East Cemetery: The Grave of Jeph Africa

Rev. Judah Champion (Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society)

Rev. Judah Champion (Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society)

Judah Champion was minister of Litchfield’s Congregational Church from 1753 to 1798. This was a prominent position, one that came with a commensurate salary. For Champion, moving to Litchfield came with a 2,000 pound bonus, an 800 pound salary, and 20 acres of land. Alain White, in his history of Litchfield, describes how only the most prominent of Litchfield were in a financial position to own slaves. This clearly included Champion who owned several slaves, including Samson, Kate, and Jeph.

IMG_2668

Jeph’s grave in the East Cemetery indicates he was a Revolutionary War veteran, but his name does not appear in the Roll of Honor of Litchfield County Revolutionary Soldiers. Jeph’s grave is interesting at several levels. It is an impressive stone, inscribed “Here lies the body of Jeph Africa servant of the Rev. Judah Champion, who died June the 5th 1793.” The text as well as the magnitude of the headstone suggest that it was paid for by the Champion family.

IMG_2670

Also interesting is the carving at the top of the stone. The modern explorer might associate it with a pinwheel, but pinwheels didn’t appear until the next century. The whirligig was a medieval predecessor of the pinwheel, but it seems unlikely that a toy would be carved on to an 18th century gravestone. Is it perhaps a representation of the rising sun, which carries both religious connotation and harkens to the continent of Africa? Or could it be a wheel, representative of divine power, prominently featured in Ezekiel 1: “Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The grave is also notable as the inspiration for an 1838 writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In his American Notebooks, the author shared his observations of Litchfield, which include his reflections on Africa’s grave (although he incorrectly cites it as the grave of Julia Africa):

“In Connecticut, and also sometimes in Berkshire, the villages
are situated on the most elevated ground that can be found, so that
they are visible for miles around. Litchfield is a remarkable instance,
occupying a high plain, without the least shelter from the winds,
and with almost as wide an expanse of view as from a mountain-
top. The streets are very wide, two or three hundred feet, at
least, with wide, green margins, and sometimes there is a wide
green space between the two road tracks. Nothing can be neater
than the churches and houses. The graveyard is on the slope, and at
the foot of a swell, filled with old and new gravestones, some of
red freestone, some of grey granite, most of them of white marble,
and one of cast-iron with an inscription of raised letters. There
was one of the date of about 1776, on which was represented the
third-length, bas-relief portrait of a gentleman in a wig and other
costume of that day; and as a framework about this portrait was
wreathed a garland of vine-leaves and heavy clusters of grapes.
The deceased should have been a jolly bottleman; but the epitaph
indicated nothing of the kind.

“In a remote part of the graveyard, remote from the main body
of dead people, I noticed a humble, mossy stone, on which I traced
out ‘To the memory of Julia Africa, servant of Rev.’ somebody.
There were also the half obliterated traces of other graves, without
any monuments, in the vicinity of this one. Doubtless the slaves
here mingled their dark clay with the earth.” 

Advertisements

Frederick Bacon and the United States Exploring Expedition

IMG_2168

Tucked into a tree in Litchfield’s East Cemetery is a marker commemorating the life of Frederick Asa Bacon, who was born in Litchfield in 1812. His father attended the Litchfield Law School, and he, his mother and two brothers attended the Litchfield Female Academy. A voyage to England in 1829 sparked an interest in a life at sea, and he joined the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1832. In 1838, while serving as a passed midshipman – one who has passed the examination to be a lieutenant but is waiting for a vacancy at that rank – Bacon was one of two officers named to command the U.S.S. Sea Gull, a schooner that was part of the United States Exploring Expedition (known as the US Ex Ex).

The U.S.S. Sea Gull, in distress of Cape Horn

The U.S.S. Sea Gull, in distress of Cape Horn. A drawing by Alfred Thomas Agate, a member of the U.S. Ex Ex

The US Ex Ex was one of several 19th century voyages of discovery sponsored by the United States government. Under the command of Charles Wilkes, this expedition was sent circumnavigate the globe in order to search for the magnetic south pole, map the western coast of North America, and explore the islands of the south Pacific. Bacon’s Sea Gull was formerly a New York harbor pilot boat called the New Jersey. Wilkes included two schooners in his six-ship squadron because he believed the agility would be highly prized in the ice around the South Pole.

Deception Island

Deception Island

The ships left Norfolk, Virginia, on August 18, 1838, bound for the tip of South America. There they would survey and collect specimens before making a February (summer in the southern hemisphere) exploration of the Antarctic. Enormous icebergs – some reportedly as big as the United States Capitol – and huge waves caused Wilkes to order the Sea Gull out of danger in search of scientific equipment left behind on Deception Island by an earlier British expedition. The crew did not find the thermometer, but did determine that Deception Island was an active volcano.

Memorial to the men who died during the U.S. Ex Ex in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of findagrave.com

Memorial to the men who died during the U.S. Ex Ex in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of findagrave.com

By mid-April, Wilkes ordered part of the squadron to sail for Valparaiso, Chile, while the Sea Gull and her sister schooner Flying Fish waited for a supply ship. While the latter vessel arrived in Chile by mid-May, there was no sign of the Sea Gull, which was last seen waiting out strong winds at Staten Island off the coast of South America’s Cape Horn. When after a month the Sea Gull still had not arrived, the officers of the Ex Ex assumed that she was lost; Wilkes later speculated that in the gales off Cape Horn, the schooner might have tripped her foremast, which would have ripped up the foredeck and made her unseaworthy. A collection for a monument in memory of the ship’s crew was taken up by the expedition’s officers; the monument still stands in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution

The Ex Ex continued on its voyage, achieving the first sighting of the Antarctic continent, making invaluable maps of the South Pacific islands and the currents off the American Pacific coast, and gathering enormous numbers – in excess of 60,000 – specimens of birds, fish, plants, and shells. These specimens would later form the backbone of the Smithsonian Institution. At least five books were published on the scientific and maritime discoveries of the expedition.

Captain Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition

Captain Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition

Captain Charles Wilkes would become embroiled in controversy for his actions during the expedition, and in fact when Lieutenant Robert Pinkney brought court martial proceedings against Wilkes, the commander criticized his accuser by contrasting “the intelligence, attention to duty, and untiring activity of the lamented Reid and Bacon with all that is opposite in the character of Lieutenant Pinkney.”

IMG_2167 (1)

Bacon was remembered by Wilkes as “among the most promising young officers in the squadron.” Lieutenant Reynolds of the expedition highlighted the Bacon’s personal tragedy by remembering,“Poor, poor fellows, what a terrible lot. The two officers were young men of my age, one if he indeed be gone, leaving a wife more youthful than himself and a child that he has never seen.”

For more information on the Sea Gull and the U.S. Ex Ex, see Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, Sea of Glory.

The 4th of July: Benjamin Tallmadge’s Grave

Major Benjamin Tallmadge

Major Benjamin Tallmadge

While associated with Litchfield, Benjamin Tallmadge was born in Setauket, on Long Island, in 1754. A Yale graduate and classmate of Nathan Hale, Tallmadge was serving as superintendent of schools in Wethersfield, Connecticut, when the Revolutionary War broke out. Tallmadge was initially a major in the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, but gained his fame as the organizer of the famed Culper spy ring, gathering information in the New York City area for relay to George Washington.

General_George_Washington_at_Trenton_by_John_Trumbull

Tallmadge led several small unit actions during the Revolution, which later generations might term “commando raids.” Perhaps the most famous of these was a raid on Manor St. George on Long Island which was followed by the destruction of a stockpile of hay intended as winter fodder for British horses. This earned Tallmadge a commendation from General Washington, who wrote “I have received with much pleasure the report of your successful enterprise upon fort St. George, and was pleased with the destruction of the hay at Coram, which must be severely felt by the enemy at this time. I beg you to accept my thanks for your spirited execution of this business.” Tallmadge concluded his service as Washington’s chief of intelligence, which earned him the rank of colonel. In this role, Tallmadge was present for Washington’s famed 1783 farewell to his army at Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan.

Tallmadge's home on Litchfield's North Street.

Tallmadge’s home on Litchfield’s North Street.

During the war, Tallmadge and his brother had begun a mercantile business in Litchfield, and it was in this town that the Colonel settled when the war was over. As a businessman, investor, banker and member of Congress and associate of Washington, Tallmadge was certainly among the town’s most respected citizens. Tallmadge’s wife, Mary, was also a prominent resident, and her father William Floyd was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

IMG_2166

Tallmadge died in Litchfield in 1835 and is buried in the East Cemetery, where a ceremony commemorates his contributions to American independence every July 4th.

Seth Numrich as Benjamin Tallmadge on AMC's Turn.

Seth Numrich as Benjamin Tallmadge on AMC’s Turn.

Tallmadge has recently come to the public’s attention through the AMC Revolutionary War spy drama “Turn,” which features his exploits. A tip of the hat to reader C.S. Moore for reminding me of this!

East Cemetery: Floral Symbolism

Photojournalist Douglas Keister has written that “Plants, especially flowers, remind us of the beauty and brevity of life.” As such, they have been used to remember the dead since the time of the Egyptians. Aristotle even went so far as to state that plants had a soul. The use of the language of flowers as symbolism on gravestones peaked during the Victorian Era, which also marked the heyday of the use of cemeteries as gardens. Vestiges of this era of floral symbolism are common in Litchfield’s East Cemetery.

Rose

Elizabeth Phelps died at only twelve years of age in 1859.  Her gravestone included a rose, a flower rich in symbolism to the Victorians.  Since Elizabeth was so young, we are led to believe that this depicts a white rose, a symbol of purity. The fragrance and beauty of a rose was a reminder to visitors to the cemetery of the Paradise that awaited good Christians.

Palm

Zebulon Colmer, who lived to be 90, had his gravestone marked with a palm tree.  The story of Christ’s procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is, of course, well known to Christians.  In the Roman era, the palm was a symbol of victory, and Christians adapted this imagery to symbolize Christ’s victory over death, and thus, by extension, the afterlife achieved by good Christians.

Lily

Julia Henrietta Jones, who died in 1851 at the age of 46, was commemorated with a lily.  Lilies were symbols of chastity, but were also strongly associated with funerals, as their strong scent covered the foul smells associated with death.

Broken willow

The gravestone of Luna Norton depicts a broken willow tree, incorporating two Victorian symbols of death.  Weeping willows are symbolic of grief, but also of immortality, as the tree will continue to live despite having its branches cut off.  This was an exceedingly popular cemetery image in the early 1800s, and several willow trees can be found on graves in the East Cemetery.  Norton’s grave, however, depicts a broken willow, which seems to counteract the notion of immortality.  Broken trees symbolized lives that were cut short.

For more information on the symbolism of gravestones, see Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister.

For additional posts on the East Cemetery, see here, here and here.

East Cemetery: The Death’s Head Tombstone

2014-11-16 15.25.09

Prior to the sixteenth century’s Protestant Reformation there were few formal burying grounds for those who were not nobles.  The remains of royalty, nobility, and high-ranking clergy members were often entombed in the walls of churches and cathedrals, with the areas closest to the altar being reserved for the most important members of society.

2014-11-16 15.22.02

The social changes spurred on by the Reformation – and the necessity of finding new spaces with the walls of churches nearing their capacity – led to the dead being interred in burial grounds, often known as God’s Acres. The emergence of these cemeteries opened up the possibility of a tombstone for members of the middle class, which meant an opportunity to be remembered.

2014-11-16 15.28.34

Much of New England’s tombstone art followed the lead of the Puritans, who were particularly macabre in their engravings.  Puritan theology held that only the “Elect” would make it to heaven; the rest of mankind just died, were buried, and rotted in the ground. These beliefs are reflected in Puritan gravestone art, with the classic words, “Here lies of the body of …” engraved below a skull or skull and crossbones.

2014-11-16 15.23.07

However, a loosening of the grip of conservative Puritanism led to more optimistic gravestones, with skulls being swapped for human faces, and crossbones giving way to angels’ wings.  Equally telling is a subtle change in the wording, with “Here lies the body of …” often giving way to “Here lies the mortal remains,” language that allowed for the possibility of a human soul.

For more information on cemetery art, see Douglas Keister’s excellent Stories in Stone.

The Grave of Willis Carter

DSC_1097

The grave of Jeph Africa, a Revolutionary War veteran, in the East Cemetery.

In the southeast corner of Litchfield’s East Cemetery is a section of graves of African Americans who lived in the 19th century.  Several government-issued graves mark the final resting places of men who served in the 29th Connecticut Infantry, the state’s African American regiment.

DSC_1096

Less noticeable is a simple white grave, half buried.  Was it originally installed like this, or has it slowly sunk into the ground over the decades?  When the leaves are removed, the words jump out at the explorer:

WILLIS CARTER

BORN A SLAVE IN

TENNESSEE

A Civil War veteran’s marker stands next to Carter’s grave but no other immediate information is available.  Does his gravestone contain information about what unit he served in, when he was born, or when he died?  To find out would require disturbing the soil containing his remains.

DSC_1095

Some information is available in Census reports.  The 1870 census identifies Willis Carter as a Torrington resident, born in Tennessee around 1847. The 1880 census provides slightly more information.  We learn that Carter was then living in Litchfield, and was married to Ellen.  His birth year was then estimated to be 1848; both his parents were born in Tennessee.

The 29th Connecticut Infantry

The 29th Connecticut Infantry

Willis Carter’s name does not appear on the roster of men in the 29th Connecticut Infantry.  The records of this unit, however, are hardly definitive.  Still, it is perhaps more likely that he joined a unit of the United States Colored Troops forming in his native Tennessee, and found his way north after the war.  Either way, Willis Carter’s sunken gravestone provides testimony to a remarkable period in American history, when one born a slave in Tennessee became personally involved in a war that secured his freedom, and who afterward found himself living and working in a small New England town.