Hidden behind a modern garage on Stearns Street is a tiny patch of lumpy ground with a smattering of weathered headstones placed almost haphazardly within the confines of old stone and metal fencing.
Beneath the ground lies the dust of some of the founders of Bristol.
At least two dozen people are buried within the walls, with 19 headstones remaining to mark their remains, some of them broken, cracked and beaten down by more than two centuries to the point where they are barely legible.
Though Judge Epaphroditus Peck, one of the city’s early chroniclers, called the cemetery “the most historic place in town” in an 1897 letter, it is almost entirely forgotten today.
Last week, the ground was littered with grocery store receipts, water bottles, pieces of aluminum that appeared to have blown off a house and a plastic bag with a Christmas tree printed on it.
Still, it exists.
That the city’s oldest burying grounds survives at all is the result of George Dudley Seymour’s efforts a century ago to preserve the landmark when neighbors wanted to develop the parcel.
Instead, he won approval to erect thick stone walls on three sides, with a metal fence separating it from the immaculately groomed and much larger St. Joseph Church cemetery next door.
In use from 1758 until 1824, the cemetery contains the remains of 11 of the 12 founders of the Anglican Church of New Cambridge, the first name for the community that ultimately became Bristol.
It may be that the overall neglect of the cemetery is rooted in that distant past, when loyalists to the Church of England were usually loyal to the king as well.
And in that revolutionary period, failing to support the cause of independence that ultimately led to the creation of the United States was, to put it mildly, not easy.
Peck reports that most of the people in New Cambridge “were intensely patriotic” and 50 or more of them served in the American army during the Revolutionary War.
The first Episcopal minister to conduct a religious service in what became Bristol, the Rev. William Gibbs, was carted off to jail in Hartford in 1749 with his hands tied under a horse’s belly because he refused to pay taxes to support the established Congregational Church. He wound up going insane, perhaps from the harsh treatment he received from the “presumptuous and bold men” he opposed.
Many other members of the church in the area were persecuted during the period and one, Moses Dunbar of Burlington, was hung for allegedly spying for Britain.
According to a history compiled by Mike Saman in 2004, the Anglicans first built a church on Federal Hill Green in 1754, on the site where Patterson Place stands, a former school. It became the second Episcopal parish in Hartford County.
When war came in 1775, “the meeting house men” from the independence-minded Congregational Church told the Anglicans that if they prayed for the king, “we will kill you,” according to E. Leroy Pond’s book The Tories of Chippeny Hill.
“So the members of the Church in New Cambridge closed its doors in silence,” Pond wrote.
They fled to homes on Chippens Hill or to the Tory’s Den cave.
Their minister, the Rev. James Nichols, was shot at several times by patriots and was tarred and feathered at least once, according to Peck.
During the war, the Congregational Church, which served as the local government, confiscated most of the Anglican Church’s 4 acres on Federal Hill, Saman said.
“They took the property away by adverse possession,” Saman said, because it had been abandoned.
Members were able, however, to fix up their old building and try to reestablish their place in the community.
But with only 29 members, the costs were too great so in 1790, Saman said, they joined “with the Episcopalians of East Plymouth’s East Church later called St. Matthews Church.”
On Chippens Hill, the church was on Old Marsh Road in a building that is now a private home, said Saman.
At that time, they sold the church building on Federal Hill to Abel Lewis, Saman said, who used it as a barn until it burned down.
During the 19th century, after the last burial, the cemetery was used as a pasture, largely neglected. But Seymour’s call to preserve it found wide support and the Daughters of the American Revolution cared for it for at least a few decades in the early 20th Century.
Most recently, an Eagle Scout project in 2001cleaned up the cemetery and erected a wooden sign listing those buried within its walls.
In 1891, Charles Shepard copied the inscriptions from the remaining stones at the cemetery, preserving some of the words that are no longer present.
Among the remaining stones is one for Hannah Hill, who died in 1766 at the age of 29.
At the top of the stone marking her resting place is what looks like a smiley face with a dozen or so octopus-like arms reaching out below it.
At the base of the marker on one recent day sat a crushed McDonald’s soda cup.
City refuses to take over cemetery
The city’s Cemetery Commission recently refused a request from the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut to take ownership of the historic burying ground.
Members said the city has too much on its plate to take on any extra expense.
Mike Saman, secretary of the panel, said the church “doesn’t want to have it anymore. They want to get rid of it.”
Saman said the diocese ought to pay the city $80,000 to fix up the cemetery and care for it as part of any deal for Bristol to take it over.
Instead, he said, “they just want to abandon it. I don’t think the city should take it.”
Saman said the church has the responsibility of caring for the cemetery, but won’t do it.
“They have an obligation to do something,” Saman said.
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