Today, old gravestones. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
It It is a fine sunny autumn day in Bridgehampton,
New York. We're far out on southern Long Island, surrounded by upscale homes.
But this town is pretty low key. We find a nice lunch at an old-style diner
called the Candy Kitchen. Then we stroll along Main Street digesting both
the lunch and the town.
A big old Presbyterian Church sits next to a much older graveyard. So, camera
in hand, I walk the rows -- photographing stones, as I wonder who these people
were. Daniel Moore, born a scant 87 years
after the Pilgrims landed, departed this life in 1791. Who was
born during the American Revolution and died two years before the Civil War?
Or Rebeckah Topping who was 12 when the
Declaration of Independence was signed in distant Philadelphia.
Deacon Maltby Gelston died nineteen days
after the British signed the Treaty of Paris, which acknowledged at last that
America was a sovereign nation. No mention of that here. Instead, we find
Gelston's will, where he still identifies him as a "Collony of New York Yoeman".
And a conventional short poem on the stones warns us away from complacency,
Gelston's no more his Soul has wing'd its way
From sin & darkness to Celestial Day.
Weep reader weep, but not for him thus sigh
Weep for thyself for you like him must die.
I find one stone especially interesting: James Browne, who died in 1788.
The presbytery of Suffolk County was organized over at nearby Southampton in
1747. A year later, 28-year-old Browne took the pulpit here, and served
throughout our country's emergence. Suffolk County was generally pro-Revolution,
but the large and important Battle of Long Island took place far to the west
-- in Brooklyn, across the East River from Manhattan.
One key player in that Southampton meeting was Nathaniel Mather of the famous
Mather family. A century before, Increase Mather was a Puritan who'd counseled
moderation during the Salem Witch Trials. "It is better," he said,
"that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned."
You and I shrink from the context of that remark; but we'd do well to heed it
today -- nevertheless.
Increase Mather's son Cotton Mather lived a questioning life. For example, he
got the idea of smallpox vaccination from his African servant and used it in the
colonies. And kinsman Nathaniel Mather became a Presbyterian. So James Browne,
buried here, represents the settled fruit of the Mather intellectual struggle.
History swirls through this once remote farming community. We catch a glint of
people struggling to determine who we should be in a new nation. I think they got
it right. Maybe the fine houses obscure all that, maybe not.
In any case, my wife
and I turn off to walk a while on the wide empty beach before we have to plunge back
into our own hectic lives in a different millennium -- one so distant from the world
we glimpsed briefly, in that old graveyard.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For a brief history of the Presbyterian Church in Suffolk County, see:
For more on the Rev. Nathaniel Mather, see:
Maltby Gelston's will can be read online at:
Maltby Gelston's will
Gelston also certified the will of Martha Halsey whose stone sits near his own:
Certification of Martha Halsey's will.
For more on the Battle of Long Island, I suggest: D. H. Fischer, Washington's Crossing.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
(all photos by JHL)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.