New England – An Ancient Cemetery

Similar deposits of the insoluble red oxide were associated with burials in an ancient cemetery discovered in 1913 in Warren, Bristol County, Rhode Island. This appears to have been a burying ground of the Wampanoag, within whose lands it was. When the site was destroyed some of the skeletons were exposed, together with a large number of objects of English, Dutch, and French origin, dating from the years between the first contact with the Europeans until the latter part of the seventeenth century. In some burials copper kettles were placed over the heads of the bodies. In such cases the copper salts acted as a preservative. One grave was of the greatest interest. It was that of a man well advanced in years, and associated with the remains were two ancient English swords, one or more gunlocks, a roll of military braid, and the traces of a feather headdress in a case. The suggestion has been made that these were the remains of the great Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, who met the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1621, ever remained a friend of the colonists, and who died in 1662. One of his sons, Metacomet, became known as King Philip, famous in colonial history and leader in the war against the English settlements which terminated in the disastrous defeat of the Indians and the death of their leader, August 12, 1676. Thus having three distinct references to the use of red oxideone on the coast of Maine in what should probably be accepted as graves, another in Rhode Island, and the third on Cape Cod-would make it appear that placing quantities of finely powdered red oxide of iron in graves with the human remains was a well-established custom of the Algonquian tribes found occupying the coast of New England when that rugged shore was settled by the English colonists. Similar burials will probably be discovered at some later day which will tend to substantiate this belief. Closely flexed burials, examples of which are shown in plate 2, are characterstic of precolonial New England, but later, after coming under the influence and teachings of missionaries and others, the same tribes no longer used this form of burial, but placed the remains of the dead in an extended position, either wrapped in bark or deposited in roughly made wooden coffins. The latter form was encountered during the partial exploration of the ancient Niantic cemetery, known as Fort Neck Burying Ground, in Charlestown, Washington County, Rhode Island, during the month of September, 1912. Another site, now designated “Indian Burying Hill,” likewise in Charlestown, and now a State reservation, is known as the place of burial of the Niantic chiefs, among them Ninigret, by whom the Narraganset, who escaped destruction during King Philip’s war, were later received. According to Prof. H. H. Wilder, by whom the “Fort Neck Burying Ground” was examined, “the bodies had evidently been buried in winding-sheets only, as nothing was found indicating clothing.” This would be consistent with the old custom of these Indians, as Roger Williams told of one “who winds up and buries the dead,” and describing the burial customs said: “Mockkuttauce, One of the chiefest esteeme, who winds up and buries the dead; commonly some wise, grave, and well descended man hath that office.

When they come to the Grave, they lay the dead by the Grave’s mouth, and then all sit downe and lament; that I have seen teares run down the cheeks of stoutest Captaines, as well as little children in abundance; and after the dead is laid in Grave, and sometimes (in some parts) some goods cast in with them, they have then a second lamentation, and upon the Grave is spread the Mat that the party died on, the Dish he eat in, and sometimes a faire Coat of skin hung upon the next tree to the Grave, which none will touch, but suffer it there to rot with the Dead: Yea I saw with mine owne eyes that at my late comming forth of the Countrey, the chiefe and most aged peaceable Father of the Countrey, Caunounicus, having buried his Sonne, he burned his own Palace, and all his goods in it (amongst them to a great value) in a solemne remembrance of his sonne and in a kind of humble, Expiation to the Gods, who, (as they believe) had taken his sonne from him.” For this great Narraganset chief, Canonicus, to have destroyed his dwelling, with all its contents, at the time of the death and burial of his son was contrary to the usual customs of the Algonquian tribes, although such was the habit of several tribes of the South. There is reason to suppose the burial customs of the many tribes who occupied New England did not differ to any great degree, and all may have had similar periods of mourning and enacted the same ceremonies to express their grief. Among the Housatonic or River Indians, later to be known as the Stockbridge Indians, the period of mourning was about one year. Thus it was described in the year 1736: “The Keutikaw is a Dance which finishes the Mourning for the Dead, and is celebrated about twelve Months after the Decease, when the Guests invited make Presents to the Relations of the Deceas’d, to make up their Loss and to end their Mourning. The Manner of doing it is this: The Presents prepar’d are deliver’d to a Speaker appointed for the Purpose; who, laying them upon the Shoulders of some elderly Person, makes a Speech shewing the Design of their present Meeting, and the Presents prepar’d. Then he takes them and distributes them to the Mourners, adding some Words of Consolation, and desiring them to forget their Sorrow, and accept of those Presents to make up their loss. After this they eat together and make Merry.” This paragraph was taken from Sergeant’s journal and bore the date January, 1736. It evidently recorded the customs of the Housatonic Indians at the time of the arrival of the missionary, and may have been the ancient custom of the Algonquian tribes of the region. Human remains have been discovered at various points in the valley of the Housatonic within the bounds of the lands once occupied by the tribe whose name the river perpetuates, and tradition locates one or more cemeteries west of the stream near the foot of the mountains, but no large group of burials is known to have ever been encountered. Cairns, heaps of stones usually on some high and prominent point, are found throughout the southern mountains, but seldom have they been mentioned in the older settled parts of the north One, however, stood in the country of the Housatonic Indians. As early as 1720 some English traders saw a Large heap of stones on the ” east side of Westenhook or Housatonic River, so called, on the southerly end of the mountain called Monument Mountain, between Stockbridge and Great Barrington.” This circumstance gave rise to the name which has ever since been applied to the mountain, a prominent landmark in the valley. This ancient pile of stones may have marked the grave of some great man who lived and died before the coming of the colonists. Many ancient graves have been discovered at different times and in widely separated parts of New England. Probably the most famed of the many burials thus encountered was the so-called ” Skeleton in Armor,” a closely flexed skeleton discovered in a sand bank at Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1831. Traces of several thicknesses of bark cloth were found about the remains and on the outside was a casing of cedar bark. Associated with the body were objects of brass, one being a plate of that material about 14 inches in length, and encircling the skeleton were traces of a belt to which had been attached many brass tubes each about 42 inches in length and one-quarter inch in diameter. The belt, made of metal obviously of European origin, was thought to be a piece of armor, which resulted in the name applied to the skeleton. The occurrence of brass with this burial is of interest as it is conclusive proof that flexed burials were prepared after the coming of the colonists. This example may date from about the middle of the seventeenth century. Flexed skeletons are usually found in single graves, although two closely bound burials were discovered in one grave, on the left bank of the Connecticut River, at North Hadley, Massachusetts. This was on the site of an Indian village where, about the year 1675, the chief was named Quanquant, The Crow. Cemeteries which may date from the earliest times are to be seen in the vicinity of Plymouth, and one of the largest in all New England is located in the town of Chilmark, on the island of Marthas Vineyard. Here 97 graves are marked by flat stones gathered from the surrounding surface and there are undoubtedly others which are not distinguishable. Several other burying places are known on the island, one being at Christiantown, the old Manitwatootan, or “God’s Town,” of 1668. It is well known that Marthas Vineyard was formerly the home of a large native population, by whom it was called Capawock.

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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