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Age-Old Lessons From Young Guides At Ancient Burying Ground


July 16, 2011

On a recent weekday afternoon, four students dressed in matching white T-shirts congregate around the statue of Samuel Stone on the side of Center Church in downtown Hartford.

Approaching the group is Antuanett Ortiz, 13, who is the first to speak.

"Welcome to the Ancient Burying Ground," she says.

The students spend their afternoons giving 25-minute tours of Hartford's oldest surviving landmark, revealing much of the city's deep-rooted past.

"I love history," says Ortiz, "I feel this job will help me with future jobs."

The Ancient Burying Ground Association began the tours four years ago, says summer tour coordinator Andrea Ader, "to appoint people with this little gem in the middle of the city that no one seems to know about."

After a brief introduction, the guides walk through the irregular rows of sandstone markers and neoclassical obelisks. Bordered by towering skyscrapers, the burying ground is a hidden allegory of past and present. But the sounds of traffic and whining buses fade as visitors are immersed in the history of the city and the people who created it.

"This is Samuel Stone," says Alexus Harris,12, pointing to the statue. "The name Hartford comes from Samuel's home town in England, Hertford, which means 'deer crossing river.'"

Historians believe that between 1641 and 1806, more than 6,000 people were buried in the four-acre lot between Center Church and Lewis Street, placed in any spot gravediggers found free after prodding the ground with a steel rod. Today there are only 400 final resting places that are marked.

Each of the 14 stops along the tour is like an episode of a 16th- or 17th -century soap opera, full of scandal and tragedy (such as the witch hunts of 1647) and even the bizarre, such as the case of Capt. Israel Seymour, who was abruptly struck by lightning while standing in his doorway in 1784.

"This is more than just a collection of dead people," says Ader.

The young guides Dario Gaci, 14; Daniela Figueroa, 11; Ortiz; and Harris cite information about the artistic style and the carved inscriptions on each of the headstones visited along the tour, only occasionally glancing at a flash card.

"We all know our parts," says Gaci.

The young historians were chosen by Ader from area middle schools based on their academics and personality.

"They are all doing very well," she says. "I don't know if when I was 12 I would have had the wherewithal to do this."

The walking tour ends with an ominous reminder. The epitaph of William Knox, a lieutenant in the American Revolution and a prominent Hartford business man reads:

"Behold my friend as you pass by as you are now so once was I as I am now so you must be prepare for death and follow me."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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