Primaryresearch.org first became aware of the Claypit Cemetery project when Rebecca Duda, an eight-grade social studies teacher at Dracut’s Lakeview Jr. High School contacted us. We have both known and respected Rebecca for over twenty years. Rebecca was a former student of mine at Beverly High School and a fellow classmate of Kevin McGrath. After graduating from college, Rebecca spent many hours of field work in my Primary Research Through the History of Beverly class and eventually was a student teacher at her alma mater. Rebecca is an outstanding teacher who, among her many accolades, was selected in 2006 as the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies recipient of the William Spratt Award for Excellence in Teaching Middle School.
Rebecca, along with students Emily Fox and Meghan Fawcett, and a fellow teacher Catie Pelland, have been diligently spending hours after school, on weekends, and vacations visiting a number of archives. Martha Mayo of the Center for Lowell History was invaluable in providing research assistance and access to genealogical information. Eventually their research led to a discovery of a largely unknown and overgrown cemetery that is in fact Dracut’s oldest burial ground. Rebecca originally asked us for advice in researching, restoring, and preserving what is known as the “Claypit Cemetery”. She sent us photos of an area tangled with overgrown vines and bushes. Many gravestones had been broken or stolen. It appeared that only a machete would be able to hack through the vegetation. How in the world did Dracut’s oldest burial ground meet this fate?
At first our research led to more questions than answers. For example, why is Dracut’s oldest burial ground now located in Lowell? We found that the neighborhood of Pawtucketville (in which the cemetery is located) was annexed from Dracut to the City of Lowell in 1874. We wondered why neither Dracut nor Lowell has maintained the cemetery and if there were other local cemeteries that fell into this limbo of municipal accountability. Was it a church rather than a municipal cemetery? If so, which church? Are there any relatives of families interred at Claypit still living in the area? Why has there been such limited public outcry? . We later discovered that the city of Lowell’s assessor stated that the town of Dracut still owned the Claypit propoerty. We also found that there had been other controversies between Dracut and Lowell concerning the municipal responsibility for the maintenance of local cemeteries.
This public apathy toward the maintenance of Claypit is nothing new. In fact, news clipping reveal that this cemetery has been for the most part abandoned and forgotten for the past 140 years. Research revealed that in nearly every decade a group of caring, energetic and hardworking students, civic organizations, or concerned citizens have attempted to restore, and maintain Dracut’s oldest burial ground. These attempts, although virtuous, have been futile due in part to the relatively isolated location of the cemetery, and public apathy.
We began to research the history of the cemetery with the hope of sparking public concern due to the historical significance. In addition to many of the original Puritan settlers, there were a number of African-Americans buried there. These African-American families include the Lews (Barzillai Lew was a famous soldier in the Revolutionary War). Upon further investigation we found that Dracut’s African-American history included a settlement of free blacks that were instrumental in providing safe passage into New Hampshire as part of the Underground Railroad. This African-American settlement was called “Black North”. The only visible evidence of this settlement today is in name only. For example there is a “Black North Tavern” and a “Black North Business Center”.
We are in the process of developing a database containing the biographical information of African-Americans living in Dracut up to 1860. We hope to link these names with church burial records and obituaries to get an accurate idea of the number and identities of African-Africans buried at Claypit.
Our research has revealed that a number of Native-Americans may also be buried at Claypit. Part of what is now Dracut was once a 17th century “praying-town”, or a Puritan version of an Indian Reservation. We also attempted to determine the names of veterans (of any color) who fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, Indian Wars, or the Mexican War. This research is not an easy task, as many of Dracut’s early records are not to be found at the Dracut Town Hall, Historical Society, or Public Library. Upon investigation we were told by officials at Dracut Town Hall that many of the oldest and most valuable records were destroyed by a recent flood. We hope that since the flood, the town of Dracut has taken adequate measures to protect its remaining archives against future accidents.
As an aid for future research we are now in the process of developing a list of the various Dracut historical documents and their locations, whether it be archives, libraries, historical societies and/or online databases, through which students and interested citizens could have free access. Primaryresearch.org has already begun to provide links to many free digitized resources pertaining to Dracut history. As we are made aware of free resources, they will be added to this union list.
Simply stated, our goal is for permanent maintenance, preservation and public access to Dracut’s oldest burial ground. Over the past one hundred and forty years there has been a number of well meaning, albeit unsuccessful crusades to clean up and maintain the cemetery. The present condition of Claypit Cemetery demonstrates an abject failure in any kind of continuity of civic pride and responsibility. We hope that our research and investigation will spark a public outcry that will initiate a sustained effort to properly maintain the Cemetery. This sustained effort may come by means of monthly turns at maintenance from various civic, business, or service groups, similar to the “adopt a highway” programs. The National Park Service may become interested, as many of those interred are forgotten African-Americans and Native Americans.
Hopefully, many patriotic and civic minded groups, such as the Elks Club, American Legion, Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, and most important of all, the municipalities of Dracut and Lowell and their respective citizens will get behind the project on a permanent basis. Sadly, Rebecca Duda has written two letters to the editor of the Lowell Sun that were never published (one leading up to Veteran’s Day, and another near Thanksgiving).
Given the advanced deterioration of this burial ground that is possibly over 300 years old, our efforts should be put into recreating markers to signify those buried there. Another way to re-memorialize the site is by creating a “cyber-cemetery” where visitors to our website would have a chance to add to what we know about the lives of these people.
Will this project be just another footnote in a long line of failures, or will these forgotten citizens finally get a permanent commitment that would finally avail them the dignity and respect they so richly deserve?
Even after the most recent Boston Globe article regarding the deplorable plight of Claypit Cemetery there has been no movement by the town of Dracut, or any civic, patriotic or veteran’s group concerning a commitment plan for restoring and maintaining the cemetery.
Primaryresearch.org did receive a few emails expressing outrage over the lack of accountability and respect for those Dracut citizens interred at Claypit. One e-mailer suggested seeking an Eagle Scout volunteer to maintain the cemetery. Recent articles have grossly understated the condition of Claypit. It would require a troop of bulldozers to remove the overgrowth resulting from decades of neglect.
We remain hopeful that action will replace excuses and those interred at Caypit Cemetery will not experience another Memorial Day of shameful neglect.