Old Campus, New History

bruner_cemetery-71
Photo by Raisa Bruner.

There was once a little house here, in the middle of Old Campus. It builds itself in my mind. Then a garden and a chimney and a pig in the yard. I blink and narrow my eyes: the sidewalks dissolve into dirt; the solid hulking towers of Bingham and Durfee and Vanderbilt crumble away. I am left with an image of New Haven at its genesis, before Yale had ever been conceived. A New Haven of vegetable gardens and woodsmoke and small clapboard houses. A New Haven of Puritans. A New Haven of my ancestors.

Over 350 years ago, Old Campus was my family’s homestead. It’s a discovery that surprises me still. On my way to my room in McClellan, I take a moment to savor the vision of the little house with its colonial garden, but the bells of Harkness begin to clang, and it dissolves. The preoccupations of today, the bells seem to say, should banish our reveries and claim our attention. But the past has a way of insinuating itself into the present when we least expect it.

On June 4, 1639, a young man named William Tuttle signed the church covenant document that established New Haven Colony. This fact is my favorite icebreaker at parties, and the following dialogue goes something like this:

“So, where are you from?”

“Well, California, but … my ninth-great-grandfather was one of the original founders of New Haven. He owned Old Campus. So …”

“Whoa.”

Then I launch into my story: in the winter of freshman year, after my Great Aunt Joyce had passed away, my dad traveled to North Carolina to settle her estate. From the dusty cabinets of her old plantation home he sifted out our family tree. Joyce had been researching our genealogy for 14 years. Printed on a typewriter, the stiff pages of information contained Sparknotes portraits in a set of statistics: birth date, death date, name, name of spouse, location of residence. “Nothing else is known about him,” many of the notes read with a sense of futility. The mere existence of those lives seem in doubt, hanging onto the present by such tenuous printed threads.

The ordered names and numbers march back to the 1500s, to England, when the Toothylls (or was it Toothill, or Totyll, or Tuthill? — there is disagreement about the spelling) lived in a town called Ringstead, in Devonshire. They were better off than most; William Tuttle was a “husbandman,” which meant that he owned land. However, as Joyce wrote in her account, “Stuart England was not a pleasant place to live if you were a Puritan, and the Tuttles were Puritans.”

So one day in April of 1635, at the age of 26, William, his wife Elizabeth, and their three young children boarded a ship called the Planter and embarked from London on a 3,000-mile journey to America. “They were sturdy people with a dream in their hearts and they survived,” wrote Joyce, and I like the way she describes their resilience, as simple as hope, as simple as knowing that you must find a better home.

And they did: in July, they stumbled off their ship and into Boston, which was neither a booming city nor a wilderness. (Harvard College was established the year they arrived.) William became a merchant and, according to the public record, was addressed as “Mr.” This was a mark of distinction, explained Joyce, especially for a young man not yet 30 years old.

The story of William and Elizabeth Tuttle is a classic American one. They set sail, slipping away from their old homelands just like the rest of my ancestors — the ones from the Ukraine, from Poland, those tired, dirty, poor, huddled masses escaping religious persecution and poverty and barren land. Except that William and Elizabeth Tuttle were not huddled masses. They chose the Planter because it was a new adventure. They were devout Puritans, but they had faith in free will.

Two years after William Tuttle, John Davenport disembarked in Boston. The Englishman was no mere merchant, no mere “Mr.”: he was a Puritan minister with a dedicated following, and he had ambitious plans for his life in America. In 1638, Davenport, with Tuttle and his growing brood tagging along, left Boston and set up camp in a deserted bay whose land they purchased from the local Native Americans. They had no royal patent, and they did not form a chartered company before breaking off to set down new stakes. In other words, they were renegades and rebels.

The organization of the community and a commitment to the teachings of Davenport were the central tenets of the new colony. Each person had a place. Nowhere was this more clear than in the seating arrangements at the meeting house: every man, woman, and child was designated a specific seat in the hard wooden pews to match his or her position in society. “William and Elizabeth were always seated in high-ranking places,” wrote Joyce, and it’s documented that William was placed at one point next to John Davenport, Jr.

It’s also documented that my ninth-great-grandfather was once fined for falling asleep on the watch; that he was an appointed “fence viewer,” a profession that preceded a modern-day town surveyor; and that he often served as a juror, “selected from among the best of men.”

When the original settlers first came to the untouched territory of New Haven, they instituted geometric order over the wilderness, blocking out nine squares. The central one, today’s Green, was for the market and the church. The other parcels were divvied up among the settlers. William was allotted the southeastern-most bit of land, which is on the corner of State and George Streets today. But William and Elizabeth did not stay in that corner for long. In 1656, he bought a more central piece of land: 200 feet on Chapel Street by 270 feet on College Street.

Fifty years later, after William and Elizabeth had passed away and their descendants had moved on, Center Church of New Haven sold this block of land to a group of men who had founded an educational institution called the Collegiate School. The block was the only property owned by that school, which soon adopted the name of Yale, for 30 years.

Today, we know it as Old Campus.

Life at Yale begins on Old Campus. Freshman move-in day is chaos. The parents. The nervous, tingling fear of “What will happen now that I’m here?” For some, the splendors of this place never quite set in. We always feel on edge — as if by a grand stroke of luck we have been plucked from our normal lives to attend this school, and the wonder, or discomfort, never quite wears off. For others, coming here has always been a part of the plan. Any other twist of fate would have been a wrinkle in the fabric of expectation; we can stroll across campus feeling that we belong. Either way, we try to leave some sort of indelible mark on this place. We might carve our initials on a wooden desk. Or prove ourselves worthy of leading big-name organizations. Or play for a team. We must be remembered, because if not, then how can we prove that we ever truly belonged?

Like everyone else, I set out to make a name for myself. I signed up for dozens of clubs. I shook countless hands, wringing them out like a lifeline to this place. But I was unmoored: thousands of miles from home and independent for the first time, I was shockingly alone.

In the fall I spent five days sick in the hospital. I might as well have disappeared. Faces I knew brought me movies to watch, then buzzed away with purpose. I just wanted to feel the sun on my face, but the doctors kept me inside, floating. For a long time after I returned to my dorm room, I felt disconnected, as though everyone weaved across campus in meaningful ways while I wandered.

Soon after, I received that call from my dad about William Tuttle. Things flickered back into focus, and I returned to the all-consuming business of rooting myself at Yale. I hadn’t known it freshman move-in day, but Old Campus was, for me, fertile soil.

I’m embarrassed to say that, despite my family history in New Haven, I haven’t explored the city very extensively. So it is with uncertainty that I walk under that ominous sign — “THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED.” No matter, I remind myself fiercely. I march into Grove Street Cemetery.

“Can I help you?” asks the caretaker, Bill, as he steps out of the brick building by the entrance. He is old, with grizzled gray hair and twinkling eyes. His mustache has a yellow stain.

“Well … yes, actually. My name is Raisa.” We shake hands as he stands on a step above me.

“Hey, you’re cute,” he says and reaches out to pinch my cheek.

Surprised, I grin and continue: “Well, my ancestors are the Tuttles, and I know — I’ve read — that at least Elizabeth is buried here, maybe some others.” He lights up.

“Oh, yes! We have lots of Tuttles!” I light up too. Is it this easy, I wonder, to come home? To find family? I almost like the fact that they’re all bones now. At least, as an objective mass, they’re simple to analyze. No talking back, no guilt trips. Just my history, faded to dust, set in stone. “Hey, Jose, come meet my new girlfriend!” Bill calls out to the denim-clad man wielding the blaring leaf blower a dozen feet away.

“What’s that?” yells Jose.

“I’m his new girlfriend!” I call out. I say it cheerfully, because I can, because I’m excited to discover proof of my roots. But not today — unfortunately, I have class.

Enthusiasm for family history runs in my blood. In 1883, George Frederick Tuttle wrote an extensive Tuttle genealogy, tracing our family back to Charlemagne and waxing poetic about our positive traits. In the preface, he contextualizes his obsession with heritage: “Not long ago it was usual to apologize in the preface for the publication of a genealogy,” he begins. “A pedigree was sarcastically likened to a potato plant, the best part of which is under ground.” He has a sense of humor, this Tuttle, and I find myself agreeing with him as he stakes his claim: “A great change has taken place … the man who cares nothing for his forefathers or kindred, like him who has no music in his soul, is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, and is not to be trusted.”

G.F. Tuttle’s point seems oddly reasonable to me in that it justifies my quest for heritage.

“Of William Tuttle’s 12 children not one died young. The race is not only prolific, but is fitted to endure,” he writes. Twelve children — three of them axe murderers, some of them mentally disturbed, many of them cited for less-than-Puritan behavior — were all hardy survivors in a rough-and-tumble age. They were a “race” of vigorous young Americans with large families. In 1883, one-third to one-half the population of the New Haven area had a blood connection to the Tuttle line. One in 20 Yale graduates was apparently a Tuttle of some sort. Jonathan Edwards was a Tuttle. Timothy Dwight was a Tuttle. John Trumbull, too.

Each time I come across a familiar name, I experience a small thrill to think that the puzzle of Yale history all comes together in my family, to think that I’m ingrained in the foundation and the wonderful progression of it. It’s satisfying. It’s self-affirming. It’s stupid.

It’s an unusually fine morning when I return to the cemetery, and Bill greets me with a smile. “I’ve pulled out all the Tuttle cards for you already!” Inside the caretaker’s building, I meet Joan, his wife of over 50 years. Two small old dogs are curled up in fluffy beds against the back wall. Every surface is cluttered: jars of birdseed, a plastic shopping bag concealing what looks like a human bone, stacks of papers, an old typewriter. Bill seats me at a chair with the sun full on my back. A vent in the floor turns on noisily, blasting up hot air that smells like a crypt, as I begin to look through the stack of yellowed notecards Bill has presented me, each printed with a name, dates of birth and death, age, and location in the cemetery. There must be a hundred cards here, a hundred graves: Ezekiel, Hannah, Mary, Elizabeth, Ephraim … I jot down a dozen or so, feeling a pang each time.

There are over 14,000 bodies buried in the cemetery, according to Bill, but there are more gravestones than that. In 1797, when the old cemetery in the Green behind the church was becoming overcrowded, Senator James Hillhouse and the State of Connecticut established the Grove Street Cemetery. The old gravestones were moved to the North Wall, but the bodies remain entombed in the Green. No one has ever found the gravestone of William Tuttle — he must have been one of the first to be buried there. I imagine a stone worn away, weathered until it looked like nothing but a boulder, nothing but a mistake. His wife Elizabeth outlived him by 11 years, and her gravestone is here in the new cemetery.

I set out to find it, meandering down leaf-strewn paths, seeking out the Tuttle name amidst the obelisks and mausoleums, modern blocks and old-fashioned markers. In the distance, Bill and Joan are standing close together, silent and contemplative. They have worked here, day in and day out, for the past 36 years. Plots in the cemetery are already marked out for them, making their connection to this ground real. Is mine?

The oldest gravestones are propped up against the back wall. The new Yale HEALTH Center, looming jaggedly from just across the street, casts a dark irony on these graves. Each gravestone is the same shape, like a raised palm with the names and words worn away. Centuries of weather erosion and natural decay have mottled the surfaces of family graves grouped together by last name. Finally, I find the Tuttles.

Elizabeth’s is noticeably different: it’s a short, rounded rock, sunk into the ground, scratched with rudimentary engraving. The numbers are nearly illegible. The name even appears misspelled. Upon his visit to this very same gravestone over a century ago, G.F. Tuttle wrote, “A part of the inscription is still plain; a part is obscured by the crumbling of the stone, and a part is entirely gone. Some ‘Old Morality’ has recently retouched the letters, brought out a few that were before uncertain. It is still but a fragment, like a faint and broken whisper from the far distant and still receding past.”

I’m relieved to sit on the wet grass in front of the stone. The solid weight of history proclaims itself as proof that my past exists in more than just printed words. It rests, half-submerged in turf. It is a connection. A belonging.

Leaving the cemetery, I wave to Bill. “You’re welcome back anytime!” he calls out to me. Welcome home, he means.

In his genealogy, G.F. Tuttle quotes Emerson: “How shall a man escape from his ancestors?” Today we flee as quickly as we can from the baggage that they carry — and it’s easy, and often better, to start clean.

Remembering family, though, is an art that we have lost in the process of looking to the future. Sometimes we forget that heritage isn’t just history; it’s a continuing story, one that we are still shaping.

It would be arrogant and foolish of me to say that, just because a drop of blood links me to New Haven’s history, I belong here more than anyone else does. But a part of me will belong to New Haven long after I graduate.

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