From Second Bridge, you can look up the winding tidal creek, across the salt marsh, to the fringe of trees that hides the Quaker Cemetery on New York’s Shelter Island. We spot the blue and gold historical marker and turn off Route 114.
The cool darkness and deep silence of the woods greet us. A knobby dirt lane, crowded with blackberry bramble, might discourage casual entry. But our vehicles manage to screak through and emerge, trailing bittersweet vine, in a woodsy clearing. There, at the center, is the Monument to Quaker Martyrs and, around it, perhaps a dozen headstones. Iron pipe set into concrete pillars defines the perimeter.
The chatter dies, and 24 6th graders tumble out, suddenly subdued. Each child has a clipboard with white paper and pencil attached. Some carry parchment paper and wide crayons for rubbings.
“This place holds secrets,” I say. “But it also has stories to tell. Find the stories.”
They spread out in twos and threes. Voices are murmurs. They tilt their heads back and gaze up at the glittering canopy and then stoop down in long, soft grass to search gray slabs that have been leaning for hundreds of years. They shudder at grisly winged skulls and reach out to trace mossy grooves, trying to decipher old spellings.
Some climb the rectangular stone-stepped frame of the Martyrs Monument. Each well-worn step is inscribed with a piece of history:
SUCCESSION OF PROPRIETORS, The Manhansett Tribe, The King... (“Holy Cow! Did the King own this place?”)
The Earl of Stirling, Nathaniel Sylvester, Thomas Dering... (“I bet that’s why we have Dering Harbor.”)
Sufferings for conscience sake... (“What does that mean?”)
Executed on Boston Common... (“Did this stuff really happen?”)
Starved, whipped, banished, scourged... (“What’s ‘scourged’?”)
Several move off to one corner where a towering pine tree nudges the fence. Kids kneel on a red carpet beneath its feathery limbs and copy inscriptions from three small headstones, the children of Samuel and Grissel Hudson:
Nathaniel, died May 26th, 1735, in the 7th year of his age.
Elizabeth, died Sept. 21st, 1738, aged 4 years, 10 mos, and 11 days.
Samuel, died Oct. 7th, 1738, aged 11 years and 4 mos.
They scribble hastily, heads together. “That’s so sad! Three kids died in three years.”
“Samuel was firstborn. Named after his dad. Like me.”
“Hey, I know a Hudson Avenue near Coecles Harbor.”
“Poor Samuel. First his brother. Then his little sister. Maybe he just gave up.”
“Nah. Him and Elizabeth probably got some terrible disease, like polio or scarlet fever.”
“You don’t die of scarlet fever—my sister had it!”
“Well, maybe back then you did!”
These children are beginning to construct bridges of meaning into another time and place—and into themselves.
In the opposite corner, another story unfolds. Hannah, the wife of Daniel Brown, died Sept. 8, 1731, at age 23. Nearby, a smaller stone marks the grave of her infant daughter (and namesake), who died Feb. 26, 1732. Childbirth was a risky business. Some stories had happier endings. Daniel was to remarry (Mary). They both lived to a ripe old age. But they, too, lost a small child, a son.
A few children cross the narrow road to a clearing, where shafts of sunlight dapple rough-hewn slab benches arranged in a circle. They smile at a sign tacked down: “Don’t just do something. SIT HERE!” So they sit quietly, with roots crisscrossing beneath their feet. They have found the meeting place of the Society of Friends.
After a time, I gather my class to share observations and wonderings. Then, before we leave, I ask each child to choose a separate place to write quietly for 10 minutes.
Adam writes, “I thought this place would be creepy, but it’s kind of peaceful.” Sarah, seated by Samuel’s grave, writes, “We are almost the same age.” I write, too. A poem for two Hannahs.
There has been an incredible mix of learning in a short space of time: art (rubbings, sketches); math (computing ages and dates); social studies (history, geography, religion); language arts (personal writing, inferential reading, vocabulary). We will go on to discuss science (the importance of wetlands and how Shelter Island became isolated geographically). Later, there will be time to draw further connections. Right now, these children are brimming with what they know (or want to know) and what they (unknowingly) have tucked away for future reference.
In every society, there is living and dying—and lifetimes in between. Children have an intense curiosity, a need to know how the story ends. And the endings here are a beginning of sorts. They offer a brief glimpse into a time and place that is not so distant, not so different.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 1984 edition of Education Week