[Last year my family and I flew to Atlanta and spent two weeks driving a rented car up the coast to Boston. The following describes a brief stop in Stonington, Connecticut.]
A couple miles from the Rhode Island line we left the highway and drove into Stonington to look for lunch and a cemetery. Lunch we found in the form of chowder and some batter-fried cod. The cemetery we put off for an hour to stroll through the old part of town. It was charming: narrow streets, wooden buildings from prior centuries, a view now and then of the sea.
We stepped into an antique shop. A bell rang as we entered and we heard a faint, disembodied “hello.” It was a hoarder’s lair inside, man-high piles of junk and rolls of fabric obscuring the view in every direction. A small woman with a half-eaten sandwich in hand appeared from nowhere to scold us. “If you don’t say hello back, I don’t know if you’re still in the shop or if you went out again,” she said.
We asked if she had any musical instruments. My son was looking for a clarinet. She led us by a winding path to a back room where we were shown a deceased fiddle. We mentioned that we were visiting from Oregon. This served as a segue, somehow, for her to begin talking about ticks and Lyme disease. What had we done to protect ourselves while in New England?
In addition to antiques, the woman peddled a variety of lotions and sprays which she promised would save us from Lyme. It wasn’t enough merely to keep out of long grass, as we had supposed. “The ticks drop down from above,” she said, pointing at the ceiling. “They leap at you from trees and passing birds. A bird a mile high could drop a tick on you and you might never know until it was too late.” She was a talker; it was no easy thing to escape from that shop.
Tiny Wequetaquock burial ground had no parking lot so we left the car in the road. After a wary glance skyward for tick-laden birds, we found the wolf stones of Thomas Minor, his wife Grace, and her father Walter Palmer. A wolf stone is an old New England grave marker, a rough length of granite laid over the body to discourage wolves from making an easy meal of a beloved relative.
Thomas Minor was my tenth great-grandfather, Walter Palmer my eleventh. Palmer was born in Yetminster, Dorset in 1585. He was middle aged in 1629 when he and his family came to Salem aboard the Four Sisters. The circumstances are murky but in 1630 it seems that he was appointed to whip a man named Austen Bratcher (or Augustine Bradshaw) who had been convicted of some misdemeanor. Palmer was too zealous in the administration of justice and the man died of his lashes. Palmer in turn was acquitted of manslaughter, though one of Bratcher’s friends said the court had been bribed.
This scandal did not prevent Palmer from becoming a respected member of colonial society. After decamping from pestilential Salem, he was among the founders of Charlestown and Rehoboth and held various civic offices. He was a big man, at least six and a half feet tall. When the Wequetaquock burial ground was improved in the 1890s, curious descendants shifted his wolf stone and uncovered a coffin seven feet long.
Thomas Minor was born at Chew Magna, Somerset in 1608. He came to Salem aboard the Lyon’s Whelp in 1629 (or perhaps the Arabella in 1630). He married Walter Palmer’s daughter Grace in Charlestown in 1634. It seems that Minor was a friend of John Winthrop the Younger, who enticed Minor and Palmer to settle what is now the Mystic/Stonington area of eastern Connecticut.
From the 1650s to the 1680s, Minor kept one of the few surviving diaries of early New England. It’s a farmer’s diary, mostly. Written in a clipped style with irregular spelling, he records the clearing of land, planting and harvesting, the birth of calves, the breeding of horses. He describes killing wolves and bears. He notes occasional trips to Boston, and visits from Winthrop Jr and local Indians of his acquaintance. He also mentions his service as a lieutenant in King Philip’s War, when he was in his late sixties.
I think of Stonington as the beginning of my family’s history in the New World (though we trace to the Wyatts of early Jamestown too). Of course, all human beginnings are arbitrary. It was probably easier for Thomas to imagine he lived at the end of a world (geographically and chronologically) than at the beginning. His mind faced east rather than west. He corresponded with England via the Bristol ships and wanted to know more about his Minor forebears. From a huckster in the old country he unwitting bought a fabricated genealogy reaching back to the middle ages, complete with a false but attractive coat of arms and the motto Spero ut fidelis.
We posed for photographs by Minor’s wolf stone. Someone had planted irises beside it. Palmer lay nearby. It’s true that more notable descendants had sprung from their loins. Ulysses S. Grant and William Chester Minor (troubled contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary) were also descended from Thomas and Grace Minor, which makes them my distant cousins – a fact I’m stupidly proud of. Down the Palmer line was a Nathaniel (1799-1877) credited with discovering Palmer’s Land in Antarctica. But fourteen generations on, having crossed a continent, my little family and I had the cemetery to ourselves.