A search for some old relatives is what brought me to the Claypit Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts, a couple of days after Christmas. I thought I'd take advantage of the (relatively) warm weather to find a tiny hidden plot near the Merrimack River. An article in a local newspaper had piqued my interest. It described a forgotten cemetery which held the remains of the earliest white settlers of that area, including the Colburns—my grandmother's family name.
Because I grew up with no knowledge of the existence of these distant relatives, a forgotten burial ground seemed like the perfect place for them to be. In fact, I had been told the Colburns, whom I knew to be settlers of northern Nova Scotia, were Scotish. My father was told that, too. I wonder, how far does that misunderstanding go? Or was it a cover-up? It turns out my ancestor, Richard Colburn, the Nova Scotia settler, was from Massachusetts, and on the wrong side of American history—siding with the British in the Revolutionary War. He left for Canada with other Loyalists, with a land grant—a sort of conciliation prize. Generations later, my great grandfather emigrated from Canada to Massachusetts and I wonder if he knew he was actually of early American stock—from England, not Scotland, and that his relatives arrived in Boston in 1635.
The tiny Claypit Cemetery was as hidden as advertised. It was not on any street, but between land parcels. It sat in the woods—behind a bowling alley and between an abandoned drive-in movie theater and the beginnings of a Cambodian Buddhist Community. (It was the Buddhists who were inspired to festoon the borders of their property and some elements within the cemetery, with pennant strings, like those you see around used car dealerships.)
All of the seventeen headstones lay on their backs. A good many of them were indeed Colburns, and some from the Revolutionary War era. One was even marked pointing out that a War for Independence veteran lay below—a veteran on the Patriots’ side, and perhaps rolling over in his grave, as a distant relative of enemy-cousin Richard Colburn was visiting.
What I chose to draw that day was a tragically ironic scene found among the graves. I drew a charmingly carved gravestone on which was written:
In blooming youth, one moment stood,
The next was call'd t'the bar of God.
Think Reader can thy heart endure
A summons to a bar so pure?
Above the poem was carved:
In Memory of
Aaron Coburn Son of M' Eleazer & Mrs. Bridget Coburn,
who was suddenly killed by the fall of a tree,
on the 13th day of Jan' 1789
in the 21st year of his age
I drew the stone, where I found it: on its back, below a tree.