The modern-day remnant of Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground has 422 headstones and 169 footstones out of the thousands it probably once held. Between 5,000 and 6,000 people were once laid to rest there. Of the remaining stones, more than 230 have the name of a woman carved on them. A recent project that documented and photographed the headstones revealed 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, erected in 1837 and replaced in 1986, honors only the men. It was originally built at a time when the role of women in society had a secondary place. The obelisk ignores the half of the English migrants to New England who were female with the exception of two widows, Dorothy Chester and Mary Betts.2 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.3 It was a joint enterprise. It was also an enterprise that often relied on servants in the home.
As Native women became forced household servants after the Pequot War of 1637, 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. Whether a Puritan helpmeet in charge of the household or a woman of color forced by circumstance to serve her, the focus of this project is to bring women interred in the Ancient Burying Ground to the forefront of our picture of Hartford’s past.
The gravestone pays tribute to mothers in various ways.
Thirty-five headstones bear witness to widowhood in the Ancient Burying Ground by including in women’s epitaphs the word “relict” which meant widow. 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.6 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 curtailed 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 up the 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.7 While there were widows with means, many faced a more difficult life than they had known or could know as wives. Many remarried under these circumstances. New England generally had the lowest rate of female householders in 1790 of any region in the country, although cities in New England had higher incidences than elsewhere.8
Photo, left: Hope Jones’ Headstone
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. 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, the prominent minister and founder of 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.9 Dorothy’s son Leonard predeceased her in 1648. In his will he left her only 30 pounds, despite having a substantial estate.10 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.11 The impoverished status of Dorothy Chester, a woman of status among the colonists, allows us to infer the grinding impoverishment of single women without her status whose names are not reflected in the remaining headstones.
Image, right: Dorothy Chester’s inventory, 1662
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 …14
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.
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 (oral) 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.16 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. As Sarah Onepenny’s will shows, Wangunk women maintained their land and wigwams in Hartford’s South Meadow.
Native women were part of the fabric of life in Hartford, as servants in colonial homes or as free Native women who came to Hartford for market days and court appearances. Waisoiusksquaw (the wife “squaw” of Waisoiusk), was indicted for killing her husband by disemboweling him with a butcher knife and brought to trial in Hartford in May, 1711. She was sentenced to die on May 11 by a mixed jury of English and Indigenous men.17
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 enslaved 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.18
Photo-left: Normand Morison’s inventory
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.
Photo-right: Anne Burnham’s will
THE WOMEN IN HARTFORD’S ANCIENT BURYING GROUND
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 whether they were colonists, Natives, or of African descent. 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.