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Mass. cemetery to recognize its Revolutionary War heroes

By Doug Fraser
Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.

February 22. 2018 6:59PM




PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — A raw sea fog snaked inland under the pines as Amy McGuiggan made her way among the gray stones of the Winthrop Street Cemetery, looking for a familiar name.

Joshua Mayo’s headstone was half-buried in pine needles. The blue-gray slate was mostly free of lichen, and the crisp lettering topped by a scalloped urn gave his particulars.

McGuiggan knew Mayo had been born in Eastham, Mass., and that his family had moved to Provincetown when he was 12. He married Martha “Patty” Nickerson; they were the parents of 11 children, five of whom died in infancy. He’d served as a selectman and town treasurer.

One important detail left off the stone was his service as a Revolutionary War soldier as a private in Capt. Eleazer Hamlin’s company, in the Massachusetts Regiment serving in Bedford and Falmouth.

It’s an omission McGuiggan and former cemetery commissioner, the late Richard Olson, have worked hard to correct — not just for Mayo, but for five other Revolutionary War soldiers and patriots interred at the cemetery. A seventh correction is pending and four others are being researched.

Six granite stones with brass plaques denoting name, biographical details and designation as a Revolutionary War soldier or patriot will be placed at the graves of the six men at a ceremony planned for April 16, Patriots Day.

“It’s not every day when the Revolutionary War becomes contemporary,” said McGuiggan, a Hingham, Mass., resident who has family roots in Provincetown dating back to the 17th century. Four years ago, she was working with Olson on writing a booklet documenting the town’s cemeteries when she noticed dates on headstones at the Winthrop Street Cemetery that put the grave’s occupants in the Revolutionary War era.

“I said, ‘Hey, these guys could be Revolutionary War soldiers,’” McGuiggan recalled saying to Olson.

It took years of detective work, complicated by the fact that Provincetown’s original town hall had burned down in 1877, taking much of the paperwork documenting the town’s human history with it.

But there are other resources. The gravestones note date of death, age and, sometimes, names of relatives. Massachusetts also has a digitized record of soldiers and sailors who served in the Revolutionary War. It details which regiment or other military unit the individual joined, payroll records and sometimes more detailed records relating to war pensions.

Working with the Provincetown Cemetery Commission and the Captain Joshua Gray-Jonathan Hatch chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the DAR’s Cape Cod chapter, McGuiggan submitted the information to DAR historians for verification.

“Ultimately, what our purpose was, was to identify what now becomes Provincetown’s first veterans,” McGuiggan said.

Private donations, including contributions from a descendant, the local DAR, and the Provincetown Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, paid for the granite stones and bronze plaques.

Six soldiers and patriots were authenticated in the first round, but the seventh, Elisha Freeman, required more research. His particulars matched four other Elisha Freemans in other Cape towns. A little more detective work and testimony from another researcher established that the five Elisha Freemans in question were one Provincetown man who had enlisted in a number of militias in various towns on Cape.

“He had done five tours of duty,” McGuiggan said.

The Cape was tested during the Revolution, when the British navy shut down fishing and shipping, the area’s dominant industries. British frigates anchored in Provincetown’s deepwater harbor, and Cape towns were constantly under the threat of attack. Soldiers who didn’t ship out with the Continental Army for battlefields far from home were often called up for a defense of the coast.

The war drained the Cape of resources and men, and the state had to forgive taxes because Cape towns were too poor to pay them. But the sea beckoned and turned things around.

A sandy path in the cemetery led to a slight rise in the forest floor and one of McGuiggan’s favorite stones. Capt. Solomon Cook, born in Provincetown in 1737, was nearly 40 when the war began. He was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Stephen Hopkins and served as a selectman during the war, which qualified him for a marker as a patriot.

But he is even more important as the owner of one of the town’s first whaling vessels and a member of one of its richest, most industrious families. The family would help lead Provincetown out of poverty and into a golden age when as many as 700 vessels crowded its harbor and it was the richest town, per capita, in the state by the mid-1800s.

Despite that wealth, the Winthrop Street Cemetery has no manicured lawn, no grid of gravel paths under stately trees with headstones set in neat rows. This is a hummocky plot of land, with a thin layer of peat topping white sand. Sandy paths lead to old stones grouped by families under scrub pines.

“When I was working on the (Provincetown cemeteries) brochure, I really felt like I knew these people,” McGuiggan said. “I feel for these people as real people.”


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