The Girl in the Woods
She was only eleven-years old when she died in November of 1724. According to the ancient tombstone in the woods, her name was Elizabeth Jessup, daughter of Isaac and Sarah Jessup. Probably she died of some childhood disease? Perhaps a tragic accident? I only know that her body rests in what must be the most remote, and lonely, grave on Long Island—deep in the tangled undergrowth of the forested peninsula called Jessup’s Neck, which juts northwards into Peconic Bay like a comma.
Today, this peninsula comprises the Elizabeth Morton National Wildlife Refuge. Encompassing upland forest, fresh and saltwater marshes, freshwater streams and ponds, miles of rocky beaches, as well as a native population of virtually every bird, mammal, amphibian, crustacean, and fish known to populate Long Island, the refuge is a local treasure. A hike through the refuge is a journey back into another time.
It was several years ago that my hiking partner and I first descended the forest trail. Chickadees and nuthatches flitted and chattered in the cedar trees. Some flew onto our hands as we held out offerings of sunflower seeds. Ahead, wild turkeys pecked at seeds and insects, then loped comically as they veered into the tangled catbrier and poison ivy along the trail. I wondered if Elizabeth walked this trail and marveled at the bird life? Or, in her day, maybe this was a field of corn or a meadow for horses to graze?
Half-a-mile down the trail the trees ended, the sky opened, and we stood on a gravel beach looking out at the shimmering waters of Peconic Bay. Due west, off in the distance, lay Robin’s Island, across the bay the shoreline of Southold, and, to the east, the waters of Shelter Island Sound. A few sailboats slid lazily by on a light breeze. It didn’t take much imagination to envision the coastal schooners of Elizabeth’s day sailing east from Riverhead loaded with firewood to warm Manhattan homes. Did she watch them go by and wonder what life was like in a big city?
This part of Jessup’s Neck is more like a barrier beach, just a couple of hundred yards wide with a fresh-water pond cupped in its center and ringed with marsh grasses. Some egrets and a great blue heron stood in the pond and a pair of ospreys circled above their nest built in the top of a dead tree. The beach gravel is too soft for comfortable hiking, but, higher up, just below the driftwood and storm-wrack, a white ribbon of sand made a nice trail to follow.
Less than a mile of beach walking brought us to the forested north end of the neck. A mixed forest of hardwoods and cedars is perched upon eroding cliffs twenty-feet above the water. Once we reached this tree-line, we followed a narrow trail on the right that led us past the pond and into the trees for a short-cut across to the opposite shore.
It was near there that we came upon Elizabeth’s headstone, enclosed by a rusting, iron fence, probably erected many years later by someone who was sensitive to the loneliness of the grave. Could it have been an ancestor? A later property owner? Maybe even a historical society? I remember that the forest was especially dense and gloomy there. The leafy ceiling of sassafras and oak trees blotted out the sun, and ominous looking anthills nearby swarmed with red ants. Perhaps solitude is what ghosts prefer.
With some relief we emerged out onto the eastern shoreline and sat on a big, glacial boulder to drink water and eat a snack. Looking east we saw the shoreline of North Haven and the bluffs of Shelter Island. Just offshore a line of wooden poles stuck out of the water with a few cormorants perched on them catching the warmth of the afternoon sun. I recognized these poles as the frame for trap-nets, used by baymen to capture migrating schools of weakfish, fluke, and striped bass. This type of fishing hasn’t changed since its invention by native Americans, and it struck me that it might have been practiced by Elizabeth’s father all those years ago.
We turned to the north again, and with the bluffs on our left, walked to the end of the neck. Since the beginning of the hike we had not met another person. Now, as we stood on the very tip of land where it turned into a long finger of gravel before disappearing into the bay waters, we felt as isolated as two people could get on the mainland of Long Island. The nearest road was nearly three-miles away. The only sound was the chuff of wind and lapping of waves. It was a place frozen in time, steeped in nature; and inhabited by a very old, young ghost.