Posted on June 28, 2014 by Jenny ONeill
Westport’s earliest religious association is closely tied to the Society of Friends, as is that of neighboring Dartmouth. Westport’s earliest settlers were included in the Apponagansett Meeting in Old Dartmouth. As settlement expanded in present-day Westport, the Acoaxet Meeting was established as a separate entity in 1699. Members met in local homes for several years, and then built their first meetinghouse in 1716 near the location of the present Central Village Meeting House (see Figure 5-2). The only remaining element of the early structure, which was used for nearly a century, is a set of granite stepping stones. Paul Cuffe was among those Westporters who helped pay for the current Central Village Meeting House, constructed in 1814. The building was significantly renovated in 1872 (Maiocco 1995).
A second meetinghouse outside of Central Village was built in 1761 near the present high school to meet the demands of northern Westport Quakers. This building and the Central Village structure appear on the 1795 map of Westport. Known as the Centre Meeting House, this building was moved closer to the Head of Westport in 1840, purportedly in an effort to facilitate access for residents in that neighborhood (Hutt 1924). The building stood for a period on a lot on Old County Road south of the public library. When the meeting was disbanded in 1878 the structure was removed to Main Road where it was used as a barn (WHC 1987:39).
Massachusetts historian John Warner Barber provided a snapshot of Westport in the 1830s, noting that “the people are much divided in their religious sentiments” (1839:684). Barber listed five houses of worship- two Friends meetinghouses, and two Baptist, one Methodist, and one Congregational church.
The archaeological potential for resources associated with the Society of Friends is considered to be extremely high around the sites of former meetinghouses, many of which can be located through existing cemeteries, as well as at the present-day locations of historic meetinghouses such as the Central Village site. Given the ban on decorative burial markers, many Quaker plots may be designated by unmodified fieldstones, or by no visible marker at all. Markers of this type may also be confused with historic Native American grave markers, and it is possible that some Christianized Indians were buried within Quaker cemeteries.
Town historian (and Central Village meeting member) Eleanor Tripp once commented on the location of Paul Cuffe’s grave in an area north of the meetinghouse and set off from the large designated burial ground east and south of the building. Responding to the idea that perhaps Cuffe’s gravesite location represented an attempt to segregate the African-American and his family, Mrs. Tripp noted that he was, in fact, “surrounded by hundreds of other Friends, all of whom . . . sleep forever in unmarked graves” (Maiocco 1995:17). Clearly the possibility exists that unmarked graves could be present in the vicinity of the Central Village building, as well as in proximity to the two Centre Meetinghouse locations in Westport.
The early proliferation of Quaker beliefs in Westport led the group in the Head of Westport area to seek a different direction in the early nineteenth century. Several members of the Mosher and Tripp families, along with Peleg Sisson, Thaddius Reynolds, and Suzannah Lawton had been meeting informally when they invited the Reverend Daniel Hix of Dartmouth to joint them. Hix sanctioned the meeting in 1823 as the First Christian Church in Westport and the group selected Peleg Sisson as their minister. Plans were made to erect a church that could be used by other Christian groups as well (Pierce n.d.). The First Church attracted enough worshippers to expand, leading to the organization of the Second Church in South Westport in 1838, the Third Church in Central Village in 1839, the Fourth at Brownell Corner in 1843, and the Pacific Union Congregational church in 1858. Services were also held at Westport Factory until 1871 (Hutt 1924).
The Point’s first church was built in 1832 at Prospect Hill. This building was moved to a location in the present church cemetery, across the street from the current church building at the Point (not connected to the original structure). The original church was eventually moved back to the Prospect Hill area, although the exact location is unknown (B. Wyatt, personal communication 2004). The current church building at the Point dates to 1883 or 1884 (Hall and Sowle 1914:19–20; Maiocco 1995:47). A Catholic Church was also built on East Beach at Horseneck for the town’s summer residents, but this structure was destroyed by the 1938 Hurricane (Maiocco 1995). The Acoaxet Chapel was constructed on Howland Road in 1872, burned, and was rebuilt in 1883.
The “Knotty Shingle Church” was built in 1842 at the southeastern corner of the Hix Bridge/Main Road intersection. The church was well attended in the nineteenth century but eventually merged with the nearby Friends Meeting at Central Village. The building burned down in 1947 after standing vacant for several decades (Maiocco 1995).
Westport became well known in the 1870s for its annual camp meeting at Cadman’s Cove. The meeting grew larger each year, and small wooden cottages eventually replaced rented family tents. By 1892, as many as 6,000 people gathered at the Westport Camp Meeting for the weeklong summertime event. Meeting continued into the 1940s, when summer tourism finally replaced the religious meetings as the biggest summertime attraction in Westport. While portions of the camp meeting grounds have been developed in the modern period, a cluster of original wooden cottages is still located on the east side of Cadman’s Neck. Archaeological deposits from the camp meeting era could survive in the vicinity of these structures, and could include domestic trash deposits, communal meeting areas, and/or structural remains from pavilions and platforms.
A second smaller camp meeting, known as Buelah, was organized in North Westport at the northern end of Gifford Road (Smith et al. 1976:44). No additional information on this meeting was collected during the survey.