History Revisited: Reclaiming historic Col. Ledyard burial site

More than 10 years ago, I authored a Times article relating to the 100-plus-year-old Byles-McDougal Funeral Services, located in New London and Groton. While conducting the research for that article, I came into possession of numerous historical documents and records relating to the now Colonel Ledyard Cemetery located in Groton.

These documents, dated from the early 1850s to the 1960s, provided an overall glimpse of the history of the cemetery, which provided the impetus to write this article.

The “burial grounds,” known today as the Colonel William Ledyard Cemetery, consists of approximately 42 acres and is located on the east side of Mitchell Street in the City of Groton.

Although the exact date as to when the cemetery was established seems to be shrouded in obscurity, some historical facts, when pieced together, provide information to indicate that, in all probability, its origination can be traced back to the early period of Groton’s history.

In 1655, Cary Latham, the first permanent white settler on what is now the Groton side of the Thames River, was given a large grant of land which extended from the ferry landing he established, opposite where the Avery-Copp House is now located on Thames Street, and stretching southward to where Poquonnock Road is today. The property extended an equal distance to the east from the river.

This land grant encompassed the area where the Col. Ledyard cemetery is presently located.

In about 1726, descendants of Cary Latham still owned and occupied the southern portion of the land and, as was customary at the time, set aside a small plot of the land in the southeast corner of the Latham homestead farm for use as a family and neighborly burying grounds. It was referred to as “GODS ACRE.”

Adjoining the southern portion of the Latham property were lands owned by the Avery and Packer families.

Without going into too much detail, during the period from the mid-1720s to the mid-1740s, members of the Lathams and Packers united in marriage. It is believed that this is how a large ledge of rocks on the eastern edge of the cemetery received its original name “Packer’s Rocks.” Thus, many old records unofficially referred to the burial ground as the “Packer’s Rocks Cemetery.”

After the battle at Fort Griswold in 1781, many more graves were added and the site became a public burying ground. Amongst those buried after the battle was Colonel William Ledyard, who commanded the defenders of the fort and was killed by his own sword after surrendering the fort to the British.

Although the oldest legible gravestone that can be found in the cemetery is dated Feb. 14, 1738, it is certainly feasible that other markers which are illegible probably are dated earlier.

Also, as a point of interest, Roger Ryley, a retired Stonington High School history teacher and dowsing hobbyist, believes, after examining the area with his dowsing rods, that there is a strong possibility that the area in and around the ancient burial ground in the cemetery may also include several Indian burial sites.

Beginning in the early 1850s, as the need for burial plots increased in Groton, local citizens organized to enlarge and improve the cemetery. In 1855 the cemetery was officially organized under the name “Packer’s Rocks Burying Grounds.”

It should be noted however that, for several years, the “Packer’s Rocks Burying Grounds” was also unofficially referred to as the “Ledyard Cemetery.” This caused much confusion because of a cemetery of the same name located in the Town of Ledyard.

In 1883, to end the confusion of two “Ledyard” cemeteries, the burying grounds in Groton was officially renamed the Groton Cemetery.

In 1955, individuals with a keen interest in keeping the cemetery’s historical association to Col. Ledyard were successful in lobbying to have the cemetery renamed the Colonel William Ledyard Cemetery.

Beginning in the early 2000s, due to diminishing perpetual care money for the cemetery, as well as the shrinking number of new burial sites available to produce new income, it was necessary to limit the maintenance of the cemetery to what was essential, such as grass mowing.

In mid-2014, Phillip Tuthill, a Groton native and former state representative, who once owned and operated a landscaping and nursery farm in Groton and is a licensed arborist and landscape designer, was contracted to mow the grass at the cemetery.

Tuthill soon became engrossed in wanting to resurrect the beauty of the property and, without compensation, dedicated a considerable amount of time landscaping the cemetery. He, along with several other volunteers including Rick Beasley, Ron Tagliapietra, Debbie Norris, Mary Laforce and Mike Meyers, have contributed hundreds of hours landscaping and grooming the cemetery.

Overgrown burial sites have been reclaimed, and damaged gravestones have also been repaired. Many old, diseased trees and overgrown bushes throughout the cemetery have been replaced with a variety of new trees and plants, all adding to the beauty of the property.

A new area, large enough to accommodate approximately 160 graves, has been created and is expected to provide income to assist with the upkeep of the cemetery,

The Colonel William Ledyard Cemetery is one of Groton’s historical gems. It is not only beautiful and well-kept, but a very peaceful resting place for so many of our family members, friends and neighbors.

Jim Streeter is the Groton town historian.

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