Pitkin Family Vault

Ruth Shapleigh Brown – Pitkin Family Vault (circa 1810)



This vault, unique in the cemetery, occupies a prominent place in the landscape indicating the prominence of the Pitkin family itself at that time. When built in the early 1800s the family was at its peak in number and influence.

In a town with a number of large dynastic families, Roberts, Forbes, Goodwins or Omlsteds, among the most prominent, the Pitkins were by far the largest multi-generational family the town has ever experienced. Throughout the town and beyond Hartford, they were present in every corner, at every level and in nearly every endeavor such as landowners, politics, law, business enterprises, and even the Congregational Church.

As an example of their size and generational mix entombed in this vault represents an impressive cross-section of just one branch of the family, that of Elisha PItkin and descendants whose birth dates have an 83 year range of 1793 to 1876. Symbolic of the clan itself, the vault dominates by just being there, bold, unadorned, timelessly enduring and not to be take slightly. Its outer simplicity belies some impressive examples of the family’s wealth which are hidden from sight.

This includes a rare example of a Fisk Coffin, affordable only by the wealthy. An airtight metal coffin, patented in 1848 by a Rhode Island company, was formed in the shape of a body at rest resembling an Egyptian mummy case with sculpted arms.

While in the 1850s an average pine coffin would have cost around $2, the Fisk coffin cost $100, an indication of it being for someone of cultural and societal importance. Less costly but still impressive is an embossed polychromed tin coffin for Misses Elisha Pitkin, which also has a small oval pane of glass over the face for viewing. These two coffins rest on a low brick platform in the middle surrounded by the others siting on brick shelves along the three sides.

The original wooden door of the vault rotted long ago but was replaced by a thick iron plate welded in place which permanently sealed the vault. Now this is also gone as cement fills its space making it flush with the elevation. The vault constructed in layers of bricks, was filled with cement in 2010, as an emergency measure we needed to prevent its imminent collapse.

The 18th century family genealogy does make mention of an intention to move these bodies out into the cemetery grounds, but obviously this venture was never undertaken.

Long before the vault was filled, the Connecticut State Archeologist oversaw a detailed survey of all the interred bodies, including gender, estimate of age, and possible cause of death, if evident; plus information on coffins and any other surviving artifacts.

It was from that project and the work of John Spaulding, that we now have the memorial plaque that commemorates those interred here.