Skulls of history in a forgotten tomb

Where was he, the most noteworthy man who ever called my town home?

Back and forth I wandered, searching. Where was the life-sized portrait of Sir William Pepperrell?

At the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, nobody seemed to know, at least not the two young gallery guards I asked. At last, an older gentleman led me through American Decorative Arts to my baron.

We turned a corner and came upon an entire wall taken up by the portrait, which easily was one of the largest on display at the PEM. But even here, Sir William was largely forgotten, just another guy on the wall.

Sir William Pepperrell, painted in 1745 by John Smibert, to commemorate the successful Siege of Louisbourg.

Sir William Pepperrell, painted in 1745 by John Smibert, to commemorate the successful Siege of Louisbourg, at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

Such is the fleeting nature of fame  — even when you were once one of the wealthiest and most famous men in the American colonies, and the only American-born Englishman ever awarded a baronetcy.

Reproductions of this portrait of Colonial William Pepperrell (the rags-to-riches orphan who built the Pepperrell Mansion in the late 1600s) are found in several 19th century histories.  I have been unable to locate the name of the artist or the current owner/location of the portrait, which may or may not be that of the first William Pepperrell.

Reproductions of this portrait of the first William Pepperrell are found in several 19th century histories.

The Pepperrells were upstarts start-from-nothing Americans. Sir William’s father, William Pepperrell, came to New England as a teenaged orphan working on a cod fishing boat at the Isles of Shoals, just off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire.

After completing his apprenticeship, young Pepperrell used his earnings to buy his first boat. Eventually, he bought more boats, leased them out, and combined his knowledge of the fishery with his business acumen to build an empire. His 1682 Pepperrell Mansion still dominates Kittery Point’s Pepperrell Cove neighborhood today.

William, his son, expanded the empire and became a colonial real estate magnate, buying up property on Maine’s coast from Kittery to Scarborough. Both father and son, however, did more than count their dollars.  William senior helped to establish establish Kittery’s First Congregational Church, and was active in civic affairs, a legacy continued by his son, who served as a court judge and commanded the local militia.

By the 1740s, Kittery Point had little need for an active militia, as the threat of Indian raids on the coast had faded.  But Britain and France remained engaged in warfare. In 1745, Massachusetts Governor William Shirley, abetted by others, decided that the colonists should try to dislodge the French from their fort at Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. He asked William Pepperrell (the son) to raise an army of 4,000 men and take command of an expedition upon Louisbourg.

Pepperrell had no military field experience.  When he accepted the command of this inexperienced citizen-soldier army, he knew the outcome was far from certain.

Long story short: After a lengthy siege, Pepperrell’s force, aided by the British Navy, captured the fort, and King George II made him a baronet. The American who had commanded the force that defeated a European army returned home to much acclaim.

Three years later, New Englanders had to swallow a bitter pill when the fort was returned to France as part of a swap for a British fort captured by the French in India. But the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle couldn’t take away that fact that the colonials had learned, under Pepperrell, that they could hold their own against professional soldiers – a lesson the next generation remembered 30 years later on the eve of the American Revolution.

Sir William Pepperrell, some say, became an inspiration for New England’s patriots. Conveniently, he passed away in 1759, so he could be remembered for Louisbourg without having to declare himself a Patriot or a Loyalist, as his Loyalist grandson William Pepperrell had to do. In 1774, his fellow citizens recalled Pepperrell as a “great American.”

In the 1730s (or possibly earlier), William built a large tomb for his father – a crypt dug into the side of a hill on a field across from the Pepperrell Mansion. A slab of imported marble capped the tomb, and the first William, who lived into his 80s, was interred there in 1734.  Later, other family members joined the patriarch, including the Hero of Louisbourg.

A postcard depicting the Pepperrell Tomb circa 1910-1920, when the tomb was a tourist attraction for the thousands of visitors who stayed in Kittery's five Gilded Age hotels.

A postcard depicting the Pepperrell Tomb circa 1910-1920, when the tomb was a tourist attraction for the thousands of visitors who stayed in Kittery’s five Gilded Age hotels (Postcard Collection, Portsmouth Atheneum).  The trees are no longer standing, but the basic appearance of the tomb today is the same.

But by the mid-19th century, Sir William’s tomb had fallen into disrepair. Writing in 1875, popular historian Samuel Drake noted that when the tomb was repaired, at the behest of Pepperrell descendent Harriet Hirst Sparhawk, “the remains were found lying in a promiscuous heap at the bottom, the wooden shelves at the sides having given way, precipitating the coffins upon the floor of the vault. The planks first used to close the entrance had yielded to the pressure of the feet of cattle grazing in the common field, filling the tomb with rubbish. About thirty skulls were found in various stages of decomposition.”

These skulls inside the Pepperrell Tomb are likely the remains of different members of the Pepperrell family, including Sir William. The photo, courtesy of the Portsmouth Atheneum, was probably taken by descendent and local historian Joe Frost, as it was found tucked into a book he had given the Atheneum.

These skulls inside the Pepperrell Tomb are likely the remains of various members of the Pepperrell family, including (possibly) Sir William. The photo was probably taken in the 1970s by descendant and local historian Joseph Frost, as it was discovered tucked into a book he had given the Atheneum (Joseph W.P. Frost Collection, Portsmouth Atheneum).

Although the tomb was repaired then, it has repeatedly fallen into a cycle of neglect and renovation. Another source notes that at the turn of the 20th century, young boys played games in and around the tomb.  For many years, the Pepperrell Family Association maintained the tomb, but that organization disbanded in 1937, probably because its members had died, or moved away, or lost interest in a now-distant ancestor. At that time, according to notes and documents in the Frost Collection at the Portsmouth Atheneum, the tomb plot was signed over to a relative in a distant state.

For years, it seems, care of the tomb has depended on happenstance and somebody taking an interest. At the time of Drake’s writing, the proprietor of the Pepperrell Hotel, which overlooked the tomb, took an interest. But because the tomb is sort of an island onto itself, not in a cemetery, not in somebody’s backyard, it is easily forgotten.

At the Kittery Naval and Historical Museum, visitors can look at mourning rings crafted to commemorate the death of Sir William Pepperrell.  These rings were worn by relatives and others to show they were in mourning.  We should do more of that kind of memorial today, although the cost of purchasing 14K gold rings for a large number of mourners is probably reserved to the  1%,  as was likely also the case in 1759.

At the Kittery Naval and Historical Museum, visitors can look at mourning rings crafted to commemorate the death of Sir William Pepperrell. The family distributed these rings to mourners.  I like the idea of this tradition — a small but public display of mourning — although I’m sure the cost of the rings limited the practice to wealthier Americans.

In more recent times, local historian and Pepperrell descendent Joseph Frost (now deceased) corresponded with state officials and others, trying to get a person, a state agency, or some entity to take responsibility for the tomb, to assure that it didn’t again fall into a state of disrepair or neglect (Joseph W. P. Frost Collection, Portmouth Atheneum).

Back in the early 1960s, two people who claimed to represent the disbanded Pepperrell Family Association filed a quit-claim deed signing the lot over to the owner of Frisbee’s Store. He built a parking lot on the lower part of the tomb plot and carried out his obligations, per the deed, to maintain the tomb.  But eventually, the tomb was forgotten again, with brush, grass and trees growing up around it.

I’m still not exactly sure who or what “owns” the tomb, but in 2008, volunteers from the Friends of Fort McClary cleaned up the tomb.  Once again, Kittery’s forgotten hero was remembered. Today, a small American flag and the Union Jack flutter on grassy knoll across the street from Frisbee’s.

I wonder how many years will pass before we forget him again. I know that with volunteers, keeping something going often depends on one or two key people. They get sick, or move away, or die, or just get weary of responsibility.

Is forgetting the tomb an inevitable result of our on-to-go individualistic American lives? I haven’t visited the grave of my paternal grandparents since my grandmother died in the 1970s. I’ve visited the grave of my maternal grandparents once or twice in 15 years. I don’t even know the locations of the graves belonging to my great-grandparents, even though one great-grandmother lived long into my adulthood.

But my great-grandmother didn’t lead an expedition that inspired  a generation of Americans that they had it in them to win a war against a world power.  That’s a man worth remembering.

Front view of the Pepperrell  Mansion, looking out towards Pepperrell Cove.

Front view of the Pepperrell Mansion, looking out towards Pepperrell Cove.  The first William Pepperrell built this house, on a plot of land given to him by his father-in-law, John Bray, who lived next door.  Sir William the son  lived here with his family until his death in 1759, when Lady Mary Pepperrell built her own more modern mansion town the street.

PS: Readers, if you know anything more about the tomb, please add your comments or email me, and I will update the information in this post.

Sources and resources

For more on the Pepperrells, I especially recommended the last chapter of my book, Pioneer on a Mountain Bike, along with my posts, “Ghost of a Pepperrell Lady“, “Globalization,circa 1807, curses the Lady Pepperrell House“and “Nathaniel Sparhawk and the Art of Swagger.”

The Kittery Naval and Historical Museum has several Pepperrell artifacts on display, including — possibly — a telescope that William might have used at Louisbourg.

For more on 18th and 19th century mourning rings, see Historic New England’s online exhibit, Not Lost But Gone Before: Mourning Jewelry.

Drake, Samuel Adams.  Nooks and Crannies of the New England Coast. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1875.

 

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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