First of a two-part series.
On the south side of the Old Post Road, between South Benson and Turney roads, is a weather-beaten wood sign, "Fairfield East Cemetery 1702." You could drive by it many times without noticing it.
Although the provenance claimed by the sign is not universally accepted, the East Cemetery is quite interesting and worth a visit. But the most interesting thing about it is how the sweep of Connecticut and Fairfield history led to its creation. The East Cemetery, you see, exists because Connecticut had a war with Pennsylvania, and then sold northern Ohio to a group of private investors.
You have every reason to be skeptical. But I assure you that I was just as surprised as you to have this unlikely story unfold when I started to read about the unassuming East Cemetery. In fact, we'll have to go back to 17th-century England to get the full picture.
The East Cemetery's 2.75 acres are tucked inconspicuously into the surrounding neighborhood, beyond the wall bordering the street. A narrow strip of land opens up to a panorama of more than 1,000 gravesites laid out in rows, with markers ranging from simple headstones in the Puritan tradition to elaborately carved, decidedly un-Puritan monuments and obelisks. There's plenty of room to wander down the several "avenues," and among the stones.
The interments are overwhelmingly 19th and 20th century, and according to a 1953 plot map, include veterans of the Revolutionary War (9), the War of 1812 (23), the Civil War (17), and World War I (2). The usual historic Fairfield families have demarcated sections. I could identify no 18th century burials on the older, weathered stones, but I did spot one modern 2009 stone.
Notable citizens are buried here, but perhaps the most intriguing is Amelia Sturges, a local girl who became the first wife of J. Pierpont Morgan. Tragically, Amelia died of tuberculosis in 1862, only a few months after their marriage. Amelia was said to be the love of Mr. Morgan's life, and as he went on to become the richest man in the world, one can't help but wonder how he might have deployed his unlimited financial resources in Amelia's home town. Move over, Newport!
The East Cemetery's official origin is 1830, and while it has been variously managed by the town or a cemetery association, it was established by the First Located School Society of Fairfield, which was established in 1796 after Connecticut sold off northern Ohio ... but I'm getting ahead of myself. The first link in the chain of events that ended at the East Cemetery was in England, two centuries earlier.
In 1650, a series of civil wars in England led to the beheading of King Charles I and the rise to power of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. This came as quite a comfort to the Puritan colonists, who figured they could coast along with no trouble from the mother country.
But Cromwell died in 1658, and the exiled son of Charles I was invited back from France in 1660 to be the the king. After eight years of Puritan-style government, having a king in charge looked pretty attractive again.
With the ascendancy of Charles II -- known as the "Merrie King" and certainly no Puritan -- an existential crisis descended upon Connecticut. The colony's legal basis with the Crown had, um, never been formally recognized, and its leaders feared that Charles II would impose his will in ways that would disrupt their way of life. There was no choice for Connecticut but to go for broke and send a delegation to England. They would seek a charter from Charles himself.
The gamble paid off with the Charter of 1662. Charles not only signed off on Connecticut's legitimacy, but graciously tossed in a slice of North America. All the land between 41 degrees and 42 degrees latitude west of New York became the property of Connecticut -- right up to the Pacific Ocean. King Charles wasn't such a bad guy after all.
Unfortunately, Charles got a little carried away with his generosity. In 1681 he granted a chunk of Connecticut's land grant to William Penn and his new colony. Connecticut settlers had already hunkered down in what is now northeast Pennsylvania, to the increasing displeasure of Pennsylvania colonists, setting the stage for the so-called Pennamite-Yankee Wars, a bizarre (by today's standards of interstate relations) series of bloody conflicts that carried on even as the two colonies became American states. The U.S. government finally ended the hostilities in 1799, with the contested land passing to Pennsylvania, and the Connecticut settlers permitted to stay on.
This was not the only piece being cut out of Connecticut's transcontinental ribbon of land. Before handing over the Pennsylvania tract, Connecticut had already ceded most of its western land grant to the U.S. government to settle its Revolutionary War debts. But Connecticut clung to one last remnant of Charles II's legacy: 3 million acres stretching south from the shores of Lake Erie to the 41st parallel, known as the Western Reserve.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at email@example.com.