Old Center Cemetery
Welcome to the Old Center Cemetery! Old cemeteries are some of the best places to encounter the past. Gravestones yield important examples of historical art and language, in addition to providing biographies of local residents. The Old Center Cemetery was established in 1719 when John Janes of the West Division of Hartford (today's West Hartford), deeded a plot of land to Samuel Sedgwick for the exclusive purpose of establishing a "burying yard." Stones located here date from as early as 1725 to as late as 1869, although the majority are from the eighteenth century. Later stones can be found in the Old North Cemetery on North Main Street, founded in 1790.
All of the people buried in the Old Center Cemetery have stories to tell. For some, the story is incomplete, and their lives will remain a secret. For others, it is possible to recreate their lives so fully that it is almost as if the story never ended. Hopefully, as a result of this tour, you have gained a greater knowledge of, and interest in, the history of the town and the people who populated it. Much information can be found through careful study and interpretation of the gravestones themselves. Additional information is available by appointment in the library at the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society, located at 227 South Main Street. Numerous dangers threaten the existence of all old cemeteries. Gravestone rubbings, pollution, and weather both deface and erode the stones, making them illegible, while acts of vandalism result in broken stones, some of which are lost forever. Furthermore, lichens and plants consume gravestones and hide them from the public. Thus, gravestone preservation is critical in order to prevent these crucial pieces of information from being lost forever.
Are you interested in West Hartford's past? Consider becoming a member of the Noah Webster House and Historical Society of West Hartford, please call 860-521-5362. Membership Benefits Include: Free unlimited admission to the museum, Free or reduced admission to many museum programs and events, Free admission to the Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, CT, 10% off facility rentals, 10% off Museum Shop purchases, and subscription to The Spectator newsletter.
Through changing exhibits about West Hartford's history and by collecting and preserving objects, photographs, and documents that tell the story of the town's past, the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society offers something for everyone in your family.
Old Center Cemetery, located on North Main Street, between Loomis Drive and Fern Street1) BOULDER: This was erected by the Sarah Whitman Hooker Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1923. While it is dedicated to the memory of French soldiers who died while encamped in West Hartford, recently it has been discovered that such "Ws, under the leadership of General Rochambeau, may never have been encamped there. Although a camp has been identified on old maps of the town, there may have been a French soldier who died at the camp when it later functioned as a hospital site.
2) CAPTAIN STEPHEN KEYES (1788): Keyes came to the West Division from Pomfret in 1784 with his wife and one of his daughters. He served as commissary captain in the Third Connecticut Regiment during the American Revolution and was one of the West Division's few slave owners. His stone, which is quite extravagant, may be a self-portrait, common among the wealthy. It was around 1800 that gravestones began to laud the individual in terms of his or her worldly accomplishments.
3) NOAH and MERCY WEBSTER (1813 / 1794): The parents of Noah Webster, Jr., Noah and Mercy Webster, had five children, including Noah. Noah Sr. was a deacon and served on the Committee of Correspondence during the American Revolution. The house in which the Websters lived is still standing on South Main Street and was probably built by them. Today, the Noah Webster House is accredited by the American Association of Museums.
4) RACHEL WEBSTER (1776): Rachel, the first wife of Abraham Webster (the oldest brother of Noah Jr.), died at age 21 in childbed. Her baby, Abraham, died one week later and is buried in the cemetery as well. After her death, Abraham marched off to join the army. He later remarried twice.
5) BRISTOL (1814): This is the only known African-American with a marker in the cemetery. He was the slave of Sarah Whitman Hooker and Thomas Hart Hooker, and was able to buy his freedom. He later became esteemed in the West Division for his knowledge of agriculture.
6) AARON CADWELL (1802): Married to Lucy Woodruff of Farmington, Aaron Cadwell had at least two children predecease him. One was stillborn and the other scalded. His gravestone, made of marble, is adorned with an urn and willow motif, a symbol of commemoration, and is typical of the secularization that occurred in the nineteenth century. The phrase "here lies the remains" suggests that only the body of the deceased remains and that the soul has gone to heaven.
7) ZACHEUS BUTLER (1791): Butler owned a cider mill and shop in the North end of the West Division, which he inherited from his uncle Jonathan Cadwell (buried next to him). Aside from cider, the mill sold products such as butter, candles, shoes, and brandy. After his death, his son, Jonathan, carried on the business.
8) EBENEZER WELLS (1766): Accidents were not uncommon in the West Division’s farming community. Ebenezer Wells died at the age of one after drowning in a tub of wort, or unfermented beer. He is one of the youngest individuals buried here.
9) TIMOTHY GOODMAN (1786): Although he married twice, Timothy Goodman has a marker next to his first wife, Joanna; his second wife, Elizabeth Wadsworth, does not have a stone in the burying yard. Goodman owned a slave named George. In 1747 he deeded to the West Division a parcel of land to be used for "a place of parade forever." This still exists today (on a reduced scale) on the northwest corner of Farmington Avenue and is known as Goodman Green.
10) JOHN WATSON, SENIOR (1725): A farmer, John Watson had six children. One son, John Jr., was one of the original members of the West Division's Congregational Church. John Sr.'s marker is one of the earliest in the burying yard. The uppercase lettering, rosettes on the shoulders, and use of floating punctuation between words suggests that it was the work of the Stancliff Shop of Middletown. The Stancliff Shop began as early as 1710 and was the first in the Connecticut Valley to produce tombstone-shaped markers. This shop introduced and popularized the use of rosettes on the shoulders of stones.
11) SKINNER CHILDREN (MABEL / TIMOTHY / ABIGAIL / JAMES: (1743 / 1750 / 1750 / 1750): Of Timothy and Ruth Skinner's seven children, these four predeceased them. Mabel, who was born in 1743, lived only three months. Timothy, Abigail, and James each died in 1750, at the ages of five and three years, and 18 months, respectively, only days apart, in what was probably an epidemic. The older child in each set of double stones has the larger stone. Timothy Jr.'s is the largest of all, probably because he was the oldest.
12) TIMOTHY SKINNER (1779): The father of the Skinner children, Timothy Skinner, died from dysentery at age 78. The winged cherub on his gravestone represents the flight of the soul heavenward. The phrase "in memory of" is typical of later stones and serves to memorialize the deceased. It implies that the body is not necessarily interred beneath.
13) BENJAMIN COLTON (1759): Colton was the first minister of the Fourth Church of the West Division. He served 46 years, from 1713-1759, until his death from measles in 1759. The ornate, elaborate style of his stone was typical of that commonly made for ministers and important figures of the eighteenth-century community. Like Stephen Keyes' stone, it may represent a self-portrait.
14) CAPTAIN SAMUEL SEDGWICK (1735): Married to Mary Hopkins, Samuel Sedgwick may have been a cooper and/or distiller. West Hartford has both a middle school and road named after this family. There is only one other gravestone similar to his in the cemetery (Nathaniel Smith's) and both have been attributed to an anonymous individual known as the "Glastonbury Lady." The carver acquired this name because he was a popular stonecutter in Glastonbury in the 1730s and many of his best stones were made for women.
15) NATHANIEL HOOKER (1770): Hooker was the second minister of the Fourth Church of the West Division and served from 1759-1770. He was also a doctor, which was not unusual for ministers since they were the best educated men in the community. Ironically, he died at age 32 from mercurial poisoning as he attempted to treat himself for consumption (tuberculosis). He has what is known as a "tablestone." Such stones are raised above the ground on pedestals. His stone is now in two pieces. The pedestals are kept at the West Hartford Historical Society.
16) LIEUTENANT JOSEPH GILLITT (1746): Gillitt was one of the 29 original members that formed the West Division's Congregational Church on February 24, 1713. He owned and operated a tanning yard. The house he built is still standing on South Main Street near the Noah Webster House. The motif on his gravestone resembles a skull or death's head, a common theme on early stones which served as a vivid reminder of death and resurrection. Despite the resemblance, however, the motif on his stone probably represents a transition to a winged cherub and not a skull, as it has a human face and lacks death's head teeth.
17) RACHEL MARSHFIELD (1754): One of the oldest people buried here is Rachel Marshfield, who died at age 86. There is no other gravestone like hers in the burying yard. The hourglass with its time run out, and one live and one dead flower severed by a scythe, are all death images that were meant to symbolize the frailty of life. Even the illiterate could understand the message.
18) AMOS BIDWELL (1808): A potter and brickmaker in the West Division, Amos Bidwell operated a tanning yard later in life. He owned 200 acres of land in the Susquehannah Purchase and in 1796 was 50 pounds in debt to Hartford's Grammar School. He was married to Phebe Williams and died from palsy, a type of paralysis.
19) MARY MERRELL (1792): The wife of Jacob Merrell, Mary Merrell, is one of the few women with probate documents. Such documents contain the will, inventories, and codicils of an individual. Merrell's probate records identify a payment of four pounds for her gravestone and name Stephen Brace as her gravedigger. He was paid seven shillings to do so.
20) JACOB MERRELL (1771): Merrell was a cousin to Noah Webster, Jr. and was a farmer and weaver. He died several days after falling on a pitchfork in a farming accident, leaving his widow Mary with the care of eight small children. The epitaph on his gravestone which reads, "the finest flesh is but dust, prepare for death and follow me you must," was meant to warn others of the inevitability of death.