An archeological recovery project has discovered what might be the site of the First Meeting House in Duxbury, a historically significant building that centered a fledgling English settlement when Pilgrims Myles Standish, John and Priscilla Alden, and Elder William Brewster established a new community on Duxbury’s shores.
A ground radar scan revealed straight-line trenches that show a partial outline of a building that conforms to what is known about the First Meeting House, a 20- by 32-foot structure, according to archeologist Craig Chartier of the Plymouth Archeological Recovery Project, who supervised the examination last fall. The scan was made in an old burial ground now called the Myles Standish Burial Ground, where historians and local residents believe the first simple meetinghouse had been built.
The First Meeting House was built when some of the 1620 Pilgrims who left the Plymouth settlement sought permission in 1634 to hold worship services near their new homes rather than travel to Plymouth each Sunday. The colony’s governor required them to build a meetinghouse first.
“Seventeenth-century meetinghouses were commonly placed on rises in the center of a community as a way of exemplifying the structures’ central role in religious and civil life and as a way to let the meetinghouse shine as a city on a hill to give people an example to which to live their lives,” Chartier wrote in his report last month on the scan’s findings.
He said the three straight-line trenches discovered by the scan are not a natural pattern. “These soil trenches appear to occur in an E-pattern that could be interpreted as the remains of foundation sill trenches associated with a structure,” he reported.
The scan also found grave-sites dug close to these remains, consistent with the 17th-century practice of burying people close to their church without stone markers.
Chartier also led the dig last fall that uncovered signs of Brewster’s house nearby. Brewster, the Pilgrims’ spiritual leader, may have served as the first minister of the Duxbury community.
Sheila Lynch-Benttinen, a member of the Duxbury First Meeting House Committee that sponsored the search for signs of the First Meeting House, said the building served as both government center and church.
“There was no separation of church and state,” Lynch-Benttinen said last week. Settlers not only met to discuss town business there, she said. “You put people in the stocks there, you punished people, you prayed. It’s the town center where all the transactions are, justice meted out. People prayed and practiced their religion there.”
In addition to the familiar Pilgrim names, Hobomok, the Native American who lived with Standish and became a Christian, probably attended services there, she said.
The committee and Chartier hoped to excavate the site to support the findings of the radar scan. But the property is both a town-owned cemetery and a National Historic Register site, and a reluctance to disturb graves and the protections of the historic site caused the town’s Cemetery Commission to allow only the radar scan.
Still, the results of the scan combined with the recent excavation of the Brewster house have stirred up interest in one of the oldest New England communities.
“In the last few years, Duxbury has been very active in looking in the ground for its history,” Lynch-Benttinen said.Robert Knox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.