Campus & Community

Hidden Spaces: The tiny cemetery

4 min read

At the Arboretum, graves linked to the Revolution

Hidden Spaces is part of a series about lesser-known spaces at Harvard.

Each July 4, as night falls, the Roslindale neighbors who live near Peters Hill in Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum walk to the top. Someone brings a radio, and they listen to the Boston Pops Orchestra play the “1812 Overture” while they watch the fireworks burst brilliantly over the Charles River. Near the base of the hill, among tall trees and along narrow dirt paths, lies a little-known cemetery containing the remains of veterans of the American Revolution and early settlers — an ideal place for pondering the meaning of the nation’s birthday.

The little cemetery, hidden at the far end of the 265-acre Arboretum, holds several headstones and a crypt and was once part of the Walter Street “Berrying” Ground. The “Jamaica End” settlers of the early 1700s belonged to the distant Roxbury town church on Meeting House Hill. The long walk to services was especially difficult during the cold winters, so a group of 44 petitioned to establish a second parish. In 1711 when their petition was ignored, they quietly broke away. Alongside their Walter Street church they built the cemetery, now part of the Arboretum, which was established in 1872.

Under giant Hawthorn trees are the crude, chipping headstones etched with old New England names like Baker, Weld, and Child. The epitaph on the stone of Capt. John Baker underscores the importance of religion to the early Americans. The inscription reads, “Life is uncertain, Death is sure, Sin is the wound, Christ is the cure.” One of the earliest markers is a double headstone for Grace and Benjamin Child, husband and wife. Nearby is the stone marking Benjamin’s brother, Joshua, whose wife Elizabeth is also buried in the area. (According to the 1961 edition of the Arboretum publication “Arnoldia,” Joshua and Benjamin were brothers, born a year apart and baptized the same day, and Elizabeth and Grace were sisters. Each couple had 12 children.)

Around 1902, when the city of Boston was widening Walter Street, workers found 28 other bodies. A marker above the sidewalk reads, “In memory of Soldiers of the Revolution who died in the hospitals at Jamaica Plain and were buried in this lot. 1775-1776.” One account is that the soldiers were killed fighting in the Revolution; another is that they died from smallpox while stationed at nearby Loring-Greenough House, which had been converted to a hospital.

The ancient burial site is a hidden space within a hidden space, far afield from the main Harvard campus. Arnold Arboretum is the second-to last-link in Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a series of connected parks. The views of Boston from this southernmost tip of the park are remarkable. So are the stories of those buried in the tiny cemetery.