October 29, 2018 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
There are a lot of common misconceptions when it comes to colonial New England gravestones – Harriette Forbes spends a great deal of time making the case that the slate stones used was, in fact, domestically cut rather than imported, which was a widely-held belief when she was writing her book Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Carved Them (1927). Having lived in New England, this idea seems silly to me, as the one thing you don’t need to import there is rock.
A notion I have had to teach myself to reject is to think of the dates on gravestones as 1) the date the stone was erected and 2) something that perfectly corresponds to the modern calendar. In the first case, simply considering that it must take some time between the death of the person and when a stone can be carved (and in many cases transported some distance to the burying ground) is a useful explanation, let alone when issues of finance or social disruption might have made it difficult to raise up a stone
It is the second case that we are going to look at today – when a gravestone offers two versions of the year or death. Our example comes from Edgartown, Massachusetts:
HERE LYES Ye
BODY OF JOHN
42 YEARS DIED
FEBry THE 3D
1717 / 18
It is not the case that the carver had some lapse of memory and forgot which year the deceased passed in, rather it is a curiosity of the calendar. While the Julian calendar was abandoned by Catholic countries in Europe in 1582 in favor of the Gregorian, it was not official discontinued in Great Britain (and of course, her North American colonies) until 1752. Often, even before this change official happened, British documents would offer “dual-dating”, with two years listed, especially when an event fell between the start of the new year in the Julian Calendar (March 25 in the UK) and the Gregorian (January 1).
We see here, in the gravestone of John Trapp (carver unknown), this issue in action, as Mr. Trapp died February 3rd, in 1717 in the Julian calendar but in the year 1718 under the Gregorian system.
Parliament made the shift official in Calendar Act of 1750, making the legal year 1751 run from March 25 to January 1st. Secondly, in order to align the date in British territory with those in Europe, 11 days were cut from 1752, with September 2nd being immediately followed by Sept. 14. A least we know that nothing bad happened from September 3rd, 1752 to September 13, 1752.