LHRR Series: The Sixth Mile: The West Cemetery

Microwave Mile (Courtesy of Janet Serra)

Entering the sixth mile of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, runners encounter what is known as the “Microwave Mile.” Here the shade of White Memorial forests is left behind, and in the open the sun of a hot June afternoon is brought fully to bear. The scene becomes more ominous to those runners who take note of the West Cemetery alongside the course.

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Here, some of the town’s earliest settlers were buried. Current burials continue in the adjacent Saint Anthony’s Cemetery (an annex is across the street). The historian, however, is drawn to effigy markers, gravestones without accompanying bodies. One of these is a memorial to Joseph Harris, the first original settler of the town to die. In 1723, Harris was killed by  a group of Native Americans while tending to his fields. Shot dead and scalped, his body was found by neighbors the next day, sitting on the ground with his head resting against a tree. This was in the area of town where Litchfield Ford now stands. That area became known as Harris Plains.

Harris’s burial location is no longer known, but in 1830, Litchfield residents erected a monument to their ancestor in the West Cemetery. It reads:

In Memory of Joseph Harris who was murdered by the Indians in the year 1721. While plowing in his Field in the vicinity of the Alms House, he was shot by the Indians concealed in Ambush. He was found dead Sitting on the Ground, his Head and Body reclining against the Trunk of a Tree. To record the first Death among the original Settlers of this Town & to perpetuate the Memory of a worthy but unfortunate Citizen this Monument is erected 1830 by the voluntary Benefactions of individual Subscribers

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Effigy graves in the West Cemetery

A second example of effigy graves is in the area of the cemetery reserved for Civil War veterans. Initially, this land was donated as a potters field for those soldiers who could not afford a grave plot. Over time, it became a place for families to erect markers to their sons and husbands whose bodies did not return home from the war. In Victorian America, the idea of a “good death,” in which the stricken died at home, in their bed, surrounded by loved ones, gave comfort in times of grief. The Civil War, with young men dying in brutal fashion in unfamiliar surroundings posed an obvious but serious threat to this notion. A solution was the effigy grave, a place on which where families could focus their grief and prayers.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available at the Litchfield Historical Society).

 

 

 

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West Cemetery: Joseph Harris Memorial

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Encounters – and violence – between the earliest settlers of Litchfield and Native Americans was not uncommon. In 1722, Jacob Griswold of the town was kidnapped by a tribe and brought to present-day Canaan. His daring escape became the stuff of legends. Joseph Harris, one of Litchfield’s original settlers, was not as lucky.

The following year, Harris, known as a “respectable inhabitant” was attacked by a group of Native Americans while tending to his fields. When Harris attempted to escape, he was shot dead and scalped. Residents searched the area when Harris did not return to town that afternoon, but darkness put an end to their efforts. The next morning his body was found, sitting on the ground, his head resting against a tree near what is now Litchfield Ford. The area became known as Harris Plains.

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The Harris memorial in West Cemetery, when the inscription was legible. (From Litchfield and Morris Inscriptions, 1905)

Harris was the first of Litchfield’s original settler to die. His burial spot was long forgotten, but in 1830 a memorial was erected to Harris in the town’s West Cemetery. The memorial still stands, but its inscription has become too difficult to read. It says:

In Memory of Joseph Harris who was murdered by the Indians in the year 1721.* While plowing in his Field in the vicinity of the Alms House, he was shot by the Indians concealed in Ambush. He was found dead Sitting on the Ground, his Head and Body reclining against the Trunk of a Tree. To record the first Death among the original Settlers of this Town & to perpetuate the Memory of a worthy but unfortunate Citizen this Monument is erected 1830 by the voluntary Benefactions of individual Subscribers

* While both Alain White and Rachel Carley’s histories of Litchfield say that Harris was killed in 1723, the monument states 1721.