For those interested in early American history, a trip to the Myles Standish Cemetery could be in order. This small, 1.5-acre plot of land is the oldest maintained cemetery in the United States and is said to be the resting place of the famous Captain Myles Standish himself. You can find this ancient burying ground in Duxbury, Massachusetts where it was in use between the years of 1638 and 1789. The cemetery fell into disrepair after it was abandoned for a larger space but was reclaimed and excavated in 1887 when interest in Pilgrim history grew. It is now owned and maintained by the Duxbury Rural Society and was inducted into the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.
Duxbury itself was inhabited by settlers from Plymouth County in 1627, and after petitioning for their own Meeting House, the area became an official town. Soon after the meeting house was built in 1638 a burying ground was required. Settlers built this early cemetery nearby, and a stone can still be found in the area today to designate where that first meeting house was. The first inhabitants to pass away were buried with markers made from simple stones or wooden crosses. These have unfortunately deteriorated and been lost to time. It’s believed that most, if not all, of Duxbury’s first residents were buried in this cemetery, but their resting places are unknown.
Only approximately 130 marked headstones remain in the Myles Standish Cemetery today. The oldest carved memorial belongs to Captain Jonathan Alden who passed away in 1697. His parents were John Alden and Priscilla Mullins Alden, both passengers on the Mayflower. This stone is, however, an outlier as most surviving memorials date between the 1760s and 1770s. It’s believed only about 34 headstones pre-date 1750. While this was once a popular resting place with crowded markers, the few that remain are sparse and scattered.
Uncovering the Forgotten
In 1785 the city of Duxbury moved its primary burying site to the new Mayflower Cemetery. With this move, the old burying ground fell into disrepair and was eventually forgotten; it became a regular grazing area for local cattle. This could have been the end for what would become the Myles Standish Cemetery, but in 1858 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “The Courtship of Myles Standish” which renewed interest in Pilgrim history. Duxbury had fallen into economic hardship, but with increased tourism from their historic connections, they were able to focus attention and money on the forgotten burying ground. Around 1887 the Duxbury Rural Society was formed and set out to repair and restore the old cemetery. They removed brush, put up a fence to deter wandering cattle, and repaired any headstones they could. The property has been kept and maintained as a local historic site ever since.
What About Myles Standish?
With the influx of visitors to the newly restored Myles Standish Cemetery came questions about where this famous man was actually buried. Throughout the 1880s there was a great deal of debate about where he was interred, and after much research, it was agreed that he was likely in the center of the cemetery below two pyramid-shaped stones. The Duxbury Rural Society wanted more than an assumption and chose to exhume the area in 1889 to much dissent. Two bodies were exhumed, one elderly male and one young female, but with no definitive evidence they were re-interred.
Just a couple of years later, in 1891, Reverend Eugene J.V. Huiginn received permission to perform yet another exhumation after proposing the area investigated wasn’t large enough. He and his team excavated and uncovered 4 sets of remains: an elderly man, 2 adult women, and a young boy. The ages and genders were identified by Dr. Wilfred G. Brown of Duxbury. Huiginn asserted that the man was Captain Myles Standish, the women were his daughter and daughter-in-law, and the boy was his son. This was accepted due to ages consistent with their death records. Standish and his family were then re-interred. A large memorial was placed over the burial site, leaving the original stone markers intact in the center. The new marker is comprised of large stone walls creating a rectangular monument with life-sized canons on each corner.
But this isn’t the end of the story for this historic cemetery. A third exhumation of Standish’s body was performed in 1931 due to his family’s request for a casket that would better preserve his remains. Standish was exhumed and placed in a copper box which was then surrounded by a cement chamber. Additionally, markers have been placed as recently as 1971 by descendants of members of Duxbury to honor their family members. These include stones for George Soule, and John and Priscilla Alden, all passengers of the Mayflower. Duxbury has worked hard to maintain this burying ground’s rich history; be sure to visit and explore the next time you’re in Massachusetts.