One of the oldest headstones still standing in the Old Burying Ground off the Village Green marks the grave of Asahel Canfield, a boy who died at the age of nine in the year 1761.
The inscription on the stone reads:
Of Asahel ye
Son of Mr ABr
Octobr ye 11 AD
Look on & Se I have 2 Brothers & A sistr
Lies By Me
Today the inscription is just barely legible, and the last two lines of the epitaph lie below the ground. Fortunately, all of the inscriptions from gravestones in the Old Burying Ground were dutifully recorded by hand and then typed into a logbook in 1917. The work was completed by two women with deep family roots in Bedford, Sarah Williamson and Augusta Bates Day. (The two were also among nine founding members of the Bedford Historical Society.) The Old Burying Ground dates to 1681 – so even by 1917 many of its gravemarkers and headstones had been lost to the elements. Miss Williamson and Mrs. Day recognized the importance of recording the information contained on the stones, but never could have anticipated the accelerated rate of erosion due to pollution and acid rain. Many of the oldest headstones in the Old Burying Ground are now illegible. The Williamson/Day inscriptions offer fascinating historical and cultural insight into Bedford’s earliest inhabitants because they include not only names and dates, but also details of relationships, place of birth, cause of death, and epitaphs.
Upon reading the full Asahel Canfield epitaph in the Williamson/Day logbook, the last two lines struck me as quite unusual- “Look on & Se I have 2 Brothers & A sistr Lies By Me”. I delved into the Canfield genealogy, using both town records and the Internet.
Asahel was the third child born to Abraham and Rachel Ketchum Canfield. Records indicate both parents were born in the 1720’s in Connecticut, he in Norwalk and she in Greenwich. They were married in Bedford on January 27, 1748 when Abraham was 28 and Rachel 21.
The first child, Esther, arrived 10 months after they married, in November of 1748. Shortly after followed Nathan (1750), Asahel (1752), Eli (1754), and Ezra (1756). Babies were exclusively breastfed in colonial times, a contributing factor to the typical two-year birth pattern seen here. The pattern was interrupted after Ezra, possibly due to a miscarriage, stillbirth, or unrecorded infant death. The next baby to join the family arrived four years later in October of 1760 and was named Rachel, after her mother.
In the fall of 1761, the Canfield family would suffer tragedy. During just two months, four of the six young Canfield children would die. Genealogical records show that Ezra was the first to pass, on September 15th, just shy of his fifth birthday. He was followed by nine-year-old Asahel on the 11th of October, and seven-year-old Eli on the 21st of October. One-year-old baby Rachel also succumbed during the month of October, the exact day unknown.
In late 18th century colonial America the major contagious diseases were small pox, yellow fever and diphtheria. It is just as likely that an infection like scarlet fever, pneumonia, flu or strep was responsible for the children’s deaths. The toll taken on the Canfield family serves as a striking reminder of just how deadly these now mostly preventable diseases were.
Old Burying Ground records show no separate grave markers existed for any of the other Canfield children who died that fall. It is probable that the cost of multiple headstones was too great an expense for the family. Many graves were marked simply with wooden crosses for just this reason.
So one marker was purchased by the Canfields to mark the burial of four children, but only the eldest child is named on the stone. The others are referenced only in the epitaph – “Look on & Se I have 2 Brothers & A sistr Lies By Me”. The omission of the names of Ezra, Eli and Rachel seems unthinkable to us today.
Looking back to 1761, however, one must remember that death was viewed very differently. The difference might be partially explained by high child mortality rates (estimated by some to have been about 50% before age 5). Death was just an ever-present part of life both at home and on the farm. In addition, there were very different prevailing sentiments about children. Babies and youngsters were not considered to have a fully formed distinctive personality. Today, one can only wonder how a family could move beyond such a tragic loss; for the Canfields there was no option. The family would have prepared the bodies at home for burial, dug the graves, watched the burial, erected the stone, and carried on with life. We know from documents that families throughout the colonies felt deep sadness at the deaths of their children, though they accepted their losses as part of God’s plan.
In December of 1761, Susannah Canfield, grandmother to the Canfield children, also passed away. She was buried near her grandchildren and her grave was marked with a separate headstone of a similar style. One might assume that Susannah was stricken by the same disease that claimed her grandchildren, probably having been exposed while helping to care for them.
Her inscription reads:
In Memory of
Wife of Mr. Can
field She died
Dec 18 1761
Aged 72 Years
Here Lies a body in ye
Tomb as all that’s dead
Must Shourly come
Again, the unsentimental epitaph exemplifies the acceptance of mortality.
Both of the Canfield headstones are thought to be made by Peter Barker, an itinerant stone carver whose work is also found in graveyards in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Barker used whatever local stone was available; his style is characterized by round primitive faces and crude lettering. A note about the spelling: it was very much fluid at this point in time. Once Noah Webster published his first “speller” in 1783, spelling started to become standardized.
The Canfield’s story doesn’t end with their tragic loss. Abraham and Rachel went on to have six more children. Just about a year after the tragedy, a baby girl was delivered on September 30, 1762. She was given the same name as her deceased baby sister, not an uncommon practice for the time.
After Rachel followed Abraham (b. 1764), Enos (b. 1767), Amos (b. 1770), Jehiel (b. 1773) and Samuel (b. 1775). All of these children lived into adulthood –as did the two oldest Canfield children, Esther and Nathan, who were spared that miserable fall of 1761.
As the Revolutionary War broke out, Abraham Canfield was too old to enlist, but some of his brothers served. In July 1779, the Canfield house was looted and set on fire by the British, but the fire was extinguished in time to save the house.
A walk in any of Bedford’s over 30 burying grounds will reveal plenty of child mortality and tragic family loss, but will also show surprising levels of longevity among early Bedford inhabitants. Abraham Canfield lived to the age of 93, dying in 1813. Rachel died the same year, at the age of 85, having given birth to twelve children. The Canfield family continued to thrive in Bedford, subsequent generations are buried in the Old Burying Ground, Bedford Union Cemetery, and St. Matthews Churchyard.
by Jenny Weisburger, President
Friends Of Bedford Burying Grounds