Vanishing Act

We’ve written about Hillsdale cemeteries before, but our imaginations have been captured by one in particular: the McKinstry Family Plot on upper Hunt Road. Its beautiful headstones, many still legible, have lain mostly undisturbed for more than 200 years. Many of them date to the American Revolution era.

Reading history, one might be forgiven for thinking the only people alive in America during the 18th century were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and the other Founding Fathers. The writing of history is asymmetrical. Women, by and large, are not included in historical narratives because history favors the lives of public figures, and women were not allowed to be public figures.

But the gravestones in the McKinstry plot fill in the gaps, a little, about the lives of two women who lived and died in Hillsdale, on the fringes of history.

John and Jane Dickie McKinstry came to the American colonies in 1740 from Ulster County in Northern Ireland. They had five children — Thomas, John Dickie, Sarah, Charles and David – and in 1772 they moved from Blandford, MA to Hillsdale.

John Dickie McKinstry saw service during the French and Indian War, and all four McKinstry sons served during the American Revolution in the Albany County Militia, 9th Regiment. The historical records tell us John was at Bunker Hill and participated in “all the principal northern battles,” only to be captured by pro-British Indians at The Battle of The Cedars in Canada. Bound to a stake, with bundles of sticks piled around him, about to be immolated, McKinstry remembered that the hostile Indian chief, Brandt, was a Mason. John communicated to Brandt using the secret Masonic sign and was immediately released. For the rest of his life John McKinstry hosted Brandt at an annual dinner at the Hudson Masonic Lodge, where the two old combatants retold the story.

John’s younger brother Charles is also found in historical records – as a Lieutenant in the Albany Ninth Militia during the war, as colonel of the Hillsdale militia after the war, as Hillsdale Town Supervisor and New York State legislator, and as the owner of a noted tavern at “the foot of the Cakeout Hills” … where “all the prominent public business of the town, civil and military, was done.”

We know a fair amount about Charles McKinstry’s public life. But we know almost nothing about his private life, except for what can be read on the gravestones:

Charles McKinstry and Tabitha Patterson married in 1774. She bore him eight children and died giving birth to the ninth. Tabitha was 32. This seems shocking to us today, but in the 18th century, on average, a white woman could expect to become pregnant between five and 10 times, and to give birth to between five and seven live children. One in four children died before the age of ten.

In a remarkable biography, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, historian Jill Lepore pieces together the small, sorrowful, impoverished life of Jane Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s youngest and favorite sister, from letters the two wrote each other throughout their lives. Their paths in life were irrevocably shaped by their gender. Benjamin Franklin ran away from home at 17 to escape an indenture. His life was measured in worldly accomplishments – statesman, politician, inventor and genius. Jane, only 11 when he left, was married at 15 to a mentally and financially unstable man eight years her senior. She bore 12 children, only one of whom survived her. With her husband in debtor’s prison much of the time, she took in boarders and made soap to earn money. She stayed in Boston and buried her parents, then was forced to flee when the British took the town. Her life was measured in a litany of grief she called her “Book of Ages,” a register of the births and deaths of her children.

Benjamin Franklin wrote, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” He didn’t know how right he was. From Book of Ages:

“Men waged wars, but for women each birth was another battle. No woman dared imagine herself spared, not by grace, not by wealth; pain was her portion. Even if she survived childbirth, she could scarcely expect that her child would. Queen Anne, who ascended to the British throne in 1702, was pregnant seventeen times. Six of her pregnancies ended in miscarriage, six in stillbirth. One son and daughter died the day they were born. Anne Sophia, not yet one, was carried away by smallpox, along with her sister Mary, not yet two. William reached ten, only to be taken.”

Five of Tabitha’s children – all under 13 – survived her. There was only one thing for a widower with five children to do, and that was to marry again. Major Charles did, in 1790, to Nancy Norton of Farmington CT.

Nancy died delivering her fifth child, who also died. Charles was a widower again, this time with nine children. But Nancy’s headstone reveals something else: Charles was now a Colonel. And town records show he had been elected Hillsdale Town Supervisor. He had lost two wives, but his life went on. His personal sorrows did not define the rest of his life.

Colonel Charles married a third time, to Bernice Egliston of Great Barrington. A stepmother to nine children, she bore two more, one of whom died at 11 months.

Charles’s headstone reveals that he died in 1818 with the rank of General. Bernice lived until 1845 and is buried in Great Barrington.

Unlike military rank and official titles, domestic sorrow is not to be found in a town’s records. Tabitha and Nancy McKinstry lived short, limited lives (by today’s standards) but are still worthy of remembering. Lepore writes, “It’s important to note what gets saved, what gets lost, what gets remembered, what gets forgotten. And what the consequences are of each of those losses.”

This could apply just as well to the McKinstry stones themselves, now vanishing due to age, weather and neglect. What place should they hold in our lives today? With what degree of tenderness will we gather up and preserve their dust?

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5 Responses to Vanishing Act

  1. Fascinating. And I am curious if you know where that “noted tavern…at the foot of the Cakeout Hills” was located? I assume it was on County Rte 21, but towards Harlemville, or North Hillsdale, I wonder?


    • Deborah: I’m afraid I don’t know, but I would guess that the “easterly foot of the Cakeout Hills” is North Hillsdale, not Harlemville. The reference for that citation is the Collins History of Hillsdale, page 25. You can find it at the Roe Jan library. It reads “…Residing at the easterly foot of the Cakeout Hills, his home was near the centre of the town, while it was composed of the Nobletown and Spencertown sections. Of course, all the prominent public business of the town, civil and military, was done there, to accommodate which, he kept a noted tavern…”


  2. hoddy1951 says:

    You’ve researched and written a wonderful piece of local history! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. hoddy1951 says:

    You’ve researched and written a wonderful piece of local history! Thank you.

    Howard Blue


  4. What a fresh and much needed perspective on these long-gone fellow Americans. Without their contributions, where we be today? I love Jill Lepore’s work. She’s shedding light on women’s worth that is welcome indeed.


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