Designated America’s oldest maintained cemetery in 1977.
Photo Credit : Alyson Horrocks
Tucked away, on a quaint, residential street in Duxbury, Massachusetts, sits a small, unassuming, colonial cemetery. Nearly indistinguishable from the hundreds of other early American burial grounds dotting New England, this secluded site of rare historical significance could easily go overlooked. For those with an enthusiasm for colonial history, however, it would be a shame to pass this one by. Named for the famed military leader of the Plymouth Colony, Myles Standish Burial Ground holds the distinct honor of being dubbed our nation’s oldest cemetery (technically our oldest “maintained” cemetery), and buried here are several voyagers of the Mayflower.
Parking next to the cemetery, on the side street of Pilgrim By Way, a name which leaves little doubt of the unique history of the town, I cross over a split rail fence and am greeted with the familiar sight of the old, New England slate grave markers, worn and weathered from centuries of exposure. Skull and winged soul effigy carvings, familiar to any who frequent this region’s old cemeteries, stare mute from the old stones.
On the crisp December day I explored the “oldest cemetery,” chilling sea breezes were whipping up from Plymouth Bay. Buttoning my coat up to my neck and slipping on gloves, I would not be deterred from examining the stones, from which could be gleaned fragments of the personal stories of everyday people from our long-distant past. The first burials in this cemetery took place in 1638, soon after the construction of Duxbury’s first meeting house, and though no markers from the earliest years are still in existence, the history represented by the remaining stones is compelling.
Though most of the Myles Standish Burying Ground resembles many other New England cemeteries, one striking display of ostentation stands in stark contrast to the Yankee simplicity surrounding it. Marked by an American flag waving over a stone wall enclosure with four cannons point outward from the corners, the final resting place of “Capt. Myles Standish, 1656” is announced in big block letters on a tall wooden sign.
Built in 1893, the memorial testifies to the considerable expense, time, and effort invested in memorializing Standish, centuries after his death. At the time of his original interment, his grave had been marked by two small, simple, pyramid-shaped field stones. What prompted such effort nearly two hundred and forty years after his death?
The story of the Standish memorial and the rescue of this small, forgotten cemetery is a story of 19th century America’s love affair with its romanticized colonial past.
After a brief shipbuilding boom following the American Revolution, Duxbury’s economy went into a steep decline. During those years, the graves of such Mayflower notables as John Alden, William Brewster, and Myles Standish were nearly lost to history as the old burying ground became derelict and overgrown, with stray livestock roaming freely through the ancient gravestones.
In the 19th century, poets and authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, turned their gaze to New England’s colonial roots. Longfellow created a heroic and romantic mythology of America’s early days in poems like The MidnightRide of Paul Revere and The Courtship of Miles Standish. The latter focused on a love triangle between real-life Mayflower pilgrims, Myles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins. Though there is little more than circumstantial evidence that the love triangle did occur, the story had been passed down through oral tradition, and Longfellow’s popular and imaginative re-telling of this romantic tale, captured the imaginations of a sentimental audience.
All three subjects of The Courtship of Miles Standish were among the founders of Duxbury. With national curiosity sparked by the tale, investigations were made into the resting places of Myles, John, and Pricilla. John and Priscilla were assumed, with good reason, to be buried alongside their children, and the hunt for their remains stopped there.
In 1887, the recently formed Duxbury Rural Society took on the massive project of cleaning out the cemetery, cutting down the overgrowth, repairing toppled stones, and adding a fence to keep livestock off the land. With the hard work of cleanup complete, the hunt for Captain Standish’s remains began in earnest.
The search for Standish is a tale unto itself. His body was exhumed no less than three times over the course of forty-two years before he was finally placed into a copper box and sealed in a cement chamber. During the second exhumation, the bodies of his daughter, daughter-in-law, and young son were also discovered and identified. They all now rest beneath the cannons and rocks of the Standish family plot in the Miles Standish Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the nation. At the final re-interment in 1931, a time capsule was placed in the underground chamber, which begs the question: did they expect poor Standish to be unearthed yet again?
Though the damp, coastal air, had numbed my face and toes, I roamed the burying ground for over an hour, hesitant to leave the rich history of this little, one-and-a-half acre plot on the corner of Chestnut Street and Pilgrim By Way, now so well-maintained that it’s hard to imagine it in its pre-restoration state. The jagged edges of some broken gravestones are the only sad reminders that all this was nearly lost to decay and neglect.
So, when you come to Duxbury to enjoy its stunning beaches, visit one of its famous cranberry bogs, or eat some local shellfish, don’t forget to stop by and visit one of New England’s once-forgotten treasures. If you are so inclined, bring along a copy of Longfellow and read the tale of Myles, Priscilla, and John under the shade of a tree near where all three stories end.
Have you ever visited the oldest cemetery in America? Have another favorite colonial-era cemetery? Let us know!
Miles Standish Cemetery. Chestnut Street in Duxbury, Massachusetts.
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.