By Nancy Peckenham
If you have ever strolled through Black Point Cemetery in Scarborough or in the graveyard next to the Harrington Meeting House in Bristol, chances are that you have seen the work of headstone carver Joseph Sikes. The spoon-shaped faces, half-circle eyes and stylized manes of hair of the deceased are unmistakable and the work is recognized as colonial art.
At a time when the winged angel was a standard choice for headstone design, Joseph and his son, Elijah, created their unique work featuring the face of the deceased on the headstone, encircled with ivy vines, whorling rosettes, hearts, stars or moons. Occasionally the Sikes would include a winged cherub, a popular symbol at the time. The words Memento Mori, Remember Death, grace many of these stone carvings.
Joseph Sikes was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1743 to a family found among the first settlers of the Connecticut River valley. After he married Eunice Smith in 1769, Joseph moved to Belchertown, Massachusetts and that became the center of his work for the next two decades.
Dozens of Sikes gravestones can be found in cemeteries in his hometown of Belchertown, Massachusetts, as well as in nearby Warren, Hadley, New Salem and Chesterfield, just west of the Connecticut River. [The Farber Collection has more than 80 examples of the Sikes’ headstones, though none of those in Maine.]
Gravestones attributed to Joseph and his son, Elijah (born 1772), can be found as far south as Plainfield and Brooklyn, Connecticut.
Many of these stones are extremely well-preserved and the ornate vines and rosettes are beautiful.
The exact dates of Joseph Sikes’ removal to Maine are unclear, but mostly likely occurred in the 1790s. His son Elijah married in 1794 and migrated first to Berkshire, Massachusetts then to Vermont, where he bought a stone quarry. Elijah and family eventually went further west to Trumbull, Ohio, where he continued to carve gravestones but in a different style.
Joseph Sikes’ work that reveal his ever-evolving design can be found at least seven cemeteries in Maine. The earliest graves are in the historic Pemaquid Burying Ground, where the sea air has eroded many of the stones’ features. The two faces on one marker represent the siblings Susanna and John McIntyre who both died as infants, one in 1784 and one in 1788. Husband and wife, Esther and Thomas Holden were in their 60s at the time of their deaths in 1784 and 1785. Morgan McCafferty’s hair is shown in a stylized flip on his tombstone. McCafferty died in 1768 at age 35 and his inscription reads: “Behold my dad is gone, And leaves me here to morn; But hope in Christ I have, That he and I will save.”
The majority of Sikes’ gravestone carvers can be found in Cumberland County. Black Point Cemetery in Scarborough has several well-preserved examples of his work, including the lion-like mane of hair surrounding the face on the grave of Hannah Libby. His choice of stone, schist, unfortunately does not stand up well to the ravages of time, unlike some of the stones he produced in Massachusetts.
Other Cumberland County cemeteries with Sikes gravestones are the Old Smith Burying Ground in Windham, where you will find the headstone for three Anderson children who died one after the other in the early 1790s and the graves of Hannah and Caleb Graffam. Mary Akers Elder’s headstone features the circular mane of hair seen in Scarborough:
In Portland, look for the headstone of William Frost in the Stroudwater Burying Ground and that of Sarah Simonton, in South Portland’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Gorham.
Sikes apparently moved north from Scarborough to the area of Bristol, Maine. His son, Arthur, lived nearby in Lincoln County’s Balltown Plantation, which became part of Whitefield and Jefferson. Bristol includes the historic Harrington Meeting House, built in 1793, and the adjoining graveyard where you can find another half-dozen Sikes’ grave carvings. Look for the distinct headdress on the portrait of Mary Hatch, who died at age 19 in 1797, as well as markers of Hannah Hatch and Samuel Lermond, who died at age one in 1796.
Despite his prolific career creating memorial headstones throughout New England, the whereabouts of Joseph Sikes gravesite remains a mystery. He was reported to have died in 1802. By the 1800s, the family changed the spelling of their last name to Sykes. Joseph Sykes granddaughter, and my 2nd great-grandmother, Sarah Sykes, was born in 1819 in Newcastle. If you have any clues to where Joseph Sikes is buried, please contact us!
For more on Joseph Sikes and other early gravestone carvers in Cumberland County see Giguere, Joy, "Death and Commemoration on the Frontier: An Archaeological Analysis of Early Gravestones in Cumberland County, Maine" (2005). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 1041.