NEWFANE—For about 225 years, some of the first Europeans to settle in town rested in so much peace their remains were forgotten.
They were buried in the town’s long-neglected first cemetery, high up on Newfane Hill, lost beneath the deep growth of trees just a few feet from Otis Lane.
In the last few months, Historical Society of Windham County board members Richard Marek and Laura Wallingford-Bacon did some detective work and learned of the existence of the cemetery — and they found its location.
Marek, the organization’s vice president, told The Commons that he read about the burying ground in a book, Centennial Proceedings and Other Historical Facts and Incidents Relating to Newfane, the County Seat of Windham County, Vermont, published in 1877.
“That had just a passing reference to [it], and that it was first used by Jonathan Park,” said Marek.
Lieutenant Jonathan Park was one of Newfane’s first two European men to colonize the village. Within two weeks in 1773, Park buried his three young children there: Lucy, Elizabeth, and David. Park’s first and second wives were later interred at the site.
Wallingford-Bacon had other documents mentioning a burying ground. One was the deed from the Newfane Hill property of Luke Knowlton, the other of Newfane’s first two white male settlers.
Marek said he and Wallingford-Bacon cross-referenced their documents, consulted other artifacts, and “began figuring it out.”
“We’ve done a lot of research on old Newfane,” Marek said. “I want to determine as much information from original documents as possible, because there’s a lot of folklore,” and it’s not always accurate, he added.
The burying ground is a few hundred yards from the town’s first common, less than three miles from its current common, located in the West River Valley in front of the county courthouse.
As Marek explained, the original village was founded higher up because land in lower elevations was often contaminated by cholera and other water-borne diseases.
Knowlton and Park deeded their land to the town, which includes the former and current Newfane village centers, in perpetuity.
The location of the old village is no mystery, and until recently a worn and somewhat inaccurate sign — since replaced — graced the site of the former town common.
But, Marek noted, he and Wallingford-Bacon made a few discoveries in their research.
“There’s a lot more up there than the town had previously recognized, including the jail-keeper’s house, the town’s first schoolhouse, and its first meeting house, which later became the town’s first courthouse,” Marek said.
The first Newfane settlement “was a very vibrant community,” said Marek.
The village also had two hotels, two stores, one academy, houses, and a blacksmith shop down the road. The latter was owned by Marshall Newton, who served for seven years in the Colonial army during the Revolutionary War, said Marek.
A short, stone obelisk marks the site of the original courthouse. That memorial inspired Marek to venture farther into the forest to find the burying ground.
“I wanted to read what was engraved on it,” Marek said, but the area around the marker “was totally overgrown.”
He, Wallingford-Bacon, and fellow board members Barb Barber and Larry Robinson started removing underbrush and small trees, mostly using hedge clippers and other hand-held tools.
Robinson had the only machine. “He played the chain-saw!” said Marek.
“In about one month, we turned it from a jungle to a path, then a cleared-out area,” said Marek.
As they cut and clipped, they found the cellar hole to the jail-keeper’s house. They went back and read the deeds and noted the measurements and kept pushing through, carving a trail through the forest, until they found the stone wall that borders one side of the burying ground.
There, they took out some of the smaller trees. Marek said he hopes the town will come in with a front loader to help remove some of the large, dead trees from the burying ground.
Now, it’s mostly ferns. Once the frost comes and those die back, Marek said he might find some more items of interest, such as larger stones to mark graves. He said he plans to reach out to the state archaeologists to invite them up for a dig.
Few records to confirm
So who is buried in the old cemetery?
In an essay Marek wrote for the Historical Society, Newfane’s First Burying Ground: 1773-1794, he says, “Newfane’s earliest burying ground has no headstones remaining — if any in fact ever existed — and has left no records, so only 12 of its burials are confirmable from other sources.”
Of those 12, five are the Park women and children. On the edge of the burying ground there’s a monument for Elizabeth Park, honoring her as the mother of the first child born to a settler in Newfane.
“We call it a memorial marker rather than a grave marker. The people who put it up might have known whether it actually was at her grave site, but since we don’t know, we don’t claim it is! It probably was erected by Park family descendants and we think it was put up around 1896, when the town put up the other granite markers on and around the common,” said Marek.
The other seven confirmed burials at the site are Henry and Jerusha Sawtell. The Sawtells, and five of their six children, perished on the same day, Feb. 2, 1782. Marek told The Commons the Sawtells’ home caught fire, and its design — the chimney was next to the only door — prevented anyone from escaping. The only surviving child was not at home when his family died.
“However, the 84 other Newfane deaths recorded through 1794 in Congregational Minister Hezekiah Taylor’s journal indicate that many more from the town’s earliest families also surely are buried here,” Marek wrote in his essay.
In 1795, the Newfane Hill Cemetery was established, but Marek notes “there still may have been later burials” at the old burying ground.
New sign to mark the find
At the July 16 regular Selectboard meeting, Marek announced the finding of the colonizers’ first cemetery. The board approved an estimated $250 to $300 to install a new sign at the site.
Gary Delius said that he and his Selectboard colleagues “should do what we can” to help maintain the former town common, “so people can enjoy it.”
The new sign has since been installed there. It was a collaborative effort: Barb Barber painted the sign, and Gary Katz made the case for it. They are also working on signs for the first burying ground and the 1795 cemetery, which will be installed soon, said Marek.
Marek wants people to tour these sites and to honor the memory of the settlers.
“It’s the first burying ground in Newfane, and it’s a shame it’s been forgotten,” he said. “It deserves to be recognized, and now it will be.”