Burial Hill Cemetery and Cole’s Hill Burial Ground

In late fall, 1620, English religious separatists known as Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth Harbor, present-day Massachusetts, on a small ship called the Mayflower. There were 102 Pilgrims in December, but only 50 by the following spring. They interred their dead on a hill above the settlement, which became known as Cole’s Hill.

Over time, the settlement grew and they began burying their dead on the appropriately named Burial Hill, which was also the original location of a small wooden fort. Erosion and excavation exposed bones on Cole’s Hill, and some were stolen, while others were collected under the roof of a stone canopy over Plymouth Rock. After more than three centuries, the bones were placed in a large sarcophagus, which sits on the hill to this day.

Burial Hill is located not far from Cole’s Hill, along Leyden Street, the oldest street in Plymouth. It also contains the remains of some of the first Pilgrims, including Mary Allerton, the last surviving Mayflower passenger. In 2014, archaeologists used ground penetrating radar to assist in digging near Burial Hill, in the hopes of finding where the original wooden palisade was located.

Thanks to the efforts of volunteers and preservationists, many of the headstones on Burial Hill are in amazing condition. When I first saw them, I thought they were modern replicas of the originals. Slate stones, when properly cared for, last a lot longer than sandstone. The oldest known headstone on Burial Hill belongs to Edward Gray, who died in 1681.

Several groups and organizations conduct tours of Burial Hill, including the Plymouth Antiquarian Society and Twilight Lantern Ghost Tour. It’s hard to find places where American history goes back farther than this, at least where European settlement is concerned. Burial Hill is a must-see destination for anyone visiting this historic town.

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