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New Hampshire Old Graveyard Association

May 11, 2002


The spring meeting of the New Hampshire Old Graveyard Association was held at MacGregor Hall of the Derry First Parish Church, Derry, NH on May 11, 2002. President Joan Casarotto presided.


Ralph Bonner, President of the Derry Historical Society, welcomed us. Rick Holmes, President of the Derry Historical Commission, introduced Doug Rathbone, Geographic Systems Coordinator for the Town of Derry, who has developed software for recording cemeteries. This software is based on ArcView, version 3.2a. His duties as GIS Coordinator involve linking data to maps. He used Boy Scouts as volunteers on the project. A number of Eagle Scouts were involved and Stephen Royal made it his Eagle Project. It took one week to identify the location of the stones. After that the recording of the inscriptions began. Using a Palm Pilot hand-held computer, he recorded the data on the stone, its condition, type of stone and whether the deceased was a veteran. Only a few epitaphs were recorded. The software allowed the plotting of deceased by age group. The majority were either the very young or the very old. Plotting by death year revealed an increase in deaths due to the throat distemper epidemic of 1755. Plot maps of the cemetery were also developed. Base points were located using GPS and the precise location of each grave was plotted using an Electronic Distance Measuring device borrowed from the Police Department. During the survey they discovered a pile of footstones removed by a previous sexton and used for the foundation of the tool shed. These were replaced on the graves.


Rick Holmes spoke on the history of Derry. He displayed a piece of Ocean-born Mary’s wedding dress, said to made from the silk given her be the pirate who intercepted their ship on the voyage from Ireland. This piece of the dress is now contained in an archival-quality display case. Cost of the case was $55.00.


The town of Derry was originally Nutfield, settled by Scots-Irish from Ulster. The Scots were largely Presbyterians as opposed to the Episcopal English. Antagonism between the Scots and English was very intense, especially along the English border in the Scottish Lowlands. After the English had conquered Ulster in the sixteenth century, the offered free land there to the Scots. This resulted in a large migration from Scotland to Ireland. In 1789 the Catholic Irish revolted against British rule. During this uprising the Scots’ stronghold was Londonderry, a city with a population of about 100,000. The Scots were besieged in Londonderry for a period of eight months, during which they suffered from starvation. Price lists still exist showing the price of dogs’ heads and rats used for food. Eventually the siege was lifted by British troops and the status quo that existed before the uprising was restored.


In 1714 King George I instituted a number of anti-Presbyterian measures. Taxes and rents were both raised. The Scots began looking for another home. In 1717 they applied for free land in New England. This land would be tax free to survivors of the Siege. They arrived here is 1718.


Nutfield is an English name. The land was primarily meadowland. Mr. MacGregor was the first minister. He is credited with planting the first potato in Derry. In the spring of 1720 the settler were running low on food. A lone Indian, the last remaining member of the local tribe showed them the way to the Amoskeag Falls on the Merrimack where they could fish. The fish caught there saved the settlement. Shortly thereafter the settlement was renamed Londonderry.


Near the meetinghouse stood an old oak tree. In the 1700s the residents used to gather here for the reading of the weekly newspaper. The tree stood for many years. It survived an infestation of gypsy moths in 1914 only to be cut down for firewood in the 1930s. Many people were upset by this loss of an irreplaceable landmark. The loss kindled a preservationist movement in the community, but all that is left of the oak is an old photograph.


John Wight was an early gravestone carver whose work is found in the Derry cemetery. There is very little information about this man. The only evidence that he carved gravestones is a single receipt and two deeds where he listed his occupation as stone carver. He was born about 1702 or 1703. He came to New England in 1718 at age 16. He was accompanied by a Joseph Wight, who was either his father or older brother. He practiced his art for 44 years, during which time he had two wives but only one child. He died in 1775 at the age of 72.


Stones in the cemetery have been categorized by styles, such as pictorial, floral, amorial or archaic. John Wight’s stones have no style to categorize them by. His carving lacks symmetry and he made numerous carving mistakes. The stones are interesting anyway. Wight’s stones are categorized by period. From 1730 to 1750 he carved one type of stone and from 1750 to 1770 he carved a similar but slightly different type. His earlier stones were characterized by the spelling “Here lyeth…” while during his later period he used “Here lyes…”. Towards the end of his life the quality of carving improved noticeably, but this may reflect the work of an apprentice. The material used was largely hard schist, and the letters were all carved in upper case. His carving reflects the Scots dialect. “Me” rhymes with “die”, pronounced by the Scots as “dee”. Wight was the only carver in Derry to use a series of old symbols for decoration. He used a variety of symbols including diamonds, hearts, clubs, spades, coffins, roses and fleur-de-lis. These last he often placed inside the coffin symbol. There has been much speculation as to why he decorated his stones in the manner. Some believe it was intended as pure decoration and that Wight suffered from a fear of empty spaces. Others theorize that the symbols are a series of “grace marks” that tell about the life of the deceased. Still others think that they were a form of hieroglyphics whose meaning has now been lost. The Scots-Irish desired to be separate from the English. Derry was the mother church for Presbyterians, here as many as 1500 people would attend communion, seated in groups of 50 to 100. Communion tokens stamped with the letters “LD” were given to those who had the right to partake, a practice known as “fencing” communion. Perhaps John Wight’s symbols were just another way for the Scots to distance themselves from the English.


Overall the Derry cemetery is a great teaching cemetery, in that it has a little of everything.


After this very interesting talk, the business meeting commenced. Clark Bagnall read the minutes of the fall meeting. Doris Ashton, Corresponding Secretary, noted that she had brought one volume of the scrapbook and it was on display.


Jean Mertinooke read the Treasurer’s report. She reported a balance of $2,373.87 as of April 30th. Her report was filed. She also reminded everyone that dues are due for those who have not paid. Ann Sottery gave the auditors report. She found the books to be in good order and accurate. Her report was accepted.


Clark Bagnall gave the Computer Committee report. Our volunteer to transcribe the Greenland records has run into some difficulties, as the records are not complete enough for our purposes. Over the winter we made good progress on our new web site. Trina Purcell has volunteered to be webmaster. Some of the pressure has been taken off since the Society of Genealogists’ site is now back on-line after being down for several months


Joan Casarotto announced that the Board has proposed a change to the by-laws, to permit the Corresponding Secretary to have an assistant. Full details of the change will be in the next Rubbings and we will vote on it at the summer meeting. In anticipation of this change Trina Purcell has volunteered to take over the queries from Doris Ashton.


The Nominating Committee presented a slate of officers, Joan Casarotto, President; Barbara Benoit, First Vice President; Ingrid Smith, Second Vice President, Clark Bagnall, Recording Secretary; Doris Ashton, Corresponding Secretary; Jean Mertinooke, Treasurer and Trina Purcell, Records Custodian. The slate was elected unanimously.


It was announced that the summer meeting would be held in Goffstown. Lars Nelson will speak on a frame he has developed for repairing gravestones. The fall meeting will be in Centre Harbor; Robert Woodward will be the speaker.


Louise Tallman gave a follow-up report on two items that she had reported at the fall meeting. Bob Goodbye is making progress on returning some human remains to their proper resting place. NHOGA has recommended that the Locke graveyard in North Hampton not be donated to the Locke Family Association. It was felt that such a donation was inappropriate.


After lunch we toured the East Derry Cemetery, the oldest and only cemetery in Derry.


Respectfully submitted,

Clark H Bagnall

Recording Secretary