With the approach of Patriot’s Day, seven Provincetown men will be honored nearly 240 years after they had served in the Revolutionary War. The seven men are interred at the Winthrop Street cemetery – the oldest in town - and their service was discovered almost by accident, as part of an effort to identify notable people buried there.
Amy Wharf McGuiggan was part of that effort. Her family – the Wharfs - has longstanding roots in Provincetown.
“It occurred to us that there were a number of headstones here with dates that were appropriate to the Revolutionary War era – gentlemen who would’ve been eligible to serve, which would have in those days been from age 16 to 60,” said McGuiggan.
McGuiggan and others involved in the search whittled the eligible names from 20 down to 12, then began cross-checking records using several methods.
“There’s something called a ‘Patriot Index’ which the Daughters of American Revolution put together,” said McGuiggan. “Then we started looking at the muster rolls and Revolutionary War service records. So we just kind of kept going, and all of a sudden, tantalizing clues began to show themselves for about a dozen guys. At that point, we turned the research over to New England Historic Genealogical Society. And they were able to find a little more conclusive evidence for us.”
At that time of the American Revolution, Provincetown was a small outpost with only about 200 inhabitants, most of whom were fishermen. But there’s not much personal information available about them, because a fire destroyed Provincetown Town Hall – and its records – in 1877. What is known is that most of the men who served stayed close to home, far from the battles taking place in New York, Virginia, and other parts of Massachusetts.
“A number of them were right here in the Truro, Wellfleet, Provincetown area on what they called “seacoast defense” – watching the coast for any enemy attack,” said McGuiggan.
Although to some, this type of service may seem inconsequential compared with actually fighting in a battle, the Daughters of the American Revolution considers it legitimate.
“When you say, ‘Well these gentlemen were a month on seacoast defense seven miles down the road in Truro,’ you know, I suspect somebody will say, ‘Well, does that really count?’ But it does,” said McGuiggan.
A couple of the men were gone for long periods of time. One of the highest points in the cemetery holds the grave of Elisha Freeman.
“He does three years’ worth of service…five different tours, including one in Rhode Island. So he was sort of a bona fide what you expect when you say someone served in the war – he went away,” McGuiggan said.
Nearby lies the grave of Alexander Gross.
“We think that he had finished out his service, was sailing to what is now Guyana on a schooner, because he was a fisherman, and was captured and wound up spending a lot of time in Dunkirk, of all places,” said McGuiggan. “And he’s mentioned in letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, which is extraordinary.”
Now that the stories of these seven Provincetown men are known, the Daughters of the American Revolution and other Provincetown organizations will honor them on Patriot’s Day with brass plaques on each grave acknowledging their service in the war that founded the nation.