“But it pleased God to vissite us then, with death dayly, and with so generall a disease, that the living were scarce able to burie the dead; and ye well not in any measure sufficiente to tend ye sick.”
-William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation
One of the saddest episodes in the early history of Plymouth Colony was that first awful winter, January through March of 1621. As if they did not have enough challenges to face, the majority of the settlers we now call Pilgrims fell ill just weeks after their arrival. As Bradford recounted, sometimes two or three died each day. They had managed to hastily build but one small structure which was completely filled with the sick. Others were bedridden in the Mayflower out in the harbor which did not immediately return to England as planned because most of the crew was sick as well. By April, half the settlers had perished, roughly 50 in number.
Bradford tells us that only seven of them managed to avoid illness. Upon these few fell the task of caring for the afflicted and burying the dead. None of the early sources tell exactly where they were buried. There was neither time nor the resources to mark the graves in any lasting way. And so the location of the burials of half of the Mayflower passengers, including first Governor John Carver, Elizabeth Winslow, and Rose Standish to mention just a few, was lost and forgotten.
Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, now part of Pilgrim Memorial State Park, is a low but fairly steep rise of about 30 feet in elevation, virtually at the water’s edge, overlooking Plymouth Rock and Plymouth Harbor. The area where the burials took place is just over 100 yards north of the first street where the Pilgrims built their primitive houses. It is named for James Cole, an early settler who placed a dwelling there in the 1630s.
What I find remarkable about the history of Cole’s Hill is not the fact that its identity as a burial ground was forgotten…but rather the slow and seemingly nonchalant manner in which later generations came to terms with the discovery of the burying ground.
The first indication came in 1735 when torrential rain caused enough run-off to tear a small gully through the middle of Cole’s Hill. Many bones were exposed and washed into the harbor. Around this time, Elder Thomas Faunce (1647-1746), who was old enough to have known some of the first settlers in his childhood, imparted the fact that Cole’s Hill was the site of the first burying place. He also was the first to promote Plymouth Rock as the landing place of the Pilgrims. It could be that he simply had a fondness for telling stories based only on folklore. Or perhaps he knew exactly what he was talking about.
Either way, the probable significance of Cole’s Hill did not seem to make much of an impact at the time. That generation of Plymoutheans had an emerging Revolution to deal with. And the area around Cole’s Hill was quickly becoming a burgeoning commercial district. Setting it aside as hallowed ground was apparently not a priority.
In 1809 a skull was exposed on the hill. Again, this seemed to make no lasting impression.
The most significant discoveries came in 1855 when workmen began digging an extensive trench across Cole’s Hill in which to lay water conduits. A number of graves were accidentally opened. According to John Goodwin in The Pilgrim Republic, (1888), two skeletons were found side by side, male and female. The male had a “particularly noble forehead,” and the two were presumed, for reasons not exactly clear, to be John and Catherine Carver. They were re-interred on Burial Hill which had, since about 1637, been the town’s burying ground.
As for the other remains uncovered in 1855, according to Old Plymouth – A Guide to its Localities and Objects of Interest, published by Avery & Doten (1881), “One of the skulls was sent to a competent anatomist in Boston, and was pronounced to be of the Caucasian race. The remains were carefully gathered and placed in a metallic box, properly inscribed, and interred on Burial Hill, subsequently being deposited in the chamber of the canopy over the Rock, at its completion in the year 1867.”
The construction of a monument over Plymouth Rock was the project of the Pilgrim Society (founded in 1820). The first “canopy” over the Rock was designed by architect Hammatt Billings. It housed the remains discovered in 1855 as well as some discovered later. Beginning in the 1850s, and continuing for several decades thereafter, the Pilgrim Society busily acquired land around Plymouth Rock and portions of Cole’s Hill. American culture had changed. A desire to honor the Pilgrims and the landmarks associated with them was now a high priority. Still, it would be some time before the graves on Cole’s Hill were completely protected.
According to John Goodwin, in 1879 when work was being done on the southeast side of the hill, “many more bones were unearthed, and some, with questionable taste, were carried away by the spectators in remembrance of their ‘renowned sires.’” A bit disturbing, really. Where these remains unearthed in 1879 ended up is anyone’s guess.
In 1883, in the process of digging some post holes near a house on Cole’s Hill, a workman tossed a spade full of dirt and, to his surprise, found that he had tossed a skull with it. The skull was examined by a local doctor and found to be that of an elderly white man. Just a month later, another grave was accidentally opened. This seemed to be the watershed moment.
It was decided to place a granite tablet on Cole’s Hill at the foot of Middle Street. For the first time, about 150 years after remains had first been discovered, the 1621 burying place of the Pilgrims would be permanently recognized. The tablet, which has since been replaced by the sarcophagus, read, “On this hill The Pilgrims who died the first winter were buried. This tablet marks the spot where lies the body of one found Oct. 8, 1883. The body of another found on the 27th of the following month lies 8 feet northwest of the westerly corner of this stone. Erected 1884.”
Additional measures would be taken to preserve Cole’s Hill. Apparently motivated by these developments, Joseph Henry Stickney would set up a trust to acquire additional land on Cole’s Hill, remove buildings, and to extend the hill south to Leiden Street, the original site of the Pilgrim houses. This work was not completed until 1917.
In 1920 a new monument was built over Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrim remains housed in the canopy were moved to a new sarcophagus, completed in 1921…a handsome monument built by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants which still stands. It lists the names of those who perished during the first winter.
The inscription reads, in part, “This Monument Marks the First Burying Ground in Plymouth of the Passengers of the Mayflower…Reader! History records no nobler venture for faith and freedom than this Pilgrim band. In weariness and painfulness, in watchings, often in hunger and cold, they laid the foundations of a state wherein every man, through countless ages, should have liberty to worship God in his own way. May their example inspire thee to do thy part in perpetuating and spreading the lofty ideals of our republic throughout the world!”
[Further reading: See "Notes on Cole's Hill" written by Edward R. Belcher for the Pilgrim Society]