Grave Lessons

August 20th, 2011 by Magdalena Tabor
Some may think it rather strange or morose but I enjoy visiting local graveyards; the family plots that stem back to the time of the Revolution. They speak to me in the language of the day, not in the audible sense but in parting words inscribed on the stones themselves. I always begin by picking out the oldest headstones first, working my way up to the late 1800’s. Unfortunately, many of the oldest ones are so time worn by the elements that the writing has been completely obliterated – not even the identity of the person is revealed. Rather sad but reflective of the passing of time and the certainty that nothing lasts forever – not man, not stone. Some stones are so broken that they have been laid flat on the ground where they will weather even further. I’ve seen gravestones on Cape Cod that have been wrapped in a coil of iron to hold them together upright, a form of ingenuity our forefathers would appreciate. Material such as marble, while beautiful, wears away over the years but the reddish looking ones made of sandstone have stood the test of time, its durability made legible even as far back as the 1700’s. Thus, today’s oldest find dates from 1713 – a Major Thomas Jones from the “Kingdom of Ireland” – “From distant lands to the wild waste he came”. One must ponder how suburban Massapequa must have been in those days. Major Jones lies buried behind the Old Grace Church founded in 1844. Various members of the Floyd-Jones family lay claim  to this land as their final place of rest just within sight of the circa 1870 family servants cottage; a small narrow 2 story structure painted an earthy red, its eyes shut tight with thick white boards as if it can’t bear to see what’s happened 141 years later. Sadly, the earlier brick built family home the Major had erected fell into disrepair and was later destroyed by fire.  It was situated on the banks of the Massapequa Creek next to an old Indian path known today as Merrick Rd.
But who was Major Thomas Jones? I decided to look him up and found to my amazement that he was none other than the namesake for Jones Beach and responsible for the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses”. Born in 1665 and descended from a noble Irish family, he served in battle under William III in England and under James II of Ireland. He gained a reputation for privateering under King James II (aka piracy made respectable under royal command) but upon the dethroning of the monarch, the Major was among those asked to leave the country. He set his sights on Jamaica (more piracy and looting) before landing in Rhode Island where he became acquainted with his future father-in-law, Captain Thomas Townsend, a wealthy Long Island landowner. He was introduced to daughter Freelove (sounds like a 1960’s name) who must have put her foot down on the piracy business  for there was no more talk of that. They married in 1692 and he in turn kept her busy with 7 children.  Freelove was of a prominent Quaker family from Norwich, England having acquired land grants from William the Conqueror. Upon their marriage in the New World, a large tract of land was gifted by the father of the bride – land formerly belonging to the Massapequa Indians making Thomas and Freelove the first recorded non-Indian Massapequa settlers. The amount of land Major Jones amassed upon his marriage must have been considerable judging from his resting place in Massapequa to Jones Beach in Wantagh several miles apart, as that portion of land officially became known as Jones Beach State Park, the nautical vision of Robert Moses in 1929. The Floyd-Jones name alone traces back to the time of King James II, 628 years to date. What a lineage.  Are you “keeping up?” To add further interest, Freelove was a Townsend whose family was related to the Townsends of Oyster Bay, which held an important role in George Washington’s spy ring.
So you see, a visit to the local graveyard is a lesson in history, a kind of time travel backwards. I would love to experience the progression of time from 1700 Long Island (or even earlier) and witness its gradual change to present day. What was once a vast “wild waste” has been chiseled away to just an acre or so, its surrounding countryside parceled off and hemmed in by modern day homes. A car crunches on the graveled semi-circular drive. A young woman emerges dressed conspicuously in black leggings and a black tank top bearing deep red flowers for one of the newer gravesites. The Floyd-Joneses forgotten and remembered. The graveyard is a lesson in life – not death. A place where the living can contemplate what life might have been like all those years ago. It’s all part of the journey. Two young girls inspect the stones in present day Massapequa. For them, the journey is just beginning. I walk away conscious of my own breathing, my senses sharpened in the salty air. History beneath the soles of my feet.
So……………whadayathink? Are you as fascinated as I am about early American history? Do you slow down every time you see a family owned graveyard and wonder about its inhabitants?
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4 Responses to “Grave Lessons”

  1. Sal Paradise Says:

    Beautifully written piece, Magdalena. I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and during the 18th and 19th centuries it was apparently not uncommon for the deceased to be interred on their family’s own land. Within five miles of my house are at least a half dozen 150-250 year old family cemeteries, most of them consisting of 10-15 headstones and now incongruously (perhaps defiantly) bordering shopping plazas and housing developments.

  2. magdalena Says:

    Interesting commentary, Sal. I recall having read an article in the NY Times some time ago that had to do with the purchase of property containing gravesites. It’s illegal to bulldoze them to make way for developments, so it’s interesting to find them “defiantly” coexisting with contemporary housing. I was on a tour of some of the local gravesites in Oyster Bay, Long Island last fall and was surprised to be led to places wedged between people’s backyards or along a cliffside out of sight. Small remnants of our past still clinging to modern day America.

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