Jonathan Alden’s Traveling Gravestone

Illustration of Jonathan Alden's gravestone from Historic Duxbury in Plymouth County, 1900.

Illustration of Jonathan Alden’s gravestone from Historic Duxbury in Plymouth County Massachusetts, 1900.

The Myles Standish Burial Ground in Duxbury, MA is acknowledged to be the oldest maintained cemetery in the United States. Within its split-rail fenced boarders, close to the road in the southwest corner, sits a gravestone dated 1697.  This stone is the oldest gravestone in the oldest maintained cemetery, a pretty impressive distinction. Now, consider that the stone belongs to Jonathan Alden (c.1632-1697), the son of Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, and you really have a reason to take notice. Add to this mix the fact that Jonathan lived in and expanded the historic Alden House, one of the oldest houses in America, had six children with his wife, Abigail Hallett, and is probably the progenitor of hundreds of thousands of descendants, and you’ve got a gravestone worth gazing at. But Jonathan Alden’s stone has a story attached to it that is so unique, it almost surpasses the novelty of its age and associations.

The three sided field stones, seen to the right, are still part of Myles Standish's more elaborate memorial.

The three sided field stones, seen to the right, are still part of Myles Standish’s more elaborate memorial.

Before I get to the stone’s tale, however, I want to answer the question of why it is the oldest – after all, Jonathan Alden’s remains are not the oldest in the burial ground, not by long-shot.  The answer is quite simple – there were no local stone cutters to fashion a headstone in the 17th century in Plymouth Colony. Those few men who could do the job were in Boston and most likely too expensive for the average person.[2] So, a simple marker, as in the case of Myles Standish’s original three sided field stone, was considered more than sufficient for most of the folks buried before 1700. [3] As for any carved stones that were older than Jonathan’s, and there were undoubtedly some, they crumbled to dust before 19th century antiquarians were able to record or rescue them.

Speaking of rescuing, we now come to the curious case of Jonathan Alden’s gravestone and the reason it still exists today. After Duxbury’s Meeting House and cemetery moved to the more centrally located Tremont Street  in 1789, the town’s old burying ground became neglected and overgrown. Ezra Weston, IV, the son of one of Duxbury’s wealthiest shipbuilders and a descendent of Jonathan Alden, often visited the spot and cleaned the older stones. One day he came upon a broken piece of slate, only about a foot high, bearing the inscription of Jonathan Alden. Not knowing where to place it, he brought home to his house on Powder Point, a peninsula in Duxbury.  There the stone remained for about forty years. Today the house to which the stone was first brought is a museum, the King Caesar House.

After the death of Ezra Weston, IV in 1852 and his brother, Alden B. Weston, in 1880, their house was inherited by nieces and nephews.  The gravestone of Jonathan Alden was given to Lucia Alden Bradford, a Duxbury cousin and Alden descendant. Lucia propped the stone in a corner of the parlor of the house she shared with her sisters, Elizabeth and Charlotte.  She intended to give the stone to Pilgrim Hall Museum, but never got around to it. So, it stayed in the Bradford House, coincidentally also now house museum, for another fifteen years.

photo 2

Jonathan Alden’s gravestone as it stands today, encased in protective concrete.

Laurence Bradford, the nephew of the Bradford sisters, inherited their house along with the stone in 1893. It is from Laurence that we know this story as he published it in his book, Historic Duxbury in Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, in 1900. Laurence desired to return the stone to its rightful place. According to his account, in 1895 he searched for the proper spot by probing the burial ground and uncovering every stone until “at last he found a flat one that seemed to be part of an old gravestone, which in company with the inscribed Jonathan Alden stone was found to fit its broken edge.” [4]

After an absence of more than fifty years, the stone was back in the old burying ground. I shudder to think of how many stones were lost in the intervening years. Had Jonathan Alden’s not sat, protected from the elements, in the parlors of two federal-era Duxbury homes, it too may have broken or become unrecognizable. An addendum to this story is that in 1930 the Alden Kindred erected memorial headstones to John and Priscilla Alden based on the location of other Alden stones in the Myles Standish Burial Ground, including that of Jonathan Alden – another reason we can be happy that the stone was so well traveled.

Footnotes:

[1] For more information on Jonathan Alden and the Alden House, visit the Alden Kindred’s site, www.alden.org.

[2] James Blachowicz, Slate and Marble: Gravestone Carving Traditions in Eastern Massachusetts 1770-1870, (Evantson, IL: Graver Press, 2006), 16, and Laurence Bradford, Historic Duxbury in Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, 3rd ed. (Boston: Nathan Sawyer & Son, 1910), 55.

[3] For more on Myles Standish’s grave see Patrick Browne’s Opening the Grave of Myles Standish.

[4] Bradford, 59.

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