Somewhere around 12,000 years ago, the retreating glaciers swelled the Israel River and filled the meadows of Jefferson with glacial melt, turning the lowlands into Lake Israel . In time, the waters receded, leaving a vast and fertile valley. Paleo Indians came and went and set their camps up along the retreating shores. Eventually, they stopped coming and the valley saw only occasional visits from the indigenous populations as they followed the seasons and the caribou.

In the eighteenth century, the land was granted, lost, and regranted. Colonel Whipple, whose house still stands in the old port of Porstmouth, nearly went bankrupt building roads in an effort to colonize his grant in the wilds of Coos County. He failed, but eventually, a small group of intrepid farmers settled into the valley.

As I ride past the old cemeteries, the old weather beaten and bleached headstones tell the story of those brave families that first made the Israel Valley their home. The names on the headstones indicate that they were largely of Scandinavian descent. The hard work required to claim the land took its toll. Few lived long, most died young. Entire families were wiped out by disease. Childhood was a perilous voyage that many did not survive. 

A world away, a young nation struggled to define itself. Port cities grew and prospered as the nation expanded its borders and settlers moved inland. For those people who broke the ground, there were two choices: live a hard life or die slowly… and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. 

Looking at the headstones, I wonder about the life and death of the persons under those blocks of granite. They left their homes in a far away land, probably because there was nothing left there for them, no land, jobs, or opportunities for a future. In that place far away, hope came by word of mouth. There were places where a man could build a life with the strength of his back and the determination of his will.

A steam assisted sailing ship carried them perilously across the ocean and landed them in a strange land. With the help of Scandinavian nationals already here, they found their way to the northern end of New Hampshire where land was free for the taking to anyone strong and stubborn enough to squeeze a living out of it.

Trees were felled by hand. Stumps and stones were wrested from the stubborn earth…Year by year, the land was cleared, tilled and sewn. Sometimes it yielded its bounty. Other times mother nature had differing plans. Through droughts, storms, blistering heat and frigid winters they persevered. The call to work was relentless. The land and the animals required constant care. There was always work to be done. Only when they put their beaten bodies down on their beds did they relax and daybreak arrived quickly. Bodies were worn out quickly and few lived to be old. Disease wiped out a large percentage of the young. The rules of life were harsh and inflexible, excuses were of no consequence. There were no safety nets. Self sufficiency was the only means of survival. It spite of the demands, the challenges and the seemingly insurmountable odds, they succeeded. Families grew, intermarried and pushed the forest further and further away. As their numbers grew, others came. Civilization followed them . Retailers,shop keepers, tradesmen school teachers followed. 

The bones lying under the headstones are beaten and broken. They once carried flesh that was strong and sinewy and very acquainted with hard work. Their skins were dark and leathery. Faces were deeply rutted and the creases were filled with the very earth that sustained them. Those long arm bones were wrapped in muscle and connected to deeply calloused hands.

Maybe those same calloused hands occasionally played the fiddle or a concertina. Maybe the hardworking wife could occasionally leave her chores and the drudgery of her daily life long enough to dance a jig or a reel with her children. Joy, a stranger to their lives, might have dropped by for a visit when the hay was in , the gardens were producing and the wood cutting was still a couple of months away.

There must have been a tremendous sense of satisfaction. Every day of every year was a series of little victories that kept them out of the jaws of disaster. Probably some failed. Most did not. They had faith in themselves and they trusted their Lord. 

Under these lichen crusted headstones beneath the canopy of ancient spruces are many stories of sadness and woe, victory and glory, love and joy, pain and suffering. If those bones could only speak.

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