Sunday, January 15, 2012

Robert the Scot- Barnstable, Ma

I often tell my history students when they begin to struggle, “Sometimes history is hard.” Often information is difficult to find or has been lost to time, and very often things remain unsolved. I experienced this first hand in my attempt to locate the grave of Robert Marshall in West Barnstable. What I found was some fantastic history about his life and the odd circumstances surrounding his death. However, the man known as Robert the Scotsman remains a true Cape Cod mystery. Unfortunately it’s a mystery I have so far failed to solve.

According to Elizabeth Reynard, in The Narrow Land, Robert Marshall was the Scottish manservant, protector, and sometimes apothecary for Dr. Mathew Fuller, the first full time physician in Barnstable County. Reynard does not give a whole lot of historical information about Robert’s background; in fact very little background information on Robert seems to exist. She simply describes him as very large (also hairy) and extremely loyal to his master. He also seemed to have been marked as somewhat of an outsider in 17th century Barnstable. According to Reynard he was:
“A man who mocked the Lord by wearing a folded petticoat, and shattered the mind by music drawn from an instrument resembling a giant snail bloated by rigor mortis.”
What made Robert’s position even more tenuous, other than his bagpipes and highland garb, was the relationship his master had with Thomas Hinckley, the Governor of Plymouth Colony.

Unlike Robert, Mathew Fuller’s life is fairly well documented. Dr. Fuller is credited with being the first full time physician in Barnstable County, which now contains all towns on Cape Cod. According to the Mayflower Society’s Five Generations Project, Mathew Fuller was born in England sometime between 1602 and 1605. His parents and brother were members of the original passengers aboard the Mayflower in 1620. His father even signed the Mayflower Compact.

Mathew did not accompany his family on the Mayflower. It is guessed that he remained in England to complete his education. He arrived in Plymouth Colony around 1640. Although his parents did not survive their first winter in New England, his brother remained in Plymouth in the care of an uncle.

Matthew Fuller seemed to very quickly make a name for himself in Plymouth Colony, in both positive and negative ways. He was appointed sergeant in the military company under the command of Myles Standish. Although, he moved to Barnstable in 1650, he continued to serve Plymouth and Massachusetts by becoming the Surgeon General of the colonial troops.  He even served as Captain of the Plymouth troops during the King Philip’s War. His medical training is said to have saved the lives of hundreds of colonial soldiers, as he had taken to the practice of baking linens before wrapping wounds. The disinfected linens prevented wounds from festering in a time when the understanding of bacterial infection was pretty limited.

Dr. Fuller owned land in many towns in the developing New England area, but eventually he settled in the area of West Barnstable called Scorton Neck. This area now runs between the towns of Sandwich and Barnstable along Route 6A, very close to Sandy Neck Beach.

Although Dr. Fuller seems to have led a praiseworthy life, he was also well known for being an outspoken Quaker. Often, his willingness to say what was on his mind got him reprimanded by Governor Hinckley. In one specific event, he was even fined fifty shillings for speaking out against a mandatory tax created to support colonial clergy. Obviously, separation of church and state was not an important concept in the Plymouth Colony.

However, he and Robert really stepped wrong with Hinckley when the Governor got sick from eating snails. According to Reynard, the Governor asked for assistance from Dr. Fuller, who arrived with his faithful servant, Robert. Fuller examined Governor Hinckley and asked Robert to mix something that would help Hinckley vomit out the poisonous snails. The concoction served its purpose, Hinckley and the snails parted ways. However, the Governor was rather displeased with both Fuller and Robert. He believed that the two had conspired to poison him.

Hinckley was carried off to bed, insisting that he was dying from Robert’s supposed poison, and that Fuller had allowed it to happen and had done nothing to save him. This one, somewhat silly event, seems to have led to lasting enmity between the three men.

However, the real Yankee mystery begins after the death of Dr. Fuller in 1678. At the time of the illness which would eventually claim his life, Dr. Fuller’s estate was inventoried so he could prepare his last will and testament. In Plymouth Colony Wills and Inventories Vol. III, his estate is recorded to have contained a box of precious stones, pearls, and diamonds. These items would have been very rare and valuable in seventeenth century New England.

According to Mathew’s last will and testament, he did not necessarily leave these particular items to anyone in his family. However, many resources state that after Fuller’s death, his box of precious stones was found to be missing.

Governor Hinckley summoned Robert Marshall to court and accused him of the theft. Hinckley pointed out that Robert alone had sole access to Dr. Fuller’s belongings. Robert, who had not slept since the death of his master, could not explain what had happened to the missing jewels. Although Hinckley had no proof with which to convict Robert, the accusation and suspicion stuck.

As the story goes, Robert became inconsolable after the death of Fuller and the accusation of Hinckley. Apparently, his grief caused him to stop eating. He began to visibly waste away the winter after his master’s death. Very quickly Robert seemed to lose both his health and his mind. People reported seeing him searching feverishly for his master’s lost jewels, sometimes in strange, remote, places. Eventually, Robert simply died alone in the middle of a cold New England night.

His body was found lying in the snow on Scorton Hill, near his master’s land. As Robert was quite heavy and the snow was very deep, it was almost impossible to carry his remains to the cemetery for burial. It was decided that he would be buried near where he had died, on the northeastern slope of Scorton Hill.

Some sources even give very specific directions to his grave. For instance, according to a letter written by Mary Wing, which was reprinted Cape Cod Library of Local History Genealogy:
“The grave may be found by ascending Scorton Hill on the east side about two-thirds of its height, when you come to a stone wall that runs northeasterly in the direction of Francis Jones’ barn. Southeasterly from that wall 67 feet and northeast by north 133 feet from the wall by the county road is poor Robert’s grave.”
These directions read like a treasure map. Unfortunately, this land has changed a lot since 1863, when Mary’s letter was originally written. By ascending Scorton Hill on its east side, I would be walking through many back yards and private property. Thus, I was unfortunately unable to locate Robert’s grave.

However, I believe his grave is most likely still there, probably sitting unnoticed in someone’s backyard. In fact, all sources indicate that the spot of Robert’s burial was well known for nearly two hundred years after his death. Sometime in the late 19th century, a Barnstable sea captain by the name of Oliver Chase even marked Robert’s grave with two stones. He placed one at the head and one at the foot of the burial mound. He even brought Mary Wing, the author of the “treasure map” letter to the exact spot.

Not only was the spot of Robert’s grave known and marked, it was even avoided by Cape Codders for hundreds of years. According to The Narrow Land, it is said that Robert’s spirit refuses to rest. Instead, he continues to search for his master’s lost jewels. In fact, the story says if you are in the area of Scorton Hill on a moonlit night, you may hear Roberts bagpipes and the sound of his mournful sobs.

As far as I know, Dr. Fuller’s precious stones were never found. I don’t know if Robert stole them, but I do wonder. When Fuller died, he mentioned his Scottish servant in his will. When leaving his property and his wealth to his family, he bequeathed to faithful Robert “a peece of Cloth Intended to make mee a suite.” Not only does this seem like a little motive, but the unlikable Governor Hinckley was correct in stating that Robert had sole access to his master’s body and full knowledge of the whereabouts of his master’s jewels. I don’t want to accuse poor Robert all over again, but it does make me curious.

I was rather frustrated at being unable to find the grave of poor Robert the Scot. In order to find it, I believe it would take access to 19th century property records and permission to tramp around private property. Sadly, I don’t have either. Or, since Robert seems to be a noisy spirit, maybe I should just follow the sound of bagpipes and sobbing to the right spot. I would absolutely love to find this spot in the future if at all possible. Until that time, I have learned my own lesson well, sometimes history is hard.


  1. Wonderful article! I am a descendent of Matthew Fuller and his brother Samuel Fuller. They are likely buried nearby and some maps still list the hill as "Fuller's Point". Samuel Fuller had some trouble with his neighbor on the Sandwich side and the border was finally settled in a spirited negotiation from which documents survive. Their grandchildren married each other.

    Fuller graves from the generation following still exist in the West Barnstable cemetary (next to and inside the loop of the round-about-roadway) but the first generation may have been interred on their own properties.

    I also saw the Bible in the Sturgis library. They were kind enough to take it out of the case when I was there so we could see if there were an inscriptions. There were some from a later period, but not from the early settlement era.


    S. Franz - Uxbridge, MA

  2. Thanks for stopping by and reading. I really enjoyed learning about the life of Dr. Fuller and Robert Marshall. Fuller seemed like a very interesting person. Certainly an interesting ancestor to have on the tree.

    In searching for colonial era graves I have often found that many were simply buried on their own property, mostly unmarked. Sometimes it makes research frustrating, but I can't help wondering who's memorial I am walking on in my own neighborhood.

    Seeing the Lothrop Bible and Sturgis Library was great too. I love the fact that history is swirling around us all the time, sometimes one just has to take the time to notice it.

    Thanks for reading