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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Remember Me, But Forget My Fate

Lewis Hine Collection
Lewis Hine Collection

I am a historical whistleblower. It's what I do. Since the day that I discovered the Carroll County Farm Pauper Cemetery located in Ossipee, NH, everything changed. There are 298 numbered graves sitting on a hill in plain sight, yet no one knew who they were. In fact, no one really wanted to talk about it.

At first, I was stunned. However, when I was told by the record keepers (and those who should have these names recorded) that the records burned in a fire and to leave it alone, I knew what I had to do. It took a great deal of determination to find 268 names of those buried there. The master cemetery index in the town included the cemetery but no names. Staring at the blank page fueled my passion to reclaim their identities and souls. This was in 2004. I have been researching narratives connected to the "Poor Farm" ever since. My work has expanded to the textile mills of Fall River, MA, the streets of New York, the Orphan Trains, and back to the Great Famine of Ireland. I am now working on the Magdalene Laundries that were right here in America. We just don't speak of it. All of the talk about acknowledgment pleases me. I have been blown away by how much of our history has been systematically erased or heavily edited. My purpose is to shine a light in these dark places. To me, it is startling that we know so little. If we are going to illuminate these hidden stories, it is vital to include as many voices as possible. I do not see this as a race issue, but the consequences of class division and oppression brought about by the Patriarchal Corporate Capitalist Agenda that we must acknowledge if we are going to roll up our sleeves and fight for transparency. The following is the preface to the first book in the Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series. I know, from many lectures that I have given, that a majority of people in attendance have no idea what it really meant to be an inmate of the Poor Farms. I was pleased that my talk at the New Boston Historical Society prompted them to have their own project related to my work. They spent time finding the names of those buried at the Hillsborough County Pauper Cemetery in Goffstown. It looks just like the one in Ossipee with twice as many graves. These sights are peppered all around us. They are evidence of various levels of our social welfare system throughout time. They are unnamed (for the most part).

Carroll County Farm Cemetery, Ossipee, NH
Carroll County Farm Cemetery, Ossipee, NH

After I finished the first book in the series, my goal was to have a monument placed at the site to identify them. That process in itself took many months to accomplish. It was not the fund-raising or the crafting of the monument that was grueling, but finally getting approval from the county. I am grateful that because of the support of the County Administrator at the time, it finally happened and the collective shame and fear was healed. If you live nearby and are interested in those who were buried there (beginning in 1870), it is worth the trip. Acknowledgment is healing. We should teach our children about our ancestors and citizens that lived and died there. It was not just their physical death that speaks volumes, but their social death—when they were no longer part of society. Yes, I know that in time, the County Farm became a more gentle place, but I am focused on the early days following the town poor farms—the 19th century. It's our history and we should know it. It is also an opportunity for many to find missing branches of their family trees. A complete list of the numbered souls is provided on this website. My next post will be the preface from book two, The Angels' Lament. It is another significant example of what we didn't know, and why the mill history of the entire city (Fall River, MA) was dimmed and unacknowledged. Most of the focus of the textile mills in America is covered extensively in the Lowell area and northern parts of New England. There is so much that we do not know. We can choose something else. However, if we are going to go there, let's look at the broader view. —Mj Pettengill, Author ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


On a dreary March afternoon in the quiet town of Ossipee, New Hampshire, I encountered a place that would forever change me. Sprawled out in long, meandering rows on a snow-covered hillside, were 298 numbered gravestones. When I learned that this was a county pauper cemetery, I was inspired to discover who lie in the earth beneath the shadowy graves. I decided that this would be the subject of my culminating study at Vermont College.

Initially, I was advised by several people not to bother with my research because the records burned in a fire. Although I have lived in Carroll County and in other parts of the state for most of my life, I faced resistance. I was new to the Ossipee region and was considered to be an outsider. My questions raised suspicion, and many others had little or no interest in the paupers. Meeting with these obstacles fueled my own fires. I had no choice but to follow my instincts and unveil a somber truth.

My research led to a comprehensive, painstaking account of life in rural New Hampshire in the late 19th century, which carries with it dramatic lessons about a nation torn by the devastation of a civil war and economic depression. I quickly realized that this significant part of our past was essentially omitted from traditional history books.

Some of us may have heard references made to the Poor Farm in jest, but we do not comprehend the depth of its meaning. I believe that it’s worth knowing what it meant to be a pauper in the late 19th century and what it means today. It’s a part of our story.

Following the days of auctioning off the poor to the lowest bidder (yes, the lowest bidder), came the 19th century county poor farm. Sometimes known as almshouses or poorhouses, these farms were large complexes intended for people of all ages, character, and circumstances, to be housed together, resulting in wretched conditions.

Contrary to what we may have heard, a poorhouse was not a debtor’s prison. A person with debt, but able to meet his needs and the needs of his family, would not be required to go to the poorhouse. The plight of the paupers was affected by the unsustainability of a rural, post war society. When they became a burden on the community, it was the county poor farm that offered relief. Their crimes were that of poverty, old age, vagrancy, mental and physical disabilities, being orphaned, or being pregnant and unwed.

I focused primarily on the life and death of the paupers, also referred to as inmates. The question that continued to motivate me was, “What did it mean to be a pauper?” However, in order to fully comprehend the complex nature of the county poor farm, it was necessary to expand my investigation to include a cross section of others associated with the institution, such as overseers, workers, townspeople, the religious community, and those who found relief at the facility by checking in voluntarily during hard times. From their multi-faceted perspectives, I was afforded a glimpse into the foundation of America’s current welfare system.

Ongoing societal change, reform, and local and state laws brought about many changes within the county farm complex. Separate institutions such as hospitals, correctional facilities, orphanages, nursing homes, and agricultural extensions emerged. The roles of charitable and religious organizations regarding the poor and disadvantaged were redefined, bringing about the field of social work, which was and has continued to be invaluable in promoting quality care, adequate placement, and the protection of human rights.

In New England, many of the aforementioned facilities are situated on the very same grounds as the original county farms and are somewhat, if not completely, operational. Some of the historic buildings currently standing are partially or fully renovated, and they serve a variety of functions, while other buildings are crumbling. In many cases the land is used for local agriculture, community action programs, and working farms in connection with correctional facilities.

When you see a sign marked “County Farm Road,” it is certain to lead to a current or past site of a county farm dating back to the 19th century. We do not deny the existence of these farms, but what we know about them are merely remnants of information scribbled in handwritten records, yellowed newspaper articles, fragments of dwindling stories passed down from our elders, or what we have read in popular Victorian literature. The paupers themselves are no longer visible.

After careful thought and deliberation, I decided that Etched in Granite would be a work of historical fiction. The personal narratives of three individuals with diverse backgrounds and connections to the Poor Farm are woven together to tell a story of tragedy, courage, and lost love. Any resemblance to real people is coincidental.

The narrators are: Abigail Hodgdon, a young woman who through unexpected events becomes an inmate at the Poor Farm; Nellie Baldwin, an Abenaki Elder and healer who shares her rich story of immigration from Northern Vermont to New Hampshire during a time of racial intolerance; and Silas Putnam, a young farm boss and the object of Abigail’s affection. He offers a male perspective, illuminating the administrative or “other” side and how being in a position of authority often brings conflict.

The aftermath of the Civil War is clearly defined in this story, as both Abigail’s and Silas’s fathers served together in the 6th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. Like so many others, Abigail’s family endured the loss of the male head of the household when her father was killed, and Silas’s father returned home with a wooden leg, an affinity for whiskey, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Although veterans received pensions and had access to rest homes, the casualties of war left many orphaned and widowed. A substantial number of those who survived returned home with physical and emotion wounds, unable to sustain a healthy, functioning family unit. These conditions resulted in insurmountable stress on the family structure, leaving it both economically and emotionally unstable for generations, adding to the ongoing burden of pauperism and general dysfunction.

My experience as a Civil War Music Historian was of great worth. The research required to ensure a historically correct performance, sifting through archives and participating in living historical events, broadened my comprehension of the era, providing insight into details that may not have been included.

The process of gathering information, opening a dialogue, and sharing the names of the paupers, is a story in itself. I became keenly aware of the collective fear and shame regarding the secrets of our past. I believe that acknowledgment and acceptance bring healing.

To preserve the integrity of native language and dialect, a handful of Abenaki terms are used throughout the narrative. A glossary is provided.

It is my mission to give voices to those silenced, to evoke images where they have been erased, and to replace numbers with names. During the early stage of exploration, I discovered the identities of more than 260 souls. They are listed at the end of this book.


Jun 07, 2021

Saw your post on the Sandwich Board. It seemed important so I thought I would check it out. Keep pulling back the curtain and revealing the dark secrets we have been too ashamed to acknowledge.

Mj Pettengill
Mj Pettengill
Jun 08, 2021
Replying to

Thank you for your support and for comprehending my message. 🙏🏼

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