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No. 2274:
Old Graves in an Old Town

Today, old gravestones. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It is a fine sunny autumn day in Bridgehampton, New York. We're far out on southern Long Island, surrounded by upscale homes. But this town is pretty low key. We find a nice lunch at an old-style diner called the Candy Kitchen. Then we stroll along Main Street digesting both the lunch and the town.

graveyardA big old Presbyterian Church sits next to a much older graveyard. So, camera in hand, I walk the rows -- photographing stones, as I wonder who these people were.  Daniel Moore, born a scant 87 years after the Pilgrims landed, departed this life in 1791. Who was Sophia Rysom, born during the American Revolution and died two years before the Civil War? Or Rebeckah Topping who was 12 when the Declaration of Independence was signed in distant Philadelphia.

Deacon Maltby Gelston died nineteen days after the British signed the Treaty of Paris, which acknowledged at last that America was a sovereign nation. No mention of that here. Instead, we find Gelston's will, where he still identifies him as a "Collony of New York Yoeman". And a conventional short poem on the stones warns us away from complacency,

Gelston's no more his Soul has wing'd its way
From sin & darkness to Celestial Day.
Weep reader weep, but not for him thus sigh
Weep for thyself for you like him must die.

I find one stone especially interesting: James Browne, who died in 1788. The presbytery of Suffolk County was organized over at nearby Southampton in 1747. A year later, 28-year-old Browne took the pulpit here, and served throughout our country's emergence. Suffolk County was generally pro-Revolution, but the large and important Battle of Long Island took place far to the west -- in Brooklyn, across the East River from Manhattan.

One key player in that Southampton meeting was Nathaniel Mather of the famous Mather family. A century before, Increase Mather was a Puritan who'd counseled moderation during the Salem Witch Trials. "It is better," he said, "that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned." You and I shrink from the context of that remark; but we'd do well to heed it today -- nevertheless.

Increase Mather's son Cotton Mather lived a questioning life. For example, he got the idea of smallpox vaccination from his African servant and used it in the colonies. And kinsman Nathaniel Mather became a Presbyterian. So James Browne, buried here, represents the settled fruit of the Mather intellectual struggle. 

History swirls through this once remote farming community. We catch a glint of people struggling to determine who we should be in a new nation. I think they got it right. Maybe the fine houses obscure all that, maybe not.

one of the Hampton beaches

In any case, my wife and I turn off to walk a while on the wide empty beach before we have to plunge back into our own hectic lives in a different millennium -- one so distant from the world we glimpsed briefly, in that old graveyard.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For more on the Battle of Long Island, I suggest: D. H. Fischer, Washington's Crossing. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

James Browne's headstone

(all photos by JHL)