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The Mast-Head: Our Present Grief

Thu, 02/01/2024 - 09:39

It was on a high summer day in September 1716 when four children drowned in Georgica Pond on their way home from sabbath worship. East Hampton’s Rev. Nathaniel Huntting put the incident in his church record, which contained the births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths in the town from 1699 to 1749.

Reverend Huntting wrote in the ages of three of the four victims, three girls, and the name of one. The other child in this tragedy was a Black youth for whom just the name of his enslaver was given. Huntting’s description was similarly spare:

“Sept. 6. This day Francis Noyes, aged abt. 17 years. A daughter of Steph. Hands, aged about 14 years. A daughter of David Fithians, abt. 7 years, & a negro lad of Joseph Strettons, going home over Georgike from meeting, were drowned just as Yy got over, ye canoe looking and sinking.”

A voluble preacher, the Reverend Huntting had been equally terse when he put the name of one of his own children in the death record that July. “Elisabeth, daughter of Nathal. & Mary Huntting, died abt. 9 of clock A.M. aged a little above 8 months.”

If children lived past roughly their 4th birthday, they tended to keep their feet on the right side of the grass unless taken in some kind of accident or another. Teenage deaths seemed few in the early 1700s as they are today; the record from that time contains many entries for East Hampton people in their late 70s and 80s, and some, mostly women, in their 90s.

My nephew Ray Rattray died young last week, like the Georgica children in 1716, going home. Ray was hit from behind on a state road straightaway in New Paltz, N.Y., where he had been a senior in college. The impact threw him 20 feet into some woods, the police reported. It threw those who knew him into the same kind of howling abyss that the friends and families of the Georgica children felt. In our present grief we are one with those who have suffered before.   

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