The Ipswich Chronicle ran this story in the year 2000.
Burial site of first settler may be revealed
A recent letter to the Zoning Board may hold some clues to the location of the gravesite of Mrs. John Winthrop and her child who may have been buried on what is now private property in the 1630s. The former owner of a home abutting Highland Cemetery on High Street has revealed what could be the best-kept secret in town. Some 30 years ago when Rupert Kilgour, then of 61 High St., had a contractor excavate the driveway there, the backhoe hit something unexpected. “As they were digging with a machine they hit and removed the corner of a sarcophagus,” Kilgour wrote in a recent letter to the Zoning Board of Appeals. A brick and stone mason who looked at the material at the time said the bricks looked like ballast from the early 1600s and seemed to be from England. Kilgour took it upon himself to investigate the grave. “In the grave were the remains of a woman and child,” Kilgour wrote. “After doing some checking, it was 99 percent certain that the remains were Mrs. John Winthrop and her small child. ” If the grave is in fact that of the first Mrs. Winthrop, the child would have been the first baby of European descent born in Ipswich. Kilgour said the grave contained effects that indicate a plague burial. “Mrs. Winthrop,” he states,” died from the plague. ”
According to Marjorie Robie of the Historical Commission, there were a few artifacts and clothing in the coffin that could provide clues to the identity of the remains. Additionally, the remains themselves can be scientifically tested for age and identity. “We will never know unless we can document that this is before 1650,” Robie said. “If it goes back that far we can be pretty sure that it’s the grave we think it is. ”
Kilgour, who no longer lives in the house, wanted to let the current owners, Kurt and Patricia Smith, know of his findings after the Smiths submitted an application to the ZBA for a 310-square-foot extension to their home, which sits in a non-conforming lot. A hearing on the proposal was continued by the ZBA last week until the Historical Commission does its own investigation.
Robie said the letter was a surprise and the commission would have liked to have had time, prior to the letter becoming public, to answer some initial questions. The commission is working with the Historical Society on questions regarding the grave.
Robie said that, if in fact the commission finds the grave to be Mrs. John Winthrop’s, the grave will be properly documented and marked and maybe even moved to another place.
“Mary Conley did say to me a long time ago she’d heard that someone knew where Mrs. Winthrop and her child were buried,” Robie said. “But she got busy on other projects and never really mentioned it again. I did consider that house once, as it was such an obvious place,” Robie said. “If Mary were still alive, she would be pursuing this with keen interest and would be very anxious that we do things properly. “Conley, the town historian, died earlier this month.
Kilgour wrote that the grave is set east to west unlike other graves in the cemetery, which are set north to south.
“The grave is located in the corner of the cemetery nearest the town. At that time, it is where the first grave would be located,” he wrote. In fact, the grave falls right behind the Smith porch – half of it covered by bushes on the property and the other half in the back yard, according to a map drawn by Kilgour.
The Smiths are proposing to extend the porch and build a bedroom over it. It ‘s not clear whether the new building would extend over the suspected grave. Robie said the Smiths are interested in working with the Historical Commission on this.
More research necessary
Robie said that for starters the history of John Winthrop Jr. and that of Mrs. Winthrop specifically would have to be researched, with the hope of discovering documents concerning her burial. She said the commission may hire a deed researcher as soon as possible to research the Smith property and the circumstances of how the land, which was meant to be town land appropriated for a graveyard in the early day of pilgrim settlement, fell into private hands.
Many of the graves in the cemetery are only inches away from the house. Some of the stones lean against the house. Kilgour added that a Mr. Dow ‘s grave lies now between the sidewalk on High Street and the wall of the house. Kilgour said when work on the town sewer was being installed, a stone with writing on it was removed, and he suspects another grave is located there, right in front of the house.
Robie said she can’t explain why the grave in question is set east to west and the rest are north and south. She said the land may have been set aside as a cemetery for the prominent citizens. The woman in question would have been the only one buried there for a while. The mother and child may had died at the same time or apart. Robie said these are all guesses at this time and need investigating.
Burial site a mystery
Robie said Mrs. Winthrop was John Winthrop Jr.’s wife, and she died from what was described as a fever in the 1630s, according to town records. She was an English woman who followed her husband to New England. John Winthrop’ s father and namesake came to New England at the same time to resume his duties as the governor of the Bay Colony. Her husband founded Ipswich not long before she died. After her death he went on to become the governor of Connecticut and never returned to Ipswich. Robie believes there were no other children of John and Mrs. Winthrop (buried in Ipswich.)
Robie said the reason the brick was laid over the coffin was because the grave would have been the first pilgrim grave in Ipswich and the surroundings at the time were home to wolves and other scavengers. To avoid the body being dug up and ravaged by animals it was covered with ballast bricks, which were used as weight on ships at the time.
“It fits the story of Mrs. Winthrop (Jr.),” said Robie.
Robie believes it would have been the bricks that kept the coffin in the good condition in which it was found about 30 years ago.
Kilgour wrote in his letter that, 30 years ago, he had called the cemetery superintendent when the machine hit the grave. He was told to “repair the top and recover the grave,” which he did.
Robie gives two reasons why the grave was forgotten by the Winthrop family, a name that is still prominent in town. She says the grave may have been marked with a wooden cross or a simple stone until a more elaborate stone could be ordered from England. She said a proper headstone would have been crafted in England and shipped here. It is possible that Winthrop had left Ipswich by that time and, since Mrs. Winthrop had no family here, her grave was left unmarked. Or, the headstone might have been misplaced or damaged over time. Records show that John Winthrop remarried in Connecticut.
Robie says, it remains to be proven that the grave in question is Mrs. Winthrop’s final resting place.
“It would be interesting to see where this story goes,” said Robie. “The Historical Commission wants to work with the Historical Society on this one. Walter Pojasek and Peter Lampropolous are heading up the investigation. ”
Robie said it is one of the commission’s priorities at the moment, mainly because the Smiths need to move on with their project and the ZBA is waiting on a recommendation.
As for Kilgour, his letter was submitted to the ZBA i with a hand-drawn map of the burial site but it was unsigned.
“He knew it all the time and kept it a secret,” said Nathan Kilgour, Rupert Kilgour’s grandson. Nathan Kilgour said he had heard the story from his grandfather more than once.