Down East 2013 ©
Hidden amid the trees and brush, their once-handsome stones are mostly jumbled and toppled over. Some have completely vanished under fallen leaves and pine duff. Lichen and moss obscure others. If you didn’t know they were there, you would never notice the score of Preble family headstones. But because I live on part of the three-hundred-year-old grant of land to these Prebles, I have noticed them. And I’ve thought about them quite a bit, too. [For the rest of this story, see the November 2008 issue of Down East.]
In Maine, forgotten family cemeteries are fairly commonplace in small rural towns. There are more than two dozen scattered throughout my tiny hometown of Arrowsic. Experts estimate there are many thousands more throughout the state. Many are well-tended, elegant monuments to families whose descendants still visit and care for them even though the surrounding land has long since passed into strangers’ hands.
But the Prebles have no such dedicated descendants. In fact, local town elders say the last direct descendants of these Prebles died in the 1920s. So discovering exactly what the Prebles’ lives were like — their hopes, their dreams, and their failures — has required a bit of sleuthing.
As is the case with most of the earliest settlers along the Kennebec River, precious little has been written about individual families. When I first moved onto “their” land, I found that the Prebles were likewise ignored by most historians. That seems understandable because they did not, as far as I can tell, fight notable wars with local natives, discover and name new rivers or mountains, or accumulate giant fortunes and fame. Instead, they were like most people, then and now: just trying to get the most out of their short time on this earth.
From the tombstones themselves and some research at the local library in Bath, it seems that the Prebles arrived on Arrowsic Island in the first decade of the 1700s. Exactly why they chose a piece of land with such rocky, thin, and marginally productive soil is not known. But like many new arrivals to this area, the first Prebles came from a well-heeled area south of Kittery — what has now become the state of Massachusetts.
New arrivals Jonathan Preble and his first wife, Rebekah, must have known in advance the advantages of living on Arrowsic Island. Although the surrounding waterways are narrow and easily crossed in a boat, they did serve as a natural impediment to local Native Americans who had a discordant and sometimes bloody relationship with colonizing Europeans. Better yet, Arrowsic’s waterways were the only roads of commerce in those days, and the Preble land was well-connected to the interstate highway system of its time. Today, those tidal waters are still a valuable asset, although primarily for recreational sailing and fishing.
Salt marshes also were part of the original Preble land. That may seem like a soggy, mosquito-driven liability. But to the Prebles, they were ready-made hay fields where they could cut fodder to feed critical livestock, starting in the first year of the Prebles’ arrival. Thus, the arduous work of felling trees to create more upland hay fields would be a less frantic project for these farmer-adventurers.
Even with such an optimistic outlook, the first Prebles endured some pretty tough times. The tombstones attest to an infant mortality rate that would rival any Third World country today. Moreover, Rebekah did not even reach her fortieth birthday, having buried at least three of her infant children. Mehitabel was Jonathan’s next wife, and her fortunes were only slightly better. She died in 1768, the same year Jonathan expired at the age of seventy-three.
Thus, walking our dog sometimes becomes a nod toward the Prebles’ hopes, achievements, and, ultimately, futility. Their overgrown graveyard in the woods is like Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, with burial monuments misplaced and human lives forgotten. While Maggie sniffs at a nearby birch stump, I occasionally wonder about my own hopes and futilities. Then perhaps like the Prebles, I count myself lucky I live in a place like Maine. It is as invaluable today as it was then — especially when you can just walk the dog rather than build stone walls and erect slate tombstones.