The Women in Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground

The Ancient Burying Ground - Hartford's Oldest Historic Site

234 Distinct Women

The modern-day remnant of Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground has 422 headstones and169 footstones out of the thousands it probably once held. Between 5000 and 6000 peoplewere once laid to rest there. Of the remaining stones, more than 230 have the name of awoman carved on them. A recent project that documented and photographed the headstonesrevealed at least 234 distinct women with some surviving stone.1

Most people interred in the burying ground, male or female, Black, white, or Native, have no extant headstone. Many would have had a marker of some kind, but it has now disappeared. The grave was simply a final resting place for one’s remains in reformed Christianity, not hallowed ground, and so every kind of person could be laid to rest in the town
cemetery. Epitaphs frequently extolled one’s character, but they could occasionally condemn it or simply say nothing at all.

Half of the English migrants to New England were female.

The Ancient Burying Ground’s tall obelisk to the Founders of Hartford honors only the men. Half of the English migrants to New England were female. Puritanism introduced a new idea of the family, in which female piety was central to social cohesion, and in which the good wife was a husband’s helpmeet [add a sentence about what this is].

As Native women became household servants after the Pequot War of 1637 [source? add more info to this], and African women joined them over the next century and a half, the colonial household became a place of occasionally competing and sometimes amalgamating traditions. Native women, like Sarah Onepenny the Elder, could be both an esteemed elder among the Wangunk and a servant-nurse in the Whiting house.


Naming is important in all societies, and the Ancient Burying Ground records some spectacular names, such as Delight Wattles or Azubah Warner. Azubah was named for a Biblical figure, the wife of King Asa and the mother of King Jehoshaphat of Israel, but her name meant “desolation.”

More frequent were names that, like Delight, reflected a state of being: Hope, Experience, and Thankful. The most common names, however, were Mary, Sarah, and Abigail. Of the extant stones, 49 have the name Many, 30 Sarah (or Sary), and 17 Abigail. Few women’s names in the burying ground are anything other than English, but
the Dutch name Willemyntje is coupled with the English surname Bassett, showing the settlement’s European ethnic composition. [Photo of Willemyntje Bassett’s stone]


Motherhood was a valued status for women. Mothers were “guardians, interpreters, and inculcators of Puritan culture,” according to historian Amanda Porterfield. Within the Puritan family, they helped instill in their children the tenets of reformed Christianity. Children expressed love for their mothers [I thought Puritan children were treated a bit differently], and the mother-child relationship often had tender references on gravestones or in elegies. Put a quote here from ABG.[Image: “Poets Corner,” Connecticut Courant, January 12, 1773]


Thirty-five headstones bear witness to widowhood in the Ancient Burying Ground by including in women’s epitaphs the word “relict.” A widow did receive legal protection through her dower right, an entitlement to one-third of her husband’s estate for the duration of her life. The heirs’ inheritances were made conditional upon their support of the widow. An examination of records in the Hartford district of Connecticut between 1638 and 1681 revealed that husbands and courts protected their “relicts,” but few gave her control of the estate. Husbands’ wills often strictly their widows’ control over property, preferring sons or grandsons when they came of age. Widows rich and poor often saw a decline of status and material comfort. A husband’s debts sometimes ate upbthe bulk of an estate. The widow’s third, to which she was entitled by law regardless of a husband’s disposition, was only occasionally supplemented with an annuity.


One wonders about the life of Dorothy Chester, who died impoverished in May, 1662. Her inventory shows an estate worth just a little over 33 pounds containing blankets and a warming pan and some sewing implements. [Photo of Dorothy Chester’s inventory] A biography on the website of the Founders of Hartford says she was already widowed five years when she emigrated to the Bay Colony in 1633 and later followed her brother Thomas Hooker to Hartford. She never remarried, which was unusual for a woman of her age and status. Genealogies and biographies are silent about the meager contents of her household.3 Dorothy’s
son Leonard predeceased her in 1648. In his will he left her only 30 pounds, despite having a substantial estate.4 She appears to have sold her land over time⎯one and 1/5 acres in the North Meadow to Nathaniel Richards, a one and 1/5 acre parcel on the east side of the Connecticut River to William Spencer, and six acres, some meadowland, and swamp to William
Pantry⎯probably to make ends meet.5

Women Who Wrote Wills or Whose Inventories Were Taken

Quite a number of women, mostly widows, left wills, both written and oral, or had probated estates recorded by the court. Women’s literacy, measured by the ability to sign one’s name, rose in Windsor during the colonial period and probably elsewhere in Hartford County as
the result of a 1690 law requiring schools to see that everyone could read.6 Women’s inventories reveal the details of everyday life. One woman, Sarah Watters,
made a point of leaving her daughter Mary a precious silver spoon in her will. Yet her inventory lists a number of objects: a book by Increase Mather and other books of sermons, a featherbed and pillowcases, many handkerchiefs some of which were silk, a striped petticoat, a damask frock, and Holland shifts.7

Women of Color

There were 107 women and girls of color identified as likely to have been buried in the Ancient
Burying Ground; it includes all records marked “Slightly Confident,” “Somewhat Confident,” and
“Highly Confident.” This figure excludes those persons of color whose sex was unknown. The
entries of women who appeared in the “Uncovering Their History” (UTH) database who also
appear on the accompanying WABG database are identified with record numbers beginning
with UTH. In the UTH database at there are entries for
women of color marked “Not Confident,” indicating a lack of certainty that they were buried in
the Ancient Burying Ground. Those women are not included in the figures on the WABG

Women of color were also mentioned in probate inventories and in the wills of their enslavers.
In 1732, Anne Hosmer inherited an enslaved women among other goods her husband left her,
in addition to her dower. The will does not specify if the “negro woman” is any relation to the
boy, Ceasar, but such relationships often did not matter to masters.

Samuel Woodbridge, who died in 1746, also left his widow more than her dower right. From the
perspective of the master, the unnamed “negro woman” mentioned below, along with her
unnamed children, were part of the estate’s chattel, like the household goods and the cows and
the mare.

Last Willl

Thomas Hosmer, 1732

I, Thomas Hosmer of Hartford, do make this my last will and testament: I give unto my wife, Anne Hosmer, 1-3 part of all my lands in Hartford for her
improvement during life, also 3 rooms (one lower room and two chambers) in my dwelling house, which she shall choose, the third part of my cellar, and the 1-3 part of my barn, for her use during her widowhood; also give her 1-3 part of my
household stuff, 1-3 part of my stock of cattle and other creatures, and my negro woman, to be at her own dispose forever. Likewise I give her one of my negro boys, viz., Ceaser, for her service so long as she remains my widow. If she marry, the boy I give to my son Stephen. I give to my eldest son Thomas Hosmer, besides what I have conveyed to him by deed of gift…8

Last Willl

Samuel Woodbridge, 1746

I give unto my wife, Content Woodbridge, all those household goods and estate which I had with her when I married her. I say all that remains, of whatsoever denomination, and all the household goods which have been brought into the house since our marriage, and the negro woman and all her children, which are now my property, and all the debts due to me in Rhode Island, and œ100 money out of a bond due to me from my son Deodat Woodbridge, and 1-3 part of my moveable goods belonging within the house, besides those before given her, and two cows and a black mare I bought of Matthew Beel. And further I give to my wife the use of 1-3 part of my dwelling house and barn, and  1-3 part of all my improveable lands, during her natural life.

Women and Enslavement

Hartford was home to hundreds if not several thousands of enslaved people in its first 175 years, and while men are most often named as enslavers, wives, widows, and single women claimed both Native and African women as their property. Ann Morison, the wife of Dr. Normand Morison, benefitted from her husband’s engagement in the transatlantic slave trade.

Ann’s epitaph says she spent her life in “Faithful Service to God & her Generation.” Yet a sixteen-year-old girl named Chloe took care of the hall room in her house. A family consisting of Old Exeter, a woman named Chloe, and a 20-month old boy named Hercules and individual enslaved people named Hanabell, Sylva, Flora, Exeter, Rose, and Sambo staffed the Hartford home. Her husband owned 7/16ths of a schooner that made trips to West Africa and returned with enslaved people to work on farms in places like Bolton.

Some women manumitted the enslaved people left to them by their husbands or sons. Anne Foster Buckingham Burnham inherited people from her father, her husbands, and her son. At her death, she freed the five enslaved people in her household, Paul, Cato, Zipporah, Nunny and Prime, bequeathed to her by her son, Joseph Buckingham, Esq. In her will she gave Cato, Paul and Prime their own parcels of land of about eight to ten acres each, and she gave Zipporah and Nunny £10 apiece.This meager sum would not have given any financial security to the women. Since Burnham was the sole survivor of her nuclear family, she gave the rest of her property and belongings to her extended family and the churches in Hartford. She may have manumitted the enslave people because there was no one to leave them to, or she may have wanted to set them free. Zipporah eventually died of dropsy at the age of 80 and was buried at the expense of the town.

Freedom was precious, and to Sally Cuff, who lived in the household of one of Hartford’s richest men, John Haynes Lord, it was worth the £100 she had to pay him. She was the child of enslaved parents, Coffee, who may have come from Antigua, and Hannah. Her mother had been valued at £20 in an inventory taken when she was young. Sally was baptized in August, 1768 with another girl named Dinah. She freed herself in the summer of 1782, just two years before Connecticut enacted its gradual emancipation law. The record of Sally’s purchase of herself appears in volume 4 of the Hartford Land Records. Sally and her parents spent their lives engulfed by the Lords and Woodbridges, two prominent, wealthy families joined together in marriage. Sally’s self-purchase equaled the purchase of three young enslaved people. It was a huge sum

Native Women in Hartford

On a May day in 1713 in Hartford, Connecticut, Sarah Onepenny the Elder lay on her deathbed. She was surrounded by her three sons, Siana, Cushoy, and Nanamaroos, and her sister Hannah Onepenny. Also present was Mary Whiting, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of Col. William Whiting, an important magistrate and military leader. Sarah Onepenny told her listeners that all her land in the South Meadow in Hartford, especially a small parcel of three to four acres by the wigwams, should go to her grandson, Scipio. She told her sons to sell a small piece of meadow land in Middletown to pay her debts. The nuncupative will, probated in Hartford almost certainly at the behest of William Whiting, called her by an anglicized name, Sarah Onepenny, and contained no mention of her sons, but documents in Middletown complement the Hartford record. Sarah Onepenny was a sunksquaw of the Wangunk, a woman of status and importance, and she was also the servant of William Whiting, probably a nurse who cared for his daughter as she grew to womanhood.

Since the end of the Pequot War in 1638, Native women were a ubiquitous presence in colonial homes as servants. Native women who were not in servitude also came to Hartford for market days and court appearances.



Alice Morse Earle, a still popular nineteenth-century antiquarian whose books are still sold in museum gift shops, documented the material culture and daily lives of colonial settlers, especially women and children. She captured certain material realities of kitchens, taverns, town squares, and even jails, but her books allude to people of color only in small anecdotes, usually about disciplinary matters. A century and a half after her death, we still have an incomplete picture of colonial life, though much more research has been done on women of all backgrounds. It is sometimes hard to picture the Hartford street of 1750 as one filled with people of many ethnic backgrounds—European, African, Caribbean, and indigenous.

The Ancient Burying Ground’s history is a part of that picture. Newspaper, probate, and church records help flesh out the stories behind the gravestones of white women interred there, as well as those who lack markers. Time and modernity have encroached on the size of the Ancient Burying Ground (once six acres, now a little over one acre). The colonial Hartford housewife was not just English. She could also be Igbo or Angolan, or Wangunk or Pequot, or a combination of all of these. Free or enslaved, women worked side by side, but their status determined their roles. In law, one’s freedom followed the status of one’s mother. Often women’s husbands, or their lack of husbands, determined their material status. Although most women attended services at the Congregational meetinghouse, over time Anglicans and Baptists made inroads. In the early nineteenth century, African Americans formed their own church on Talcott Street. Women shaped the early city of Hartford socially, commercially, and religiously.


1ABGA Photograph Inventory, and Learning from the Gravestones,

2Virginia DeJohn Anderson, New England’s Generation: The Great Migration and the Formation of Society and Culture in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 21.

3Amanda Porterfield, Female piety in Puritan New England: the Emergence of Religious Humanism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 13, 32.

4Porterfield, 94.

5Jackson Turner Main, Society and Economy in Colonial Connecticut (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 45, 49-50, 91, 194, 2489; William F. Ricketson, “To Be Young, Poor, and Alone: The Experience of Widowhood in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1675-1676,” The New England Quarterly, 64, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), 113-127; Kim Lacy Rogers and Mary Kelley, “Relicts of the New World: Conditions of Widowhood in Seventeenth-Century New England.” In Woman’s Being, Woman’s Place: Female Identity & Vocation in American History (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979), 26–52.

6“Dorothy Hooker Chester, Hartford Founder,” Founders of Hartford,

7Manwaring, 1: 105-106.

8Albert Carlos Bates, Original Distribution of the Lands in Hartford Among the Settlers, 1639 (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1912), 66-67, 105, 308, 479.

9Linda Auwers, “Reading the Marks of the Past: Exploring Female Literacy in Colonial Windsor, Connecticut.” Historical Methods 13, no. 4 (Fall 1980): 204–14.

10Sarah Watters, Hartford Probate Packets, Warren, Joseph-Watson, Jerusha, 1641-1880, 809 – 817.

11Manwaring, 3: 178 (estate of Captain Thomas Hosmer, Hartford, Date of Will: 25 Apr 1732). Italics is added.

12“Colonists of Color: The Moore Family,” Uncovering Their History
African, African-American and Native-American Burials in Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground, 1640-1815

13Katherine Hermes, “‘By Their Desire Recorded’: Native American Wills and Estate Papers in Colonial Connecticut.” Connecticut History Review (1999) 38 (2): 150-73,; Katherine Hermes and Alexandra Maravel, “Finding the Onepennys Among the Wongunk,” Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut (2017) 79: 95-109.

14“The Minister’s Daughter: The Story of Anne Foster Buckingham Burnham,” Uncovering their History,