True Tales from Canton’s Past: Burr Lane Pt. 2

By

The following is the second in a two-part series on the Burr Lane Burying Ground by local historian George T. Comeau. Click here to read the full text of part one, “Skull and Bones.”

The dog was covered in spring mud. After the rains he was always coming home filthy with sticks and old roots. This day was different; as he bounded into the house he had a large ball of some sort. As his owner bent over to retrieve the mess from the dog’s mouth, he was shocked to discover that it was a human skull.

The Tippet Pipe found at Burr Lane (Copyright 2014 President and Fellows of Harvard College 969-37-10/50122 and 975-34-10/52976)

The Tippet Pipe found at Burr Lane (Copyright 2014 President and Fellows of Harvard College 969-37-10/50122 and 975-34-10/52976)

This was 1968, and when Police Chief Daniel Keleher arrived, he knew it would be impossible to locate the rest of the body given the provenance of the dog’s mouth. Placing the skull on the seat of his cruiser, Keleher took it to the old police station on Revere Street and put it on the top shelf of the closet in his office. There it sat next to another skull that had been discovered behind the Canton Corner Cemetery. It seems that Keleher had more than a few skeletons in his closet. A year later, Keleher put two and two together and realized the archeologists at the Peabody Museum who had arrived at Burr Lane might want to see the skull that the dog had unearthed a year earlier.

It took a few days to get the necessary permissions from Mrs. Eli Withington, but after some brief negotiations, the Peabody archeologist, Dena Dincauze, began her work. What the neighborhood children had uncovered was the Burr Lane Burying Ground. Children had begun the work, but the scientists needed to figure out the boundaries and secure the remains from exposure and deterioration.

Skulls, mandibles, rib cages, hands and feet — all were eroding out of the side of the sandpit. All of the graves were oriented in an east-west fashion with the head laying to the east. The hands were in the pelvic cavity with the right hand above the left, except the right thumb was below the left hand. On the left ankle was a copper or brass straight pin, which preserved a small portion of a shroud of course linen. Careful excavation revealed coffin nails in the dirt closely fitting the body. Portions of thick pine planking preserved sections of the coffins.

A woman’s grave was excavated and one of the neighborhood boys found a dotted slipware cup that dated to the 18th century. More graves were excavated through the course of the weeks ahead. The site became a classroom for the Harvard students who ultimately excavated the complete remains of two individuals and parts of six others. At the same time, the kids were also digging, and the scene must have been surreal.

Key to dating the site was the small pipe that Stephen Turley had found along with the slipware cup. Likely the graves of Jonathan George and Simon George were the earliest, placing the site’s date of first use at 1738. The Harvard archeological team uncovered a rough footstone in place above one grave, but all other stones seemed to have been lost over time.

With Burr Lane to the north, this area is defined by typical fieldstone walls and a meandering cart path — part of an ancient Indian trail known as the Quantum Path, the southerly portion connecting to Burr Lane. Historically there was once an orchard, Indian dwellings, and possibly a small meetinghouse.

The land lay untouched until 1998, when the landowner, Peter Stockus, submitted plans to the Canton Planning Board for a small residential subdivision on the site. This author reminded Stockus that his new subdivision was the site of the Burr Lane Burying Ground and as such a new archeological investigation might be in order. Always a gentleman and a good citizen of Canton, Stockus hired Joyce Clements to perform an archeological assessment.

Stockus sat atop a Caterpillar excavator and slowly stripped the soil from the area as Clements carefully watched. On the last day of the work, at 4 p.m. on Friday, March 20, a femur was exposed on the western part of the property. The archeologist got to her knees and carefully began brushing away the sand. A second bone appeared and smaller bones were exposed. The following Monday the real work began. This time, history would be preserved in place. By March 30 all was secure, and 18th century was tucked back into the ground.

The Peabody Museum of Archeology at Harvard University (Courtesy of the author)

The Peabody Museum of Archeology at Harvard University (Courtesy of the author)

The Peabody Museum is an imposing brick building just outside Harvard Yard. To see the artifacts related to Burr Lane requires permission from the Massachuset-Ponkapoag Tribal Council. Once inside, the security is fairly strict and you are ushered into a basement viewing room. A staff person rolls a cart on which sits a large wooden tray. With latex gloved hands, the grave goods are handled one by one. A small plastic bag contains a tiny fragment of a burial shroud cloth. Roughly woven, this was once wrapped around the body in a coffin and fastened with a small copper pin. There are not many items that were taken from Burr Lane — a small handled cup, a fragment of pottery, a lead shot, and 20 coffin nails.

The most amazing item, however, is the small pipe broken into two pieces. The pipe is stained inside from the tobacco that once flowed through the stem. There is a small set of maker’s initials and a cartouche on the side of the bowl. This pipe was made by R. Tippet. The Tippet family was probably the most important pipemakers in the late 17th through early 18th centuries. Three generations all hailed from Bristol, England, and this pipe was made sometime between the years 1660 and 1722.

Jeanne MacLeod was 10 years old and vividly recalls the small pipe in her hands. “The one thing I remember — the pipe — we were playing with it for days,” she said. “One kid dropped it and it broke the stem and we all were quite upset since we knew it was an ancient artifact.” Today, Jeanne lives in Hilton Head, South Carolina. “Talking about this today, more than 45 years ago, the memory of the day comes flooding back,” she said.

All in all, the Peabody has 18 items that were recovered from Burr Lane. There are two full human skeletons and perhaps parts of six to ten others, plus six artifacts. The remains are stored respectfully in another location, yet one day they may find their way back to their original resting place.

So while there are human remains of our ancestors safely tucked away on shelves in Cambridge, here in Canton the Burr Lane Burying Ground is largely intact, thanks to Peter Stockus and the advocacy of the local and state historical commissions as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The work done in 1998 yields evidence of 14 additional “features,” or grave shafts. Preliminary reports at the time estimated a total of 13 individuals interred in graves. In some cases the graves had been disturbed, and in others they were wholly intact. Also, a skull had been found on the topsoil along with fragments of coffins and nails. Some of the heads were situated with their head to the west and others to the east.

Clements worked carefully to recover the boundaries of the cemetery. One of the conclusions made was that the graves exposed during the work in 1998 suggested two family groups within the burials. This makes sense historically since Huntoon’s History of Canton tells us that four members of Simon George’s family are buried here and four members of Jacob Wilbor’s family are here. Who else is buried here, we may never know. Huntoon tells us that there are Indians, blacks, and children. Forensic evidence suggests that in addition to Native Americans, there are also African American traits found in the early skeletal remains. Jacob Wilbor may be Native or black American; his wife, Mary Wills Wilbor, was the daughter of Nuff Wills, “a negro.” Also, we do not know definitively where Seymour Burr is buried. There are several children buried at Burr Lane and the archeology confirms this as well. MacLeod also remembers the skeleton of a dog, and that may tie into the reference of Simon George’s dog following him into the afterlife.

Today, the burying ground is part of the Withington Circle subdivision and is protected under a permanent preservation restriction through the Massachusetts Historical Commission. The graves that have been preserved on-site are contained within a 2,792-square-foot easement on Lot 5. Access to the cemetery is preserved through a ten-foot-wide path that runs along the property line. There is no sign, and the property is private, so there is no trespassing allowed. We do know that no dogs or children will ever disturb this site again. And there is room reserved for the reburial of the remains in the custody of the Peabody Museum if ever they are released for interment.  Peter Stockus was awarded the Massachusetts Preservation Award in 1999.

Special thanks to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, Jeremy Comeau, Canton Planning Board, and Gill Solomon, president of the Massachuset-Ponkapoag Tribal Council.

 

Share This Post

Short URL: http://www.thecantoncitizen.com/?p=24890

avatar Posted by on Apr 3 2014. Filed under Canton History, Features.
Canton Citizen Absolute Landscaping

Search Archive

Search by Date
Search by Category
Search with Google
Log in | Copyright Canton Citizen 2011