STONINGTON, Conn. – In 1667, Thomas Wheeler, the first of his family to come to America, was granted 4,000 acres in Stonington and North Stonington. It made him the largest landowner in the area.

Today, all that remains of that original tract is the family’s quarter-acre burial ground off Dawley Drive in what is now the Stonington Acres subdivision.

“This is what’s left,” said Dick Wheeler of Ledyard, gesturing across the approximately 86 grave sites, most of which date back to the 19th century.

Over the past decade, Wheeler and his son Steven, also of Ledyard, have painstakingly restored the family burial ground. Today, stone walls with a wrought iron gate surround the quiet, tree-shaded cemetery with its well-preserved gravestones and small white sign.

“This is why we’re so passionate about preserving our history and our genealogy. These are all of our ancestors,” Steven Wheeler said.

The burial ground was created by the 1785 will of Jonathan Wheeler, the first of seven Jonathan Wheelers who would live in the nearby family homestead that burned down in 1963.

One of those in the cemetery is Horace Wheeler, Steven’s great-great grandfather, who went to California for the 1849 gold rush and returned years later to open a jewelry store on Water Street in the borough.

The fact that just three of his eight children survived the time in California is evidence of how precarious life was. So are the gravestones of small children, one just a few weeks old, buried in the cemetery.

Among others buried there are Capt. Richard Wheeler, who fought in the Revolutionary War, and Phineas Wheeler, who fought in the War of 1812.

The current Wheelers started their work on the cemetery when Steven, a teacher at Ledyard Center School, was researching his family’s genealogy.

“One day he said, ‘Let’s go look at the cemetery’ and that’s what started it,” Dick Wheeler said.

Back then they had to hike several hundred yards through the woods to reach the cemetery. They found thick brush blocking the entrance and engulfing the stone walls. They used a weedwhacker to expose the gravestones which were overrun with vines and more brush.

Helped by Dick’s other sons Rick and Jeff, they installed the gate, erected a sign and treated the stone walls to prevent them from being overrun with brush again.

Now a picturesque field offers a view of the cemetery and an easy way to get to it.

“We hope this generates more interest in our family and its history and that other Wheelers will share their stories with us,” Dick Wheeler said.

The reclaimed cemetery, field and adjacent land have been deeded to the town as open space and can never be developed.

The Wheelers plan to begin the delicate task of cleaning the stones and taking down some of the trees that threaten to damage the gravestones. They hope to get a group, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, to place a flag there each year for the soldiers.

AP-ES-07-27-08 1205EDT

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