Here Lyes y Body
of Abigail Jeʃʃup
Daughter of Mr .
Iʃaac & Mrs. Sarah
Jeʃʃup Who Decd.
In Novmbr 1724 Aged
About 11 Years
When a child is dead, in this case a little girl long gone, there is a thing in us that makes it hard to picture her as being anything other than that young age—the passage of that sort of time ceases. I was turning that thought over in my mind as I traveled to Noyac last year to attend this eleven-year-old girl’s 300th birthday.
The inscription on her headstone had to act as the invitation even though it lacks her date of birth. It gives the month and year of her death, but her age is somehow only approximated. Therefore, I’m left with a shrugged-shouldered estimate that she was born in 1713.
Abigail Jessup lived her short life a century after the first Puritans trod upon Plymouth Rock, and she died eight years before George Washington was born. But beyond her having been among the earliest of the Europeans to arrive on eastern Long Island, there has long been the buzz of mystery and interest associated with this girl’s grave. I’ve met many who’ve visited the site and most become animated and passionate at the mention of her name.
It’s an isolated headstone—there are no other family graves or the graves of any others nearby to provide the living with the vague comfort that she’s not alone. It’s located out on Jessup’s Neck in a forested patch of this two-mile-long, finger-shaped peninsula that extends into Peconic Bay from the Morton National Wildlife Refuge. Of those who’ve happened upon her over the decades, most cannot re-create the route they took to find her, and the internet has several pleading requests to reveal where she is exactly, and why she was buried so remotely, away from everything but trees, sand and the wind. But the internet also contains varied shreds of information that help to piece things together. I’ve been a self-appointed shred gatherer for many years and now have a bit of reporting to offer.
From the trail near the ranger station at the refuge, there is a short hike into the woods that is wildly popular because, if one stands quietly with a sunflower seed in the hand of an outstretched arm, a chickadee will soon perch on a thumb or pinkie and take that seed. But further on, the woods open to the beach and to the stunning sight of the curve of hills of Jessup’s Neck straight ahead, Robins and Shelter Islands to the left and right, and across the bay, the North Fork. It is the best place to stand and ogle the most beautiful view on Long Island.
The area had been occupied by Native Americans known as the Wickatucks and they named this neck of land “Noyack.” Then the Europeans showed up, and in 1679, Abbie’s family bought the land and had a house near the area of the present ranger station. Noyack was re-named Jessup’s Neck, but the name Noyac was kept and applied to the surrounding town. The “k” at the end of Noyack as well as the Wickatucks were both, for the most part, removed over time.
I’ve been something close to a regular at the refuge for decades and have visited Abbie many times. The headstone is a slice of dark gray, almost black slate. It shows virtually no erosion and every inscribed word is crisp and legible. On its tympanum (its rounded top portion) is a depiction of a skull with wings. The skull is a Puritan symbol of the transition to the spirit world, and the wings provide a clue of where that world was believed to be and supposes the means of travel. As for me, when I see that winged skull, I can think only of its aerodynamic implausibility. But I suppose the world of spirits is defined by its disregard for earthly physics.
There is also a footstone that is not quite five feet from the headstone. When one figures that the casket had to be small enough to fit between the stones, and that Abbie had to be smaller still to fit in the casket, it is hard to avoid somber thoughts of the tiny body that was placed there.
The headstone’s inscription is oddly written to the modern eye. There are Old English spellings, the superscripting of the latter portions of abbreviated words, an erratic use of capitalization, and inclusions of what is known as the long s, which is every bit an s despite looking more like an f.
Abbie died of smallpox, a disease that ravaged the Puritan settlers and nearly exterminated the area’s Native Americans. She would likely have endured a painful death covered with hundreds of bumpy lesions that looked like lines of small hills. When she died, she was taken out to Jessup’s Neck and hidden within a line of much larger hills. Her casket was lined with lead and she was buried far from the house since smallpox was highly contagious, even after death. And Jessup’s Neck was just the place to hide her away.
It seemed puzzling to me that her birth date was not available to the inscriber of the headstone. But I found some information that indicates that in the 1800s, the present headstone replaced a previous marker. This is consistent with the idea that the Puritans who came from Massachusetts and settled in the Noyac area were often opposed to carved headstones since they were considered graven images and forbidden by the second commandment. Instead, they often used simple wooden crosses. Abbie received her upgrade in the century following her death when Christians became a little less hard-nosed about the second commandment. Perhaps, of the information on the original wooden marker that was transferred to the new headstone, her date of birth was no longer legible and is now gone forever.
Her grave is famously hard to find and those who are in on the secret seem intent on holding to an exclusive group. Graveyards are designed with the idea of welcoming visitors, but a lone grave in the woods somehow seems to send a quite opposite message. No one I’ve met offers up Abbie’s location, and I’ve even been asked (more than once) for a vow of the same kind of silence on the matter.
There are further obstacles for those who might wish to solve the mystery of her location. Jessup’s Neck is closed to invading humans from April to August and is turned over to the cause of replenishing the dwindling numbers of piping plovers that nest on the beach. And even in the months when the beach is open to hikers, it is the toughest of slogs over a sort of dry quicksand consisting of jingle shells, slipper shells, and quartz pebbles. The two-mile walk out to the north end feels like four. Also, the forest is speckled with hordes of ticks and swarms of chiggers so ferocious, the thought occurs that they must be allied in Abbie’s defense.
If someone overcomes all her other protections, her last one is a swirling tangle of Asiatic bittersweet vines that are three inches thick and have the look of Jules Vernian tentacles encircling the grave. So Abbie is just an alligatored moat away from total imperviousness and is essentially immune from her only real enemy, the casually mischievous.
As a birthday gift, I carefully selected an unchipped whelk shell from the beach and laid it at the base of her headstone upon the existing pile of twenty or so that preceded mine. For graves that are for some reason noteworthy, there is a tradition of leaving a memento. In Amherst, Emily Dickinson’s headstone always has a dozen or so pens perched on its top or clustered at its base. In Springs, near Noyac, Jackson Pollock’s headstone is a Prius-sized boulder transported here by the same glacier that created Jessup’s Neck. Visitors arrange piles of small stones on the big rock, however, one visitor apparently knew Pollock’s history better than most and left a cabernet. For Abbie, it’s all about the whelks. Her grave overlooks the beach and the shells are elegant and conforming adornments.
The death of this girl provokes thoughts in me of comings and goings. The Native Americans were driven out by the Europeans; the Europeans brought disease that killed our Abbie along with many other immigrants and Native Americans. The immigrants who followed have nearly removed the piping plover from the list of our island’s assets. And a more recent invader, an otherwise large and nasty vine from Asia, surrounds and protects the memory of this little girl, at least for now.
I will continue to visit Abbie and intend to be there in November, 2024 for the 300th anniversary of her death. Remind me to pick up a nice whelk on the way.