I am standing in a cold, bleak place under a leaden sky. A raw northeast wind cuts through my windbreaker and brings the smell of saltwater with it. This is not some remote beach or heath. In fact, I’m only a few yards from the unending roar of traffic on Route 6.
But the scene before me is centuries old. This is the Cove Burying Ground in South Eastham, one of the oldest cemeteries on Cape Cod. It was established on or near the grounds of the first Eastham Congregational Meetinghouse, which was built in 1646. It contains the oldest gravestones on the Outer Cape and the graves of several important historical figures, commemorated with memorial plaques.
Among these is the grave of the Reverend Samuel Treat, Eastham’s first minister, who settled here in 1672. Treat was famous for his “fire and brimstone” sermons, and Thoreau quotes an old town history to the effect that “His voice was so loud that when speaking it could be heard at a great distance from the meetinghouse, even amidst the shrieks of hysterical women, and the winds that howled over the plains of Nauset.” Another plaque identifies the grave of the Deacon John Doane, who died in 1707 and who, it is said, needed to be rocked in his cradle like a baby at the age of 110.
More poignant than these official plaques are dozens of small rough granite boulders, wordless markers to those who died too early to have carved stones. But for me the most remarkable graves in this ancient cemetery are those of three Mayflower passengers. They are listed as Lieutenant Joseph Rogers (1608-1678), Constance Hopkins (1605-1677) and Giles Hopkins (1607-1690). All three were part of the group of Mayflower passengers known as “strangers.”
The name comes from the fact that, contrary to popular belief, only about a third of the Mayflower passengers were Pilgrims, or “Saints”, fleeing what they saw as religious persecution and corruption, and seeking to separate themselves from the Church of England. The bulk of the passengers were actually “adventurers,” or, as the Pilgrims called them, “Strangers.” They made the voyage to the New World, not to seek religious freedom, but for the same reason that most immigrants have always come – better economic opportunities. The three young Mayflower passengers buried here were part of that original band of “strangers,” a group of which broke off from the original Plymouth Colony and settled in Eastham in 1646.
As I stood there, beginning to shiver on that cold, bleak afternoon, what impressed me most about these three graves was not so much their Mayflower heritage as the fact that all three would have been young teenagers, thirteen to fifteen years old when they sailed from England to the New World. They survived a hazardous journey, arriving at a totally unknown coast that the Pilgrim leader William Bradford described as “a hideous and desolate wilderness” and endured sharp and violent winters thousands of miles from home. What, I wondered, would that experience have been like for a young boy or girl?
And then, as if the spirits of these children who arrived here 400 years ago were answering me, I realized that we might ask that question of the thousands of adolescent refugees from other countries who are risking their lives today to escape persecution at home, to seek refuge and a better life in strange lands. Given such obvious historical parallels, you might think that we could better empathize with today’s immigrants and offer refuge and assistance to them, rather than building walls and demonizing these modern-day strangers.