Historians, scientists team up to find lost cemetery in Plainfield

Last modified: Monday, August 03, 2015

PLAINFIELD — Tracing a route described in a previously forgotten historical document and culled from the memory of a lifelong town resident, a handful of Plainfield historians and a University of Massachusetts Amherst geoscientist used ground penetrating radar technology on Friday to locate a lost cemetery that dates to the founding of the town.

“For many years there was this legend in Plainfield about a long-lost cemetery that the early pioneers, the first settlers of Hawley and Plainfield, were all buried in, but nobody knew where it ever existed or whatever,” said Frank White, who said he is descended from those early settlers.

With landowner Ronald Beckwith taking the lead in his pickup truck, a group of history-seekers drove into the woods on a one-lane road. Stopping a short ways in, all disembarked and covered the last several yards on foot.

Short, flat stones jutted out of the ground. As White and the others brushed them off and handled the stones, they found more of them forming relatively neat rows. Though they had no names on them, this formation confirmed the suspicion for White.

“You’ve got a cemetery here,” White said to Beckwith.

Joining Beckwith and White on Friday were UMass geoscientist William Clement, genealogy enthusiast Matthew Stowell and Plainfield Historical Society officers Dario Coletta and Lori Austin. Clement brought along radar equipment to scan the ground looking for what was beneath the surface, and Austin brought her camera and notepad to document the trip.

Clement retrieved his equipment from his own truck, returning to the site with a short, two legged, wooden device linked by fiber optical cable to a small computer. Sensors at the ends of each foot sent and received radar signals to create a digital scan of the layers of dirt beneath the stones, Clement said.

White held the device and walked it along the path next to the stones believed to be grave markers, moving it about 10 centimeters every time Clement said the word “move.”

At the end of 10 meters, Clement had a readout on his computer screen that showed disturbances in the soil, which he said could have been made by shovels hundreds of years ago. To get a better sense of the meaning of the data, he said he would need to analyze it back at his university office.

Clement has used radar to find buried objects in the past, but never for a cemetery, he said. On Thursday he practiced on some newer cemeteries to get a baseline understanding of what the data might look like.

While he said it will take weeks for him to get through the data, he said the next step would be to place probes underground to further analyze what — or who — is buried there.

Friday’s data-gathering session was made possible by a document penned in the 1950s by a local historian who believed he found the old cemetery and created a map of how to get there — but that document was lost to time until very recently, White said.

Stowell, a history teacher who lives in Ohio, found the document while researching his own genealogy. He visited the area a few years ago and went through the Plainfield Historical Society’s complete records. Earlier this year Stowell purchased a house in Plainfield that he believes once belonged to his family in the 1800s, and has been spending the summer in Massachusetts.

“We all got excited and said ‘Hey this cemetery probably really does exist where all the early settlers are buried in, and it’s probably even findable,’” White said, adding that he and Stowell share ancestors and met through their shared interest in history.

The cemetery, known as the “old Indian Burying Ground,” likely dates to between 1760 and 1800, according to White. Despite its name, those who gathered on Friday believe it is the final resting place for Plainfield’s first white settlers.

A few weeks ago, Stowell and White led a small group out onto Beckwith’s property.

A lifelong Plainfield resident, Beckwith grew up on the property along with five brothers. He learned of the cemetery from his mother and said she showed the place to him and his siblings. Over time, Beckwith said he lost track of the site, but worked with the others to locate it on his land.

“We never got into it; we never went back and researched it or nothing,” Beckwith said of his family’s relationship to the cemetery. “We knew it was there, and we just said, ‘Ah, it’s there.’”

Beckwith’s family never disturbed the cemetery, and he said he was looking forward to finding out how large it is.

Coletta said he has frequently gone on trips tramping through the woods to search out old artifacts and historic locations.

“I like nothing better than seeking the past traces of Plainfieldians in the cellar holes and old roads,” he said. “It’s a great hobby.”

For Coletta however, this cemetery is special because it is probably the oldest in town and has been lost and rediscovered several times through the generations because of its obscure location.

Information about the graveyard and other topics of historical interest, can be found at www.plainfieldmahistory.org.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.


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