Photography by J. Mita Studios

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Where History and Art Meet - Center Cemetery, East Hartford, CT.

    Behind the buildings and sidewalks on Main St. in East Hartford, CT. is an historic cemetery that most would barely notice. As you drive down Main St., watching out for changing traffic lights and cars pulling out from parallel parking spots along the street, it is easy not to notice anything beyond what is right in front of your eyes.
    Center Cemetery at 922 Main St. is a true gem for those seeking some interesting history. Surrounded by apartments and offices, the cemetery offers a natural escape from the pace of urban living. You are transported to a quiet place where traffic is barely heard, and squirrels and deer roam easily and without fear. Being from Tolland, CT. I was surprised to see some connection to my town.

    There was a stone with the name Elisha Benton, and another from the Metcalf family. Whether these are connected to Tolland is anybody's guess, but I found the name appearing in East Hartford as an interesting puzzle. Other names in the cemetery include many familiar East Hartford families such as Roberts, Pitkin and Goodwin.
Note the barrel shaped mausoleum which had to be cement filled to avoid collapse.


   There is a heavy Civil War presence in the cemetery. One of the fascinating offerings of the cemetery is the many graves dedicated to those who served with the Colored Troops during that war. Though the north always denied there was much representation of slavery here, there were still some prejudicial issues that existed. One of the graves had an historic marker to show that those of color were kept in separate units from their other Union brothers. I would bet, though, when faced with a battle out in the fields, the color of your skin had little bearing on who fought next to whom.
    Still, I did note that there was a section below the main cemetery dedicated primarily to graves of those of color. It is a strip in between the oldest part of the cemetery and the more recent graves. Once again, the segregation that was so obvious in the south had a grip on the north as well. I found this interesting and gained some insights into our historical views of black citizens. We have been as guilty as those of the south in keeping this separation. I do wonder if we are so different now. There is still a great deal of suspicions and fears when it comes to our minority population.

                                 The Native American Connection    

A marker explains the history of this location.

The area where the Fort Hill village existed

    Here was my most fascinating find as I strolled up the hill from the back entrance of the cemetery. I saw a marker and wondered what it had to say. Well, on this spot at one time existed a Podunk stronghold called Fort Hill. The Podunks were a peaceful river tribe that hunted and fished along the Hockanum River, which is within a few hundred yards of Center Cemetery. A direct quote from Joseph Goodwin's book from 1879 states:
     "The indigenous native-American tribe, the Podunks, shortly before the settlement of Hartford were one of the small group of so-called River Tribes. Center Cemetery occupied the highest ground above the marshlands along this part of the Hockanum River, the southern boundary of their tribal lands. During its incremental expansion, the cemetery acquired a pasture from the Goodwin family that contained what was called “Fort Hill,” the site of a Podunk stronghold used for refuge and defense of attacks of the aggressive Pequots invading inland from their coastal villages. As stated in Joseph Goodwin’s book (1879) on the history of the town, “traces of such an enclosure still remain in Goodwin’s pasture [unfortunately no longer] … the steep hillside having been its defense and outlook on three sides, and an embankment and palisades upon the north.” Today this would be the southeast corner of the old section of the cemetery. This area “has been found rich in stone and flint relics,” he went on to write. To this day one can still hear of stories of longtime town members finding arrow heads and other artifacts during the digging of graves. This is no longer the case as this part of the cemetery had its last burial sometime ago."

     I thought the name Fort Hill must have been a common one used for such Native American lookouts. Another Fort Hill exists in Eastham, MA. on Cape Cod. The area known as Fort Hill was settled by the Nauset tribe and was a place for councils to be held between tribes. It became a lookout for the tribes, including Wampanoag, as more and more white settlers made their way onto the lands we call the United States.

    I loved the aesthetic appeal of these three graves with bright bittersweet growing on them. I do not know anything about this family called Wing, but it may be worth investigating further.

    This interesting hillside structure attracted my attention as I walked back to my car. I thought it was another mausoleum, but come to find out it used to be where bodies were kept during the winter, because the ground was too frozen to intern the body. It is called a Receiving Vault. Nowadays, our modern refrigeration has done away with the need for these vaults, but you will find them in most historic cemeteries. Our South Cemetery in Tolland is an old cemetery that goes back to Pre-Revolutionary times, and if there was such a vault there it has been removed.

    As I filled my eyes with the lovely yellow border of the cemetery, still in beautiful color, the wind began to blow with a bit of chill on its breath. The leaves floated lazily from the trees, as though they were waving a goodbye to me. I left somewhat sadly because there was so much more to investigate, but now that I know where it is, I will be heading back to see more of the history offerings of this cemetery, and I will bring a pen and paper to absorb and record the urban rhythm of this quiet gem in the middle of a small city.

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