September 7: Ancient Dirt and Old Stones

For me, New England road trips in early September are fraught. I want foliage above my sunroof this time of year, but it’s too early for that, even in the most northerly edges of the region. That sort of means it doesn’t matter which direction I point my hood rust at this time of year, right? Unfortunately, no. Like if I go to northern Vermont too early, it means I’ll probably not take that route again the rest of the season. So I need to save those trips.

Still, we really wanted to jump in the car and get out into the world because bright orange blobs are starting to appear on farm stands and the air was cold-clean, the only way I like to breathe it. So we decided to go sideways to the North Shore of Massachusetts—the stretch of coastline between Boston and New Hampshire—where we hit up three sites we’ve never been to before.

The first was in Salisbury, at the Salisbury Colonial Burying Ground (established 1639). In many ways, it’s your typical New England colonial cemetery. Small, with lots of broken and missing stones, evocative engravings on the crowns (although no classic winged skulls here). But I wasn’t there for the ambiance. I was there for Mary Bradbury.

Mary Bradbury was in her late 70s when she was accused, tried, and convicted of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. Apparently, there were some among the god-fearin’ who believed she could take on animal forms, including that of a blue boar. However, despite being convicted of being said blue boar, she was able to wait out her sentence until the trials disbanded. She lived for another eight years, dying in 1700 at age 85.

She is also, as I found out while visiting the Salem Witch Museum while I was writing A Season with the Witch, the ancestor of none other than Ray Bradbury himself (and for those of you who picked September 7 as the first mention of Ray Bradbury in this OTIS Halloween Season, please claim your prize). You can read about that moment here.

So it’s a fascinating grave for me for all those reasons: Colonial, witchery, and Ray Bradbury.

The downside is that her tombstone is in pieces and probably mingled with the tombstone shards of others in her family. It is literally a pile of rocks half-buried in the ground like somebody started tiling the cemetery and then gave up. They don’t even list her on the notable burials placard at the entrance to the cemetery.

Still, it’s the plot that counts. I got to add to my witch sites and my Ray Bradbury sites with one quick September trip to a cemetery.

After that, it was off to Maudslay State Park in Newburyport. Me and mine were going to tramp into the forest to find what was left of ancient Native American mounds. Level of difficulty: They aren’t marked in any way and are easily mistaken for, well, the forest floor.

We have a million old cemeteries in New England, but actual surviving Native American sites are rare, despite this place being the Land of Thanksgiving.

In Maudslay State Park are about 3,000 feet of low tubular humps about a foot tall and three of four feet wide veining the forest among the walking trails. At one point, they were all interconnected, but have been severed by time and weather and those same trails. The mounds are really hard to see, as they are low and covered by leaves and fallen trees. In fact, I’d say that they are impossible to see if you’re not looking for them. They are also really hard to photograph. Just note the bending of the light in these photos. The prevailing theory is that the mounds were built by the Pennacook and used for ceremonial purposes (a catch-all category in archaeology) because midden heaps and burial mounds are contained humps of dirt.

The real oddity about this site is that it’s not marked at all, nor is it being preserved. Which makes me suspicious of it. Most of the information I could find about these earthworks comes from one site. Which is a pretty dope site with great directions for finding the mounds, but I’m not finding a lot of corroborating documentation in the short amount of time I have to write this entry.

One of the reasons they think these features are Native American as opposed to colonial is because about a mile away there was an actual Pennacook burial mound. It was excavated in the 1970s, and multiple skeletons were found, the oldest dating to 7,000 years. That mound seems to have disappeared since then, but there’s a lot of documentation on it.

Still, like I said, these sites are rare in New England, so I’m gonna jump on them even if their origin is a hypothesis. Everything’s an hypothesis.

After that it was on to the Witch’s Stone in Newbury. Well, it was on to Mexican for lunch, and then it was on to the Witch’s Stone, a four-foot tall stone with a carved figure taking up its entire front surface.

The stone was commissioned in 1723 by John Dummer to memorialize his father Captain Richard Dummer. It shows a man dressed in 1600s garb. It got its nickname of Witch’s Stone because of the circular symbols surrounding the man like a hex and because Massachusetts people think everything involves witchcraft (rim shot). It’s also called the Father’s Stone, which makes more sense.

Most strange, the stone is lodged in a classic New England stone fence on the road in front of someone’s house like it’s a mere fish-shaped mailbox instead of an 18th century artifact. You can find it on Coleman Road close to where it intersects Longbrook Road.

And that was it. A bunch of dirt and stones for our first road trip of the season. Just enough of one to get me itchin’ to break north for some serious miles and some serious foliage-covered oddity.