Deep roots

Not long ago, when two names popped up on my Churchill family tree, they had the ring of familiarity. I probed my memory as to where I might have encountered them but just couldn’t place them until I noticed that this husband and wife are buried in Hingham’s High Street Cemetery. Then, it all came back to me in one of those Really? moments that makes one wonder how often, because the timing isn’t right, we cross paths with something relevant to our lives but pass it by unknowingly and obliviously.

One of my regular bicycle routes takes me through the historic High Street Cemetery, founded in 1681 and incorporated in 1855. Less than a mile from my house, the beautifully landscaped private cemetery occupies seven acres and features an 1855 meetinghouse that once served as the cemetery chapel, as well as the Gothic Revival Whiting Chapel, donated in 1905 by Albert Whiting in memory of his parents. Revolutionary War and Civil War veterans’ graves are scattered throughout the cemetery and many of the older monuments bear the familiar names of Hingham’s earliest settlers: Tower, Fearing, Stodder, Lincoln, Wilder, Loring, and Cushing.

[Many] of the older monuments bear the familiar names of Hingham’s earliest settlers: Tower, Fearing, Stodder, Lincoln, Wilder, Loring, and Cushing.

My route is always the same, into the cemetery by way of the Main Street gate and out by way of the High Street gate. One spring day some years ago, while pedaling along, I espied a magnificent bald face hornets’ nest that had survived the winter perfectly intact, hanging from the bare branch of an equally magnificent sugar maple. I quickly jumped off my bike to have a closer look. That prompted me to begin exploring the headstones under the maples, a number of which looked quite ancient.

Adjacent to a section of Cushing family members I saw a straight row of eleven closely gathered headstones, many with their smaller footstone wedged in behind them, the tallest standing about knee-high and the smallest a mere eight by ten inches. All the stones – iconic New England burying ground stones – were ornately carved with a “death’s head,” the winged skull symbolizing physical death and spiritual regeneration, and elaborate side panels with rosettes and florals. Their proximity to one another suggested a family unit.

Remarkably, most of the inscriptions were still quite legible, unlike the inscriptions on nearly all of the Cushing stones. What I marveled at were the dates on several of the stones: 1688, 1691, 1693, and 1694 – the 1694 grave belonged to a man named George Russell who died in his 99th year, making his birth year about 1595! The 1688 grave belonged to George’s wife, Jane. The other surnames were Jacob, Bisbe, and Low, but only the name Jacob rang any kind of a bell. Behind the nursery school on Main Street, a stone’s throw from the cemetery, is Jacob’s Meadow, a 50-acre conservation property owned by the town. Since first being drawn to these headstones, I have made them a regular stop whenever I ride through the cemetery, never imagining that one day I might find a connection to my own family.

When I first encountered these early Hingham settlers, I had not yet begun researching the life of my grandfather, John J. Osborne, who, the family was told, had grown up an orphan. Piecing together his family tree, his paternal line took me from his grandmother, Lydia Jane Churchill (1833–1884), the wife of George F. Osborne, to Lydia’s great-great-grandfather, Ebenezer Churchill (1705–1751), who married Leah Keen (1702–1781) in 1728. Both were from Plympton, Massachusetts. Leah’s parents, Matthew Keen of Duxbury (1667–1717) and Martha Mackfarlin of Hingham (1671–after 1707), were married on 20 December 1698 in Hingham. Martha was the daughter of Purthe Mackfarlin (sometimes spelled Macvarlo), and Patience Russell.

Since first being drawn to these headstones, I have made them a regular stop whenever I ride through the cemetery, never imagining that one day I might find a connection to my own family.

At this point, the story gets a little less certain, though a likely argument has been made that Patience Russell was the youngest daughter of George and Jane Russell. The Russells’ eldest daughter Mary, along with her husband Captain John Jacob, whom she married in 1661, are among that “family” of eleven graves in the High Street Cemetery.

There is only one source to consult for these early settlers, and so I turned to the Great Migration 1634–1635,[1] wherein Robert Charles Anderson provides a sketch of George Russell. Mr. Anderson details the evidence (contrary to James Savage[2] and C. H. Pope[3]) that a George Russell, who arrived in New England on the Elizabeth in 1635 at the age of 19 (making his birth date 1616, which is inconsistent with a 1595 birthdate), is not the man of the same name who appears in Hingham in 1636 and who was granted five acres of land on South Street near Thaxter’s Bridge. In sorting out the two men, Mr. Anderson has already (fortunately for me) provided a thoroughly researched sketch of the 1636 immigrant George Russell, who will reappear in the next Great Migration time frame. So, in a sense, we’ve been given a sneak preview.

After arriving in Hingham – settled in 1633 as Bare Cove – and spending time in Plymouth through 1638, George Russell (1595–1694) married Jane ____ (c. 1605–1688), the “widow James,” at Hingham in 1639/40.[4] Some sources give Jane’s maiden name as Davenport, although Mr. Anderson stops short at endorsing the claim. Three children for whom there is documentation were born to George and Jane, and baptized at Hingham: Mary in 1641, Elizabeth in 1642/43, and Martha in 1645.[5]  There is no birth/baptism record for a Patience Russell, but Mr. Anderson leaves open the door, per George Lincoln’s History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts,[6] that a fourth daughter, Patience, was born to the couple in 1647. And though he conflates the two George Russells, Pope also names Patience as a fourth daughter.

Image of the Hobart/Hubbard journal, where mention is made of Patience Russell’s marriage, courtesy of Click on image to expand it.

Patience Russell, “the daughter of George Russell,” married Scotland-born Purthe Mackfarlin at Hingham on 3 July 1667.[7] The marriage record includes an asterisk next to George Russell’s name with a note at the bottom of the page indicating that he was “of Scituate.” Mr. Anderson, who traced the various residences for George Russell, has him, indeed, living in Scituate in 1667. He was also living in Scituate in 1647, when and where Patience may have been born. In 1671, Purthe and Patience named the third of their twelve children – my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother – Martha, possibly in honor of the sister who was born two years before Patience.

With my new-found family history in hand and with a sense of life having come full circle, I returned to the cemetery to visit my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, George and Jane Russell. Though I’ve been in Hingham most of my life, I never had any inkling that I had Hingham ancestors or that I was riding my bike past their graves. It makes me wonder how many more life encounters have come and gone without their real significance showing itself.

As for the nest, once I convinced the cemetery caretaker that the bees had fled and he wouldn’t be stirring up, literally, a hornet’s nest – something we family genealogists sometimes do – he cut it down for me … and I still have it.


[1] Robert Charles Anderson et al., The Great Migration: Immigrants to New England, 1634–1635, 7 vols. (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1999–2011), 6: 125–33.

[2] James Savage, A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, 4 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1860–62), 3: 590.

[3] Charles Henry Pope, The Pioneers of Massachusetts… (Boston, 1900; reprinted as Pioneers of Massachusetts in Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2013), 395.

[4] C. Edward Egan Jr., “The Hobart Journal,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 121 [1967]: 3–25 at 12.

[5] Egan, “The Hobart Journal,” Register 121 [1967]: 13, 15, 18.

[6] George Lincoln, History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts, 3 vols. in 4 (Hingham, 1893), 3: 142.

[7] Egan, “The Hobart Journal,” Register 121 [1967]: 102–27 at 120.

About Amy Whorf McGuiggan

Amy Whorf McGuiggan recently published Finding Emma: My Search For the Family My Grandfather Never Knew; she is also the author of My Provincetown: Memories of a Cape Cod Childhood; Christmas in New England; and Take Me Out to the Ball Game: The Story of the Sensational Baseball Song. Past projects have included curating, researching, and writing the exhibition Forgotten Port: Provincetown’s Whaling Heritage (for the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum) and Albert Edel: Moments in Time, Pictures of Place (for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum).

3 thoughts on “Deep roots

  1. Amazing, my sons attended Deerfield Academy where there is a colonial cemetery. They were there for four years never knowing that they have 8 ancestors buried in the ancient cemetery that they walked by everyday. I was thrilled and amazed (they not so much)

  2. I have enjoyed reading your blogs, especially the one about Charlie Darby. He rests in the same cemetery as my uncle, Clayton Pye, who was killed in 1943, during WWII. What I am most curious about is your connection to Richard Whorf. My mother grew up in Winthrop and attended school with him. She talked about him and how talented he was quite often. I grew up in Winthrop too, so traveled past their former home frequently. I know the Whorf family left Winthrop and relocated on the Cape. I believe you must be related to them.

  3. My husband is a descendant of Purde and Patience Russell MacVarlo through their son James, b. 1675, who married Sarah Lane. We were able to spend a couple of hours at the High Street Cemetery and thoroughly enjoyed it. Unfortunately we missed the museum by 15 minutes, but their online resources are very interesting and helpful. The MacVarlos have been pretty elusive, but that just makes it more of a challenge, right? Thank you for a lovely and informative article.

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