Nantucket History & People

Newtown Cemetery

by Frances Karttunen

Newtown Cemetery, also known as the Old South Cemetery, faces Sparks Avenue and is bounded on the west and south by school property. When it was designated as a burial ground in the 1700s, however, it was on the extreme south edge of town, surrounded by empty land.

The name Newtown was first documented in 1727. It designated the expanding south side of town, where, just the year before, a new set of house lots had been laid out. The undeveloped land around the new lots was called the Town Pasture, and beyond the Town Pasture, a livestock fence separated Newtown from the commons, where cows and sheep were turned loose to graze. Providing access from the town to the commons were cow bars and several gates, the most famous of which was the Newtown Gate, located at the terminus of Orange Street, approximately where the Rotary is today.

An 1821 map of roads in the Town pasture shows Newtown Cemetery as a rectangular “Burying Ground” west of the Newtown Gate, just inside the livestock fence and bounded by a road on the north. By then it had been in use for well over half a century. A headstone documented in 1881 was inscribed with a death date of 1766. Currently, the oldest death date on an extant stone is 1775.

The same Nantucket family names to be found in the other cemeteries are also in Newtown Cemetery: the Coffins, Gardners, Swains, Husseys, Bunkers, and Chases, to name but some. Notably absent among the stones present today are any for members of the Macy family. On the other hand, there are Mayhews in Newtown, as well as Manters, Meaders, and members of the Veeder family. Susan Veeder, her daughter, son, and daughter-in-law lie side-by-side—the three adults with identical stones, probably placed after the last of them, Sarah Starbuck Veeder, died. The stone for Mary Frances Veeder is much older, and who can say for whom the utterly effaced little gray stone next to hers may have been?

Susan Veeder and her sons, to whom she referred collectively as “the boys,”    accompanied her husband, Captain Charles A. Veeder, on a five-year whaling voyage that lasted from 1848 to 1853. Aboard the whaler Nauticon Susan kept a journal illustrated with delicate water-color paintings of ports and islands they visited, including what were then called the Society Islands. One of the paintings shows a harbor in Tahiti filled with whaling vessels. It was to become a place of tragedy for the Veeders.

In January, 1849, the Nauticon put in at Talcahuano, Chile, so a heavily pregnant Susan could give birth. As soon as she was delivered of a daughter, her husband and sons put back out to sea, leaving mother and baby behind until late March, when the Nauticon returned to collect them. Thoroughly bonded with Mary Frances, Susan filled her journal with reports of what her healthy little girl was up to during the first year of her life spent at sea. And then, just at the end of a stay in Tahiti, the Veeders took Mary Frances to a doctor there for relief from the discomfort of teething. Whatever the powder was that the doctor gave them to administer to their child, it killed her overnight. Unable to face leaving her behind on an island in the Pacific, the Veeders had her embalmed body sealed in a lead coffin to accompany them home to Nantucket, where Mary Frances was laid to rest in Newtown Cemetery under a stone that tells of her death “at Tahita, Society Islands, March 6, 1850, Aged 13 mos. & 6 days.”

George A. Veeder, one of Susan’s three boys, grew up to be a captain at a remarkably young age, married, and died, all before age 25 and just seven years after the death of his little sister. In short order, Susan’s other boys, Charles Junior and David, both died at sea. And then, as an aging man who had lost all his sons and one of his two daughters, Captain Charles Veeder went back to sea, left his ship in the Society Islands, and died there at age 69.

Susan, her daughter Marianna, and her daughter-in-law Sarah lived on a long time, until Susan died in 1897 and was interred between Mary Frances and George, to be joined by Sarah in 1914.

In addition to George Veeder, fifteen other men buried in Newtown Cemetery are identified as sea captains, including Captain Andrew Jackson Sandsbury. Son of Swedish-born James Sandsbury and Nantucketer Anna Cleaveland Sandsbury, Andrew Sandsbury was born in 1830. As a young man, he went whaling.

Subsequently he served on the South Shoals Lightship from 1867 to 1869 and returned for twenty full years beginning in 1872. Retiring from the sea, he became keeper of Brant Point Light for another six years. People buried in Newtown Cemetery generally had lived in Newtown, and Captain Sandsbury was no exception, having purchased a house on East Dover Street in 1872, just before going back to the South Shoals Lightship.

Newtown families such as the Meaders of Meader Street are noticeable in Newtown Cemetery, as are the many sea captains. Also striking is the presence of many Civil War veterans. Grand Army of the Republic records identify eleven of them, but there are at least twenty-nine grave markers, most of them standard government-issued military headstones.

Since the opening of St. Mary’s Cemetery in 1871, most of Nantucket’s Azorean and Cape Verdean immigrants and their descendants have been buried there, but over the years Newtown is where immigrant housing has been most available, and Newtown Cemetery is the neighborhood cemetery. It is not surprising to find Portuguese surnames such as Medina, Mendence, Rodrigues, Silva, and Sylvia there. Most were Azoreans, but John and Lottie DeLuz were Cape Verdeans. The records do not indicate John’s precise birthplace, but Lottie was born on the island of Fogo.

Visitors to the cemetery are often in search of the flat stone that identifies the burial place of the heart of Dr. Charles Frederick Winslow. Born on Nantucket in 1811, he was widely traveled. A physician, he did not confine his attention to medical matters, but pursued his interest in physics, geology, and vulcanology.

These led him, at the end of his life, to Salt Lake City, where he died in 1877. According to a directive he wrote before his death, his heart was excised before his body was cremated, his ashes to be laid next to his wife in Cambridge, but his heart to be returned to Nantucket.

While Dr. Winslow can be said to have been interred in two places, the mystery of Huldah Dunham Snow is what in the world became of her remains. The inscription on her headstone, memorized by generations of Nantucketers and visitors, reads: “Huldah, wife of Benj. Snow/However dear, is not laid here./Some private grief was her disease/Laid to the north her friends to please.” This invites
the interpretation that she was interred in either the Old North or the New North Cemetery, probably with her own family, the Dunhams. There is no stone for her in either of these cemeteries, however.

Stranger still, if the stone for her in Newtown Cemetery does not mark an actual grave, why is there a neat little footstone inscribed H. S. a body’s length from the headstone? Perhaps the inscription has been misunderstood? Huldah’s stone is in the northernmost line of Newtown headstones, right inside the fence along Sparks Avenue. Could this be what “laid to the north” means? But if so, why would the inscription say, “She is not laid here”? The mystery is probably insoluble. Widower Benjamin Snow, a carpenter, married again and lived to the age of 82. According to the Nantucket death records, he died on-island, but there is no stone for him in Newtown Cemetery or any of the other island cemeteries. Outdoing Huldah and her private grief, Benjamin has succeeded in disappearing without a trace.

In 1995, Willie House was laid to rest in the northeast corner of the cemetery, in the same row along the Sparks Ave fence as Huldah Snow. On the side facing the street his stone is inscribed “Owner of the Chicken Box,” and on the other side, facing into the cemetery is his name, dates, and the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” It is said that Willie chose this spot so that from his grave there would be a clear sightline to his famous nightclub. If this was once so, it is no longer, the view being blocked by the Sea Grille Restaurant building across the street. These days Sparks Ave has become a heavily traveled thoroughfare from which Newtown Cemetery is only separated by a split-rail fence and a sidewalk. There is scraggly privet hedge along the west side but no buffer across the back, which is crowded by athletic fields with their racks of lights and a wind turbine. On the east side, a strip of land with pines forms a buffer between the cemetery and the busy commercial strip on both sides of Sparks Ave.

This ribbon of land, enclosed within the cemetery fence, was added to Newtown Cemetery by vote of Town Meeting in 1912, but the town did not take all the required steps to make the addition a legal cemetery. In 1997, two years after Willie House went to his grave in the corner formed by the split-rail fence and the 1912 strip, a new road was proposed to connect Surfside Road and Sparks Avenue. The reason for the new road was to relieve traffic congestion, and it was described as passing over “a vacant lot adjacent to the cemetery.” An initial archaeological survey concluded that there were no significant artifacts or human remains that would be disturbed, but in the vigorous debate that followed, it was asserted that at least three interments had taken place within the strip, albeit not directly in the path of the proposed roadway.

Perhaps more to the point, the project would have impacted what has been perceived as sacred ground. Had the road been built, Newtown Cemetery would have been exposed to traffic on two sides as well as to school athletics just across the back fence. Arguments for and against went on for some months, and then the road project was abandoned. For the time being Willie’s corner is still screened by pine trees and wild flowers.

Frances Karttunen’s books: The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oar, her Nantucket Places & People series, Good Things from Nantucket’s North Shore, and Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket, are available at Nantucket bookstores.

Articles by Date from 2012