Soldier of the Revolution

Does anybody remember the lone grave stone behind the David Mindess School on Concord Street? The grave lies about 15 feet from the rear of the building in an area surrounded by a concrete retaining wall, and adjacent to the athletic field. There is a well worn path around the stone from years of inquisitive visitors both young and old I would expect, and no indication that there were any others interred there. There is a smaller stone behind it, however. Often in colonial times a foot stone was placed as part of the grave, or as was suggested by one of the members of the Society, a newer larger headstone was added at a later date. This may have merit where the condition of the stone, with the exception of a section of the top that is missing, is in excellent shape.

Many years ago it was not uncommon to have a family cemetery on farmland owned by our earlier settlers. But it is unusual to have a single grave not surrounded by family members unless there were circumstances that would force such isolation. Enter smallpox. The head stone behind the school reads: “In memory of Mr. Aaron Brown, who died of smallpox Jan. 18, 1793.”

From Wikipedia, smallpox is a disease caused by the virus Variola. It appeared in two forms, Variola major (30 to 35% mortality rate), and Variola minor (less than 1% mortality rate). A vaccine was developed in Europe by Edward Jenner in 1796, but was not available in North America until 1800. Too late for Mr. Brown I’m afraid. Wikipedia goes on to say “To this day, smallpox is the only human infectious disease to have been completely eradicated from nature.”

Unfortunately, 18th century physicians in America were powerless to combat the highly contagious and dreaded disease, forcing town officials to isolate the afflicted in what was termed a “Pest house.” These “Pest houses” were often located in areas of town as far away from the general population as possible (Hmm. I wonder why?). The townspeople were careful not to handle the afflicted for fear of contracting the disease themselves, or spreading it to others. And when these victims died they were carried in the bed sheets from where they expired and buried in isolation; usually with other small pox victims.

This is where our story takes an interesting path. Ashland was not Ashland in 1793. The section where Mr. Brown is buried was then part of the town of Framingham, so we focused our attention there. Two publications, “History of Framingham Massachusetts 1640-1885” by Josiah H. Temple (1887) and a more recently “Framingham: An American Town” by Stephen W. Herring, offer similar accounts of the demise of Mr. Brown, but disagree as to where he was buried. According to Temple, “This dreaded disease [smallpox] was introduced into this town by soldiers returning from the army, during the last French and Indian war. It again appeared in 1777.” But both authors do agree that in this case the small pox was probably brought to Framingham in 1793 by an Abidja Parmenter who urged a sick relative from New Hampshire to seek treatment from Dr. John Kittredge, a well known and respected physician who held one of Framingham’s first M.D. degrees.

What was first thought to be dropsy, which today is known as edema, was actually smallpox. Eventually, 17 people contracted the disease including Aaron Brown. Temple’s account placed Brown in a Pest house with 5 others owned by Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Angier, who himself contracted the disease. Eventually they all died and were buried in a “smallpox cemetery” on the property.

Here is where the disagreement lies. Angier’s house was located north of Belknap Road and west of Baiting Brook. That would be miles from where Aaron Brown is buried. Herring contends that Brown died at a home on the “extreme south side of town” and is buried in an isolated grave in the now town of Ashland. This sounds like a more accurate account of what happened to Mr. Brown and further research supports this. Temple himself appears to correct this in the genealogical section of his book where he notes:

“Aaron, s. of Thomas, l. on f’s
place; bo’t out the other heirs Mar.27, 1782;
d. of small pox Jan. 18, 1793, at the John
Ballard place, now in Ashland, where is
now his g. stone.”

Aaron Brown was himself a “Soldier of the Revolution” as reported in an article in the “Ashland Advertiser” on June 14th, 1907. The article went on to say that a Mrs. C.A. Belknap of Framingham, a descendant of Brown, along with a representative of the Daughters of the American Revolution, came to “this town” (referring to Ashland, this is now 1907) and placed flowers and an American flag above the grave of Mr. Brown. “The grave is on a knoll surrounded by trees, on the farm of G.C. Fiske and a few rods back from the house. The family and none of the townspeople knew of his soldier record. The Belknap family for many years had been ignorant of his place of burial.”

The article also described the stone as a slab of dark slate with a cherub carved on the top, and the inscription “In memory of Mr. Aaron Brown, who died of small pox Jan. 18, 1793.” This being the same gravestone, Mrs. C.A. Belknap being a descendent of Aaron Brown, and the rest of the small pox victims being buried north of Belknap Road, we have to wonder if there is a Belknap connection here. Maybe it is just a coincidence, and I’m sure I could have researched this further, but you must be out of coffee or tea by now. By the way, there is an ancient Oak tree behind Aaron Brown’s grave and the surface roots appear to cradle it. It is said that trees in graveyards reflect the souls of the departed. And that nobody truly dies. If this is true, maybe I’ll ask the Oak tree about Aaron Brown.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions