more rustic, less moneyed population.
The very earliest European settlers had no professional stone workers to hire when their loved ones died. They would either create simple wooden markers or wooden crosses to mark recent burials. Often times field stones and crudely carved small rocks were employed, sometimes with names or initials scratched in. By the middle to the 1600s skilled stone workers began to migrate to America, bringing more artistry and craftsmanship, but using the materials at hand.
During the colonial era gravestones tended to be of a smaller size, and most often created from softer types of stone such as sandstone and slate, which were easier to quarry, cut and carve. The primary style of gravestone was called a tablet stone, meaning a single piece of cut stone, placed vertically and upright. An average tablet stone had about one third of its mass underground.
Boston was the epicenter of gravestone carving in colonial America, and a place where the trade and skills had been directly imported from overseas. In most parts of America, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, gravestone carving was not a full-time occupation, as the work was too sporadic for a carver to fully earn a living. Many of the early carvers worked part -time, and may have also have worked as a masons, carpenters, or farmers.
By the late 1600’s in Boston however, the population became large enough to support a few full-time gravestone carvers. The Boston area also held a wealth of extremely high quality slate stone, which was both easy to carve and very durable to weathering. Due to the size and the population of Boston, and the quality of the stone, Boston slate colonial tablet stones were carved in large numbers and shipped to distant locations along the entire eastern seaboard. I have personally observed Boston slate gravestones as far away as Charleston, SC, and Savannah Georgia.
The colonial gravestones’ shapes, imagery, and symbolism were at first transported from much older influences in Europe. But once in America, they quickly adopted many varied and regional styles. By the middle of the 1700s.
depending on the religious influences, the materials available, and the gravestone carver’s own background, the once simple stoic stone inscriptions flourished into elaborate, ornately shaped and carved headstones.
By the early 1700s, Newport Rhode Island had two of its own full time gravestone carvers, John Bull and John Stevens. Founded in 1705, John Steven’s business became an important influence on other carvers as his stones were created in large numbers and installed in the wide area. Although now run by another family, NAME of Company -- is known today as the oldest continually operational gravestone shop in America.
The Newport slate however, is not quite as enduring as the Boston slates and often eroded over time, causing the carvings and inscription to become faded, sometimes to the point of being very difficult to read. As Boston and Rhode Island exported headstones to other parts of colonial America, other regions remained more local, and relied upon their own resources to honor their departed family members.
Before the railroads connected the New England towns it was very difficult and time consuming to move stone, which weighs around 150 pounds per cubic foot, so many other kinds of stones were employed regionally during the colonial era. With the exception of the Boston slates, which were shipped down the coast by ship, most gravestone carvers worked with whatever stone material was locally available. Stones needed to be soft enough to split and carve with hand tools, but durable enough to resist erosion.
Connecticut, my home state, has it’s own long colonial history, that can be traced through gravestone study. There was almost no slate at all for gravestones in Connecticut, however a huge amount of sandstone was available for use. Sandstones are formed when bodies of fresh water dry up, and the sand grains are mixed with varying minerals to become cemented together into a matrix. If there is enough pressure underground, and after a long length of geological time, this sand mix will become stone. The higher the clay content, the weaker and less durable the stone. The higher the silicate content, the stronger and more durable to the stone will be.
In Connecticut there are abundant sandstone veins running from the shore in the south, to Long Meadow, MA, and beyond in the north. The farther north, the better the quality of the stone, and the more clear and enduring the carving are today.
The earliest gravestone carver in Connecticut was George Griswold, from Windsor, CT. He likely received training overseas, but arrived in Winsor in the middle of the 1600s, already an expert stone carver. The sandstone he worked is know as brownstone, a slang term to describe a sandstone tending to be brown in color.
The Windsor area sandstone he worked was a brown- red color, with a very fine grain, and was relatively high in silicates. It tends to weather minimally and Griswold’s concise lettering on stones dating back to as early as the middle to late 1600s can be easily read today, on nearly all his stones. These stones still stand today in Windsor, CT, at the oldest part of the Palisado Cemetery, in the historic district.
A great stone for study, the oldest inscribed readable gravestone in America carved by Grisold, is one I have helped to preserve. It is the box crypt tomb in Palisado cemetery. Although it may have been backdated, carved at a slightly later date, it clearly reads; ‘Rev. Ephraim Huit, who died 1644’. Intriguingly, there are 2 faces of inscription on the tomb, the opposite side being carved much later in the 1800s. Griswold’s expertise is evidenced by the fact that the more recent carving is more eroded then the original stone face on the southern side.
About 15 miles to the south of Hartford lay Middletown, CT. Today the town is known as Portland, but in Colonial times was part of Middletown, then called East Middletown, due to it location, just east of the Connecticut River where the sandstones cliffs can still be seen today, lining the eastern edge. Sandstone was being quarried and carved into gravestones from this area since the 1600s. Two stone carving families, the Stancliff’s and the Johnson’s would continue to work this stone with increasing levels of craftsmanship throughout the 1700s.
Like the stones Griswold used, the other early stones from this region tend to weather less and are much more durable than many of the more recent brownstones quarried. In the middle the late 1800s the Portland quarries were said to have become the largest sandstone quarrying operations in the world, shipping the stone by boat and train all over America. The famous brownstone buildings in New York City were created from this stone.
In Eastern Connecticut the material of choice was a type of stone called schist. Found in large amounts in Bolton, East Hartford, and Norwich it is very rare as a gravestone material in most other regions. Schist is a foliated metamorphic rock that is composed largely of mica minerals. Although some schist gravestones erode and lose their carved details and inscription fairly quickly, others from as early as the middle of the 1700s still hold concise carved details and are easily read today.
In Wethersfield, VT large quantities of a relatively rare gravestone material was used, due to a very active quarrying operation in soapstone. Being soft enough to scratch with your fingernail, common wisdom would dictate that soapstone would weather quickly when placed outdoors.
Though it is a very soft material, composed largely from talc (which can be made into baby powder), it is also very high in silicates, which gives it great resistance to acids, such as acid rain. Many of these soapstone markers are still in nearly perfect condition today, with clear and easily read inscriptions.
Although marble was to become the stone of choice during the Victorian era, I have encountered many early marble gravestones in upstate NY, some dating to before the revolutionary war. Clearly marble was worked in some regions, during the late colonial period. My investigation as to the source of this stone is ongoing, but I am becoming convinced that the stone used in the colonial times might have originated in Dorset Vermont, possibly the first marble quarry in America, which began operations in 1785. Though in some regions marble was being used in the late 1700s, it would soon surpass all the other types as the stone of choice for gravestones for much of the 1800s.
Marble is composed primarily from calcium carbonate. It is formed when limestone, a sedimentary rock composed of crushed sea- shells receives great amounts of heat and pressure underground for thousands of years. Due to its long formation process, marble is known as a metamorphic rock.
Very white marble is composed of almost pure calcium carbonate. This type was most often sought after to create gravestones with detailed carving and was indeed the ideal material to carve into sculpture. It became so popular that Carrera marble, for example, was imported from Italy for this purpose for use by wealthy patrons.
The biggest problem with marble however is its inability to resist acids, such as acid rain in a modern outdoor environment. ( Sum it up –) Ironically, though very expensive and sought after by affluent families, inscriptions on marble tombstones are today often faded into obscurity.
By the early 1800’s many inner city church burying places were already becoming overcrowded. Urban sprawl had spread around the churches, and a lack of maintenance and care led to many complaints about vagrants, grave robbing and theft of funerary objects. Due to these factors and increasing health concerns, the rural cemetery was born.
“Cemeteries”, from a Greek word, means, “sleeping place”, were planned burial places, which were situated intentionally away from population centers, either on the outskirts of the city or in the adjacent suburbs. This allowed for planning, surveying and selling of family plots in advance of need. A planned, neatly arranged cemetery allowed for larger family monuments to be centered on a plot with many future burial spaces.
One of the earliest planned cemeteries in America is located in New Haven, Connecticut is today, called Grove Street Cemetery. By the late 1700s the historic burial ground on the New Haven Green was already becoming overcrowded, and many issues were raised about the need for new burial provisions. In 1797, the New Haven Burying Ground was incorporated, and would become known as The Grove Street Cemetery. It featured plots permanently owned by individual families, complete with ornamental plantings and even paved, named streets and avenues.
In the early 1800s the Center Church on the Green was surrounded by the old, historic graveyard. Later the church wanted to expand, so in order to make room for the new much larger church structure, they planned to move the entire graveyard, stones and human remains, to the newly founded New Haven Burying Ground. Not everyone was happy about moving the mortal remains of many of the founding families of New Haven, and an unusual compromise was reached. The new Center Church would be built directly above the oldest part of the graveyard.
Today this original graveyard can be found in the church’s basement. Known as the New Haven Crypt, it is open to the public during visiting hours. I have personally been involved with the ongoing preservation efforts at the Crypt, which has experienced many deterioration issues related to a high water table in the area.
The desire to move, or remove, historic burying places was not limited to New Haven, and was in fact a very wide spread practice in American urban areas throughout the 1800s.
The Granary in downtown Boston, which holds 5 signers of the declaration of independence, had even been given a street number in advance of real estate developers attempting to move the entire graveyard in the middle 1800a to the newly formed Mount Auburn Cemetery just across the Charles River in Cambridge.
Luckily this reckless idea was not adopted as the American historic preservation movement had begun, fighting and battling to protect many landmarks from the wrecking ball at the eleventh hour on many future occasions.
Mount Auburn is one of the earliest examples of the planned rural cemetery movement. This kind of cemetery would incorporate scenic winding roads with planned landscaping, ponds, fountains and rare trees. Within the next few decades, nearly every city in America would follow suit. These planned cemeteries allowed for pre-need lots sales, which also facilitated larger family monuments. Technological advances in machinery, quarrying, cutting and the manufacturing of stone, also set the stage for larger, more ornate and complicated monumental installations that became the standard for the wealthy classes of the period throughout the United States.