When this project began a few months ago, I made some preliminary phone calls to get started. Dean Eastman, who I knew had done extensive primary research with his students at Beverly High, John Metros of the Dracut Cemetery Department, and Martha Mayo, curator at the Center for Lowell History were all people I hoped would be willing to volunteer their time and expertise. To date, they have all been invaluable.
Next, I had to enlist students to volunteer to research and to do the actual cleanup of the site. Student involvement in this project was a goal of mine from the beginning. This is real history. I wanted students to be exposed to actual historical research and uncover the past through primary documents. So, step one was to begin researching. The cleanup, I knew, would follow in time. I have two student volunteers working on the project; Emily Fox and Megan Fawcett.
The three of us then sat down together to sort out where to begin. Since they are in 8th grade, and this is the first time they have conducted actual primary research, I told them to think of primary research as historical csi:
- Look at the historical question to be answered or historical crime scene to follow the analogy. In this case what is the history of the Claypit Cemetery
Gather evidence about your historical crime scene. In our case, we pretty much only had a copy of the epitaphs transcribed in 1904 and my own knowledge of the site from a visit I made to it two years prior.
Analyze your evidence for clues in order to gather more information. This is probably the most difficult part of the research process for students. At this point they need to think like historians. There are no flashing neon signs at evidence that scream out “Look here! This is important evidence! Research me!” Students need to think about possible avenues to explore in order to find answers to their questions; veterans’ records, probate records, ecclesiastical records, etc. are some of the primary sources they need to utilize. In our case, I decided the best place to start would be with census records and town vital records.
- Gather evidence and draw conclusions based on what you find. Who were these people? What were there lives like?
Vital records are the marriage, birth, and death records for a city or town. Vital records can be located in three possible places in Massachusetts:
We obviously began our research at Dracut Town Hall to locate the records for the nineteen people we knew were interred at Claypit. Vital records are important because they provide additional information about the person we would not have otherwise known. For example, on birth certificates they provide parents’ names. Another example of important information found on these records is the listing of a person’s occupation on a marriage certificate or death certificate.
The clerks have been remarkably helpful and have found our research interesting. Many had never heard of Claypit. Unfortunately, the town’s records do not predate 1840. I’m not sure why all pre-1840 records are missing from Dracut Town Hall but we are currently in the process of tracking them down. We know they do in fact exist from various other sources. However, for the time being, we have worked with what we have available which are post-1840 records.
We began by looking up some people we knew of from our epitaphs. The problem with only looking up a specific individual is that there may be other evidence we are missing. Historians should never assume they have all the evidence and we did indeed make this mistake initially. By only looking up individuals, we were missing much more vital information in the town’s records but we were about to make a surprising discovery.
After going through the several specific records we had, the students said we were finished. We needed pre-1840 records in order to continue so we were done at Town Hall. This seemed too simplistic to me and research is never simplistic. I began looking at the records we found beginning with Phillip Pierce.
His death certificate matched up perfectly with what we expected to find. His epitaph read, “Phillip Pierce, Died Dec. 29, 1863, age 79,” and the dates corresponded with those on his death certificate. However, there was one column in the register that was very interesting. The column was for place of internment. The Town Clerk did not write in cemetery names in this column but rather numbers. According to the Town Clerk in 1863, Pierce’s place of internment was location #1. This was highly significant. If by site # 1 the clerk was referring to Claypit, then we would need to go through each individual death entry to locate others who may be buried there who were unknown to us.
We have indeed determined that site #1 is a reference to Claypit. There were two determining pieces of evidence. Firstly, Claypit is the oldest, and first, burial site in Dracut. Therefore, it is only logical that it would be listed as #1. Unfortunately, though logical, this is only circumstantial evidence. Secondly, and more importantly, the master index to the town records, lists in the key to abbreviations the following: G.R. 1-gravestone record, Old Ground, Varnum Avenue. Any record that was listed as G.R. 1 had been taken from that cemetery.
Having concluded that internment site #1 was in fact a reference to Claypit, we went through each death record in the clerk’s office in order to discover anyone else that may have been interred there. There was the possibility there would be no one else, but this was not the case. To date we have discovered the following nine people to have been interred at Claypit who were previously unknown:
- Sarah Park
Albina J. Davis
The other piece of evidence I should highlight that also confirmed Claypit was internment site #1 was the fact that all of the above families we discovered were living in the Pawtucketville neighborhood where Claypit is located according to numerous census records. To state it plainly, they were all neighbors. Again, this is circumstantial evidence but points to Claypit as the right site.
Also, there are several unconfirmed accounts of African Americans being interred in Claypit in unmarked graves. We do know that Barzillai Lew, an African American from Dracut, lived on Totman Road. He also served in the Revolutionary War as a fifer. The Lew family was well known in the Pawtucketville neighborhood. The Lews were members of the Pawtucketville Church on the corner of Mammoth Road. Being able to actually link a Lew family member to Claypit would make the site very historically significant.
The story of these Pawtucketville people does not end here. On the contrary, this has opened a brand new, and unexpected, chapter, in our project. Each of these people we have discovered has a story of their own to tell which until now has remained a forgotten piece of Dracut’s history. We are in the midst of discovering their stories.