Tucked away in the vibrant City of Boston, is a place where the whispers of the past are as vivid as the daily bustle on its busy streets. Copp's Hill Burying Ground is more than a cemetery, it's an iconic symbol of the city's deeply rooted history and the resting place of some of its early influential figures.
Established in 1659, Copp's Hill Burying Ground is nestled in the North End, Boston's oldest neighborhood. Originally known as the North Burying Ground, it's the city's second oldest burying ground. Much like a well-preserved book, this old cemetery unfolds tales of Boston's long-gone days, the Revolutionary War, and the men and women who helped shape the city's unfolding history.
As one walks into Copp's Hill Burying Ground, its antiquity graces the sight with an expansive collection of over 2,300 markers dating back to the 17th century. These centuries-old gravestones, slowly weathered by time, stand in timeless remembrance of those early Bostonians whose contributions to the community have echoed through the ages.
Perhaps the most historically significant aspect of Copp's Hill Burying Ground is its connection to the American Revolution. During the Siege of Boston in 1775-1776, British soldiers occupied the area, turning the cemetery into a strategic military position. The hill's high vantage point provided an unobstructed view of the Charles River and Charlestown beyond, making it an ideal location for spotting and launching artillery attacks. Some of the soldiers found an unusual sport in firing bullets at the gravestones, leaving their mark on some. Their favorite target was the stone of Daniel Malcom, a prominent merchant who openly opposed the Revenue Acts on America. His inscription proudly proclaims that he was "A true Son of Liberty, a friend to the publick, an enemy to oppression, and one of the foremost in opposing the Revenue Acts on America." Malcom's demise in 1769 added a touch of irony to the soldiers' antics.
Many notable individuals also found their eternal rest here. These include Robert Newman, famed for placing the signal lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church that spurred Paul Revere's legendary ride, and Edmund Hartt, the master shipbuilder who constructed the revered U.S.S. Constitution. An array of esteemed merchants, artisans, clergy, and African Americans, like Prince Hall, a prominant abolitionist and founder of Black Freemasonry, also lie within these grounds.
The most famous individual consigned to Copp's Hill Burying Ground is Cotton Mather, whose mortal remains rest eternally within the Mather family tomb. Members of the Mather family are quite distinguished. Increase Mather, the prominent Puritan minister, and his son Cotton, was a prolific writer and historian. Their lasting impact on colonial New England, evident in their significant contributions to literature, religion, and society, has left an indelible mark.
But history has been savage to Cotton Mather. He was a prominent figure in early American history, and played a significant role during the infamous Salem Witch Hysteria. As a Puritan minister and influential writer, Mather was deeply involved in the Salem community, and his writings and sermons had a considerable impact on the public's perception of the witch trials. While he never directly participated in the trials, he fervently supported the proceedings, believing in the existence of witches and the devil's influence on society. Mather's influential book, "Wonders of the Invisible World," published in 1693, defended the trials and presented a collection of accounts and testimonies, adding fuel to the hysteria. Even today, Cotton Mather remains a complex and controversial figure, a symbol of the turmoil and paranoia that engulfed Salem during one of the darkest chapters in American history.
One particularly striking triple headstone near the center of Copp's Hill marks the grave of the Worthylake family, whose story was immortalized by Benjamin Franklin in a ballad called "The Light House Tragedy." This hauntingly beautiful ballad commemorates a tragic event that took place in 1718, leaving a lasting impact on the hearts of those who visit
Copp's Hill Burying Ground, although holding an ambiance of solemnity inherent to graveyards, offers an undeniable cultural wealth observable in the details of its gravestones. Many tombstones showcase the death's head motif, a popular colonial symbolism of mortality, while others exhibit an evolution to cherubs and then, the willow and urn motif in the 18th century, giving visitors a visual chronicle of funerary history.
Particularly intriguing is the graveyard's "Negros Burying Ground," which is located in the northeast corner of the cemetary. It's a testament to the brutal history of segregation and slavery in Massachusetts. Slaves and free blacks were buried in this isolated section, often without stone markers. Their unmarked burial plots, in stark contrast with the elaborate gravestones of notable white Bostonians, serves as a poignant reminder of the societal divisions of the past. It is unknown how many African-Americans repose there. Prince Hall died in 1807, and a small slate tablet marks his grave. The Freemasons placed an large granite memorial next to his grave in 1835, which is a testament to his service to the community and for serving as the first African-American Grand Master of a Mason lodge in Massachusetts.
A visit to Copp’s Hill Burying Ground is undeniably a journey through time. Reverberating with the silent echoes of Boston's vibrant past, this historical landmark continues to stand as a dignified sentinel of history, offering visitors a rare glimpse into the lives and deaths of the city's forebears, their trials, accomplishments, and contributions to Boston as we know it today. As visitors walk through its hallowed paths, they not only pay their respects to those who came before but also bear witness to the unfolding narrative of a city that played a pivotal role in shaping the nation's history.
Copp's Hill Burying Ground
Hull Street near Snowhill Street, Boston, MA 02113
Nearest MBTA: North Station (Green & Orange Lines)
Walking Directions: Exit the station. Facing the TD Garden arena, walk to the right (east) down Causeway Street. Cross North Washington Street, there will be a on the left which crosses the Charles River. Walk two blocks further east and take a right onto Hull Street. The burying ground is up the hill on the left. Alternatively, from Faneuil Hall, follow the Freedom Trail through the North End (about 25 minute walk). It's the next "stop" after the Old North Church.