Pepperbox Cemetery (171 Niles Hill Road, Waterford, CT)

Today one comes upon Pepperbox Cemetery rather unexpectedly, as a narrow strip of gravestones suddenly appears near the convergence of Niles Hill, Dimmock, and Pepperbox Roads. The cemetery dates back nearly three hundred years to the early years of New London, before the establishment of Waterford as a separate town. Historian Francis Caulkins describes the rocky site as painfully precipitous on one side, but nonetheless beautiful as it offered a panoramic view of the countryside and Long Island Sound beyond.[1]

Pepperbox Cemetery (171 Niles Hill Road, Waterford, CT)

Beside the cemetery stood the original hilltop church. Smaller, squarer, and taller than customary, the building was called a “pepperbox” because of its unusual shape.

The story of the Fort Hill Church and its cemetery began when a group, calling themselves “Dissenters”, desired to break away from the state-sponsored Congregational Church, to create a Baptist Church in New London in 1704. As they presented themselves to the General Court, they were a society of twelve brethren and sisters under an ordained teacher, Daniel Pierce. Until the church was constructed, they met in the home of a fellow member.

By 1726, the Dissenters had increased in numbers and influence and hired an ordained pastor, 22-year-old Steven Gorton. He was the grandson of Samuel Gorton, himself a noted religious dissenter who founded Warwick, Rhode Island after many years of legal battles with government officials in Massachusetts over his unorthodox religious beliefs. Young Steven married Sarah Rogers Haynes, a woman of piety and considerable estate, and a widow more than twenty years his senior who already had twelve children of her own. It was said that Steven Gorton, a man of great religious fervor and fluent oratory, was taught to read and write by his wife.

Pepperbox Cemetery (Waterford)

The site for a new church was donated by Isaac Fox, and the small segment of land for a burial ground adjoining the meeting house was given in 1730 by William Rowe. Two different congregations, “First Day Baptists” and “Seventh Day Baptists” combined to build a house of worship, but shared the building by meeting at separate times. Upon his death in 1749, Fox left a library of books and one hundred ounces of silver to the First Day Baptists. He hoped that one day there would be a “First Day Baptist Church in the center of New London again. The money was to be improved and the principal kept good.” Among the group congregants were several prominent New London area residents, including Philip Taber, Samuel Fox, and Jonathan Rogers. Other members came from various surrounding areas such as East Lyme, Colchester, and even so far as Wallingford.

Pepperbox Cemetery (171 Niles Hill Road, Waterford, CT)
Pepperbox Cemetery (171 Niles Hill Road, Waterford, CT)

During the latter part of Elder Steven Gorton’s ministry, his moral character was impeached “for unchaste behavior with his fellow men.” It was said his behavior “exhibited an attraction to men for many years”[2] and those members both for and against him were “fierce and vehement in their dissensions.”[3]

Gorton was brought before a Baptist convention in Rhode Island for trial in 1757. It judged that his behavior indicated “an inward disposition”[4] to this “sin of so black and dark a dye.”[5] Although the main charges against him were not proven, his conduct was condemned and considered so unworthy that the convention recommended his dismissal.

However, still he maintained about a quarter of his followers, so he was not dismissed and kept possession of the pulpit. Finally in 1772 hostility grew until, finally, one Sunday morning in 1772, his opponents gathered together and, as a group, approached the meetinghouse. Gorton was presiding on the pulpit when one of the party, Philip Taber, ascended the pulpit and forcibly expelled him out of the church. The crowd pulled Gorton, his wife, and the rest of the group off the sacred grounds and down the hill. It is said they threw his Bible after him. Mr. Taber was charged and fined for breach of peace and profanation on the Sabbath.

Pepperbox Cemetery (171 Niles Hill Road, Waterford, CT)
Pepperbox Cemetery (171 Niles Hill Road, Waterford, CT)

Elder Gorton fled to the western part of the state. “He left behind him in New London no family, no church records, no faithful flock to lament his loss, nothing but a dispersed congregation and a tarnished name.”[6] Some of the congregation joined the Baptist ministry of Elder Zaok Darrow on Mullen Hill road. The Pepperbox Hill church building was eventually demolished in 1847, and the Pepperbox Cemetery maintained by another group. The other group, the Seventh Day Baptists, that shared the church building with them, eventually moved to a building on Great Neck Road, where they still hold services today.

Pepperbox Cemetery Plague

Notes

[1] Note: In those days few trees or houses blocked the view.

[2] Don Romesburg, The Routladge of Queer America

[3] Caulkins

[4] Romesburg

[5] ibid

[6] Caulkins

Pepperbox Cemetery (171 Niles Hill Road, Waterford, CT)

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