The dead just won’t rest at the Rumney Marsh Burial Ground, and it’s a good thing because it means their stories will never be lost to history.
Last Sunday, the Rumney Marsh Burial Ground Restoration Committee and the Revere Society for Cultural and Historic Preservation (RSCHP) held a re-dedication of the 316-year-old cemetery, profiling the stories of the many notable men and women who are buried there and who provide a real picture of American history in our own backyard.
“I call the cemetery Revere’s best kept secret,” said Jeff Pearlman, a former Revere High School history teacher and a noted local historian. “It’s a treasure and a symbol of local history like no other. There are people who come to Boston from all over to see their old cemeteries…This is American history in our backyard and it’s Revere history. The people buried there are of some renown.”
Take Job Warrow, a black slave who fought in the Revolutionary War and is buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds.
There is also Dean Winthrop, the son of John Winthrop – the state’s first governor and the founder of the “City on a Hill,” later known as Boston.
The most notable, Pearlman said, was the Rev. Phillips Payson – who came down from the pulpit to fight in an engagement in Lexington during the outset of the American Revolution.
“He actually participated in an engagement that stopped a number of British reinforcements from going to Lexington,” he said. “They did stop them and you wonder what would have happened in that famous battle had they not done so. It was the only engagement he ever participated in and he then went back to the pulpit in Revere and remained the church leader of the Town until the early 1800s.”
Payson, he said, was also a delegate to the Massachusetts state Constitutional Convention – a gathering that would later give Massachusetts’s seal of approval to the U.S. Constitution.
At that convention, despite being a minister, he stood against requiring those running for office to take a religious test.
“He was an extraordinary figure,” said Pearlman. “He stands out in my mind as the most important figure buried there.”
Additionally, there are members of the community buried there that fought in the Colonial Wars of the 1600s, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The last burial took place in the 1920s.
The cemetery even houses the unmarked graves of slaves that were so much a part of Colonial life in Revere and all of New England.
“Many of the early settlers here in their wills gave away property and there are names of people in those wills, like Charity and others,” said Pearlman. “Those are slaves and slavery was a way of life here. As a student doing research, that shocked me because I thought slaves were only on cotton plantations in the South. They were here too at one time, and they’re buried in the cemetery.”
Despite all of its immeasurable value, in the last decade the old burial ground became a bit forgotten, as its long-time caretaker and neighbor Peter McCauley had moved away.
Things began to look a little shabby inside.
The gate fell off its hinges.
Weeds began to grow taller than the tombstones, and drooping trees needed trimming.
That, combined with vandalism and teen-age loitering, made the historic spot an embarrassment to those who knew its importance.
That’s when the restoration committee stepped in a few years ago to begin raising money to bring back the old burying ground and make it a showpiece.
Among those involved were Pearlman, Veterans Agent Nick Bua, City Councillor Ira Novoselsky, Annette Bornstein, Nick Catinazzo, Ira Dorfman, Ann Fedele, Lona Frongillo, RSCHP President Len Piazza and Bob Upton.
After raising quite a bit of money, they were able to put up a new, sturdier gate. They were also able to plant flowers, place a giant granite historical marker, clean up the weeds and trees, and reset the Civil War cannon ball sculpture.
“We’re even going to decorate the cemetery with Christmas decorations this year,” said Pearlman.
Mayor Tom Ambrosino said he was very proud of the committee’s effort and said that the cemetery is a very important part of the city’s past.
“The Committee has done a great job, not just in accomplishing aesthetic improvements – including a beautiful new monument, but also in renewing interest in this hidden treasure,” he said. “The cemetery really is a piece of American history right in our own backyard.”
Interim City Clerk John Henry added, “That part of Revere’s history is not well known and it needs to come forward. This is a great effort. In the 1970s…we made many improvements there. Over the years, they have deteriorated, but I think this effort has brought it back. It needs to be recognized and it is on the National Register of Historic Places. I think they should be applauded.”
The cemetery was founded in the mid-1700s when the Cheever family donated a piece of their land for a burial ground. Previously, residents had been buried in tombs underneath the old Unitarian Church (now the counseling center on Beach Street).
“We are definitely unique in terms of who is buried there,” said Pearlman. “It’s important in American history because there are people buried there who fought in the Colonial Wars in the 1600s, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. They were all local people who fought.
“I don’t want this to die,” he continued. “I want people to continue coming and to be comfortable there. I want to give tours again and teach others how to give tours. There’s nothing in my eyes more important than to teach young people about this place.”