A simple gravestone in Longmeadow Cemetery from 1720, with a classic inscription, warns passersby to consider their own fates. It marks the final resting place for a twelve-year-old girl named Elizabeth Keep. In a time when precious few recorded details are available about individual lives, it is a gift to be able to build any sort of picture about one particular child’s life, especially a girl. But for Elizabeth Keep we can, thanks to a minister’s diary and the fact that her father served in governmental roles in town.
photo credit to Betsy McKee, Longmeadow Cemetery Association
She was born in 1709, when the houses on Longmeadow Street would have been just about a decade old, the town having decided to move “up the hill” from the meadows after a 1695 flood. Elizabeth Keep would have been approximately seven years old when her parents became Landlord and Landlady Keep to the brand-new, young minister, Rev. Stephen Williams, fresh out of Harvard and a brief stint teaching school in Hadley. This would surely have been an important honor for the Keep family to house the new minister as he was probably the most revered person in the community. That he was young and still trying to find his footing in his new role is clear in his early diary entries from the period. No doubt, young Elizabeth Keep would have shared meals and overheard conversations with the new minister.
One important life experience that surely must have been discussed in the Keep household was the attack and capture by native peoples experienced by both her father and Stephen Wiliams in their respective childhoods. Samuel Keep’s parents and infant brother were killed on their way traveling from Longmeadow to Springfield for church services in an infamous attack near Pecousic Brook in 1676 believed to have been a result of tensions between English settlers in the Springfield area and local native tribes during King Phillip’s War. More than two hundred years later, the event was recalled in the Longmeadow Centennial Book: “John Keep, the father, his wife and their child, Jabez, were slain by the Indians, March 26, 1676. As they, with other neighbors and a guard of men, were passing from Longmeadow to Springfield town, to meeting on the Lord's day, they were fired upon a little northward of the Pacousick Brook. The man was mortally wounded, but it is said he kept his horse until he arrived at the town of Springfield. The woman, his wife, it is said, sprang from the horse upon the firing of the Indians, and was carried away by them to Hadleigh and killed.” Elizabeth’s father, Samuel, was only six years old at the time and the only son of John and Sarah Keep. He was left an orphan by the attack. Elizabeth Keep would never know her grandparents as a result.
Likewise, Stephen Williams famously survived the attack on Deerfield in 1704 when he was just a child. He, too, lost his mother and several siblings and was separated from his father and other siblings during a forced march and captivity in Canada. These must have been terrifying stories for a child like Elizabeth to contemplate.
The Keep house that Elizabeth was growing up in from 1709-1720 appears to have been a busy one. Not only would Rev. Williams have been receiving visitors, both from the congregation and from the ministerial world, but her father was an important figure in town planning. Samuel Keep served on several committees that made decisions about the building of the first meetinghouse, the hiring of Stephen Williams and matters of his salary and accommodations, layout of the town’s buryingyard, and procuring funding from Springfield to establish a schoolhouse in Longmeadow. From the daily diary Williams kept while living with the Keeps as his own house was being built, it is clear that the Keep family had at least one enslaved person. Williams wrote on November 13, 1717 that, “this day I had occasion to correct my Landlord’s negro Boy for his false-hood and wickedness.*”
The fabric of Elizabeth Keep’s brief life was a fascinating microcosm of early New England life in a Western Massachusetts community along the Connecticut River.
In July of 1720, twelve-year-old Elizabeth Keep became ill. The nature of her illness is never named, though no other mentions are made of contagious illnesses like smallpox in the area. Perhaps her illness was a singular one. On July 24-28th, Williams writes of praying with the sick child at least once a day: “this day I have been to see the child twice & prayed with it twice - tis a very sick child - & the case looks very dangerous - the Lord God almighty is the best physician - I pray he would appear for its relief.”
Elizabeth’s mother, Sarah Keep, had nine other children at the time of Elizabeth’s dangerous illness, half of them ranging from just four months old to nine years old. It must have been a desperate and terrifying time for her, as illness easily carried from one child to another and it was not uncommon for a family to lose multiple children from one outbreak of sickness. The weather added extra drama to the affair. Stephen Williams mentions “a storm of thunder and lightning” on July 25th and “rain that was extraordinary indeed - with which the wind has broke down the corn considerably” on July 27th. It does not take much to imagine the situation in the Keep house on those days hot, stormy July days. Did they interpret the storms to be harbingers of God’s will towards their sick daughter?
Within five days it was over. On July 29, 1720 twelve-year-old Elizabeth Keep died. Williams wrote, “this morning I hear the child is dead - the will of the Lord is done. The Lord give patience & resignation to his will unto the parents & friends. At night the funeral was attended - the Lord grant that those of us that attended at it may find that tis good for us to go to the house of mourning - far better than to go to the house of feasting.”
Elizabeth Keep’s is one of the oldest gravestones in Longmeadow Cemetery, and is perhaps carved by Samuel Bartlett II (1677-1746). The burying ground, as it was called, had only been established a few short years before her death. For many, many years she had no neighbors, but for 84-year-old Nathaniel Burt who died in September 1720. It is likely that others would have been buried without permanent markers as strong as hers. The image of her final resting place sitting so lonely in a grassy field just off the town green is a somber one.
This inscription on her gravestone is typical in many ways of early New England epitaphs and features a warning for passersby to not forget that they, too, will meet the same fate. The stonecutter was more concerned with making use of available space rather than being a stickler for spelling or form. It is important to note that even though it says “Mrs. Elizabeth Keep” we must read the “Mrs.” as “Mistress” as she was not married at twelve years old. It reads:
The Body of
Mrs. Elizabeth keep
Who died the 29
Day of July anno
Of her age [H?] ear you
young so Am i Ther
Fore al prepare to die
The finest flesh is but dust-
Prepare,-for follow me you must.
In his book, Reading the Gravestones of Old New England, author and scholar, John G.S. Hanson writes, “Obviously this verse was not created by poor twelve-year-old Elizabeth. These words were put in her mouth by someone else as a lesson to the living. It might have been the minister, to judge by their tone - these are words of someone accustomed to deference on matters of religion. Indeed, the first line commands the attention of young readers in particular” (49).
Three hundred years later the small monument to her life remains.
*Spellings and punctuation from Stephen Williams' Diary have been modernized for clarity.
*Spelling and punctuation from Elizabeth Keep's gravestone appear as they are
-Contributed by Melissa M. Cybulski, Longmeadow Historical Society
Hanson, John G.S.. Reading the Headstones of Old New England. North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2021. 49.
Storrs, R. S. The Longmeadow Centennial. Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co, 1884.
Williams, Stephen. “Stephen Williams Diary Online.” Storrs Library, September 23, 2019. Vol. 1. https://www.longmeadowlibrary.org/stephen-williams-diary-online/.