Unvisited Tombs and Unfound Skulls

I grew up in Durham, New Hampshire, a small town with little to distinguish it but the siting of the University of New Hampshire in the early part of last century. Because of its UNH DNA, Durham has quite an elevated view of itself, and those of us from the town share that feeling. College towns are by nature filled with transients—a quarter or more of the student population turns over every year, and no campus is complete with academic gypsies and hangers-on, adjuncts and instructors of various kinds. Still, Durham did have a core population of tenured professors, college administrators, farmers and descendants of the families that gave names to its streets.

My mother moved to Durham in 1939, when she was 10. My grandfather, Phil Barton, after running schools in Colebrook and Weare for 10 years, was invited to UNH to teach and start the Thompson School of Applied Science, an affiliated two-year degree program. Without wanting to besmirch his memory—something I’ve done enough of in other areas—I must point out UNH honored him in 1970 by building the ugliest building on campus and naming it after him. You could look it up.

Since my mother grew up in Durham, at least from the age of 10 or so on, my roots in town were well-established. When she went to work for the Durham Trust Company (which became Durham Bank, which became part of Portsmouth Bank which became so watered-down I lost track), I was in fourth or fifth grade. Her job, I believe, was to be a familiar face to old Durham families who banked there. I mean, if Bev Barton Howard worked there, the bank must still be a reliable local institution. She was a bellwether of safety and stability, despite having me as a son. (As an aside, when she retired from the bank in the 1980s, she was an officer, yet still made less than the youngest and newest male bank employee.)

White settlers have lived where I grew up since the early 1600s.  In that time, a bunch of people have shuffled off this mortal coil—or been dragged as corpses out the front door to the back forty.  Regardless of how they left this plane of existence, their bodies had to be buried some place.  As a child, walking through the woods behind my house, I thought nothing of coming upon five or eight blocks of granite with or without markings on them.  Just another graveyard—rocks holding down the souls of unknown dead.  Unkempt graves were a given of my childhood.

Each one of those stones though, represented a human, a man, woman or child who once ran and sang and loved and wept.  Now, all that is left of that dance they danced for 80 years or 80 minutes of life is a rock in the woods, bound eventually to be removed so a house or garage could be built.

The one thing I can know about the bodies buried in those unvisited tombs—they hadn’t died by duel or by suicide.  Dead duelists were buried coffin-less with a stake through their hearts while suicides in early New England were buried on the main road with a cartful of stones thrown down on them.  I know of no record of a man committing suicide in the midst of a duel, so I can offer no enlightening trivia on how this was handled.

Before UNH came to Durham, it was known mainly, if at all, for the Oyster River Massacre in 1694, where more than 100 settlers were killed by Abenaki Indians under the command of French leaders, hosted by the local Durham folks.  (The choice of the word “hosting” in the previous sentence gives the whole thing an upbeat and collegiate sound. More than 200 years before Durham became a college town, its settlers were playing a home-and-home series with the Indians—“you may have killed us today, but we’ll slaughter you next time!” one can picture a survivor calling out good-naturedly before turning to bury the dead and extinguish the fires.) Although I didn’t know any of the victims personally, not being born for more than 250 years after the mishap, the Oyster River Massacre played a larger role in my childhood than any other pre-Revolutionary act.

Beards Landing, the street I grew up on, was named after, I believe, William Beard, who was killed in a raid before the massacre. He was beheaded and his severed skull impaled on a post outside his garrison. Behind the locked doors, his family was able to observe his death and desecration. As a boy, I knew about burial rites for suicides and duelers, but found no information about the beheaded—for some reason, I assumed their bodies and heads were dragged into the woods. Much of my childhood was devoted to searching for Beard’s skeleton in the woods behind my house, a pleasant childhood pastime. I suspect it’s still there.

The massacre is commemorated by a very nice and romantic park off Route 108 (Newmarket Road) in Durham.  At sunrise or dusk, the park is the perfect place to take a lady friend to convince her of your sensitive nature.  Looking thoughtfully into the sunrise to the right or the sunset to the left, sigh and say, “Ahhhh, the humanity. Why must we treat each other so?”

She will be yours.

And you can go hand-in-hand to search for skeletons.


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