This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 11, 2016.
The Reverend John Wheelwright is credited with leading a group of religious dissenters out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the relative wilderness of Exeter in 1638. Caught up in a controversy about the very nature of their faith, this small group of people had been excommunicated and exiled. But within five years of settling on the Squamscott, more people had arrived and they voted to become part of Massachusetts for protection. Wheelwright and his followers left by 1643, leaving the town slightly depleted in population and, more importantly, without a minister to act as leader.
For seven years, the town had no settled minister. The aptly named Hatevil Nutter agreed to be the town’s “exhorter” – not quite a minister, more like a spiritual advisor - providing the townsmen erected a fence around his land on the Lamprey River. He served his time until the fence was completed in 1650, at which point, Nutter and the town seemed satisfied that the agreement had been met. A new minister was recruited from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Who could be better than the Reverend Samuel Dudley – son of Massachusetts governor, Thomas Dudley?
Samuel Dudley was the man the town wanted. He had the education and pedigree everyone craved and he was in no way a theological liability. It took a fair amount of bargaining to lure Dudley to Exeter. Most towns found it difficult to pay their minister, and Dudley was taking no chances. He received land, firewood, a home (the one Wheelwright had left) and payment in the form of valuable lumber. During his time in town he was able to renegotiate his holdings and died a rich man. Surely his grave is worthy of a roadside marker labeled “historic.”
But Samuel Dudley is not buried on the edge of the Squamscott River where the marker directs us. He’s buried just off of Green Street. The marker on Newfields Road points to the grave of James Dudley, one of the Reverend Samuel’s 18 children. James was born in 1663, to Samuel’s third wife, Elizabeth. He was one of the younger children, born when his father was 55 years old. Little is known about James. He received a grant of land from the town, as most men did in the 1600s. He married Elizabeth Leavitt of Exeter, but died at the age of 57 “s.p.” – Latin for sine prole “without descendants.” Genealogists typically don’t spend a lot of time on the part of the family tree that didn’t branch forward. A note from Exeter genealogist Elizabeth Knowles Folsom lists him as a shipmaster and merchant, so perhaps he was at sea a great deal and that’s why he doesn’t show up in the town records as a selectman or town clerk or measurer of wood and bark.
The land was eventually purchased by the Swasey family and came into the possession of Exeter industrialist Ambrose Swasey. Swasey left the land to his niece, Leona Henderson, in 1937. The Henderson family, with the advice and assistance of the Exeter Historical Society, made repairs to the gravesite in 1971, and erected the roadside marker seen today. Concerned that even these upgrades might be lost, they wrote up a document explaining how they’d gone about the work, encased it in a brass tube and had it buried beneath the concrete in front of the slab. Warren J. Henderson, Leona’s husband, noted in the document, “It is to be hoped that this gravesite will be allowed to remain unto eternity, but though possible, it might not be probable, and if ever dug up, this capsule under the slab should be intact and legible.” He signed the note, “Most Humbly, Warren J. Henderson.”
James Dudley was probably buried beneath his somewhat elaborate grave marker because of his lineage. It’s certainly telling that his birth date is not listed, but his parentage is. His wife, Elizabeth Leavitt, married twice after his death. It is unlikely that hers was one of the other graves on the Lyford property. With no direct descendants, it is unusual that the tiny cemetery survived the centuries. The Swaseys and the Hendersons proved to be the adopted family James Dudley needed to cherish his memory. Humble indeed.