This small graveyard, on St. James Place near Chatham Square in present-day Chinatown, is the oldest surviving Jewish burial ground in New York City. It was used by Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in North America. Shearith Israel was formed in 1654 in New Amsterdam by Sephardic Jews from Brazil and was the only Jewish congregation in New York City until 1825. The Chatham Square graveyard is known as Shearith Israel’s “first cemetery,” but was actually the second burial ground used by the congregation. In 1656, city authorities granted the Jewish community “a little hook of land situate outside of this city for a burial place.” The location of this original graveyard is unknown today. The Chatham Square cemetery was founded in 1682 and was expanded in the 1700s so that it once extended from Chatham Square over what is now the upper part of Oliver Street down to Bancker Street (present-day Madison Street).
Several hundred individuals, including a number of veterans of the American Revolution, were buried at the Chatham Square cemetery before it closed in the early 19th century; the last recorded burial was in 1833. Development encroached upon the cemetery so that only a small remnant exists today. In 1823, the congregation sold an unused portion of the cemetery frontage on Chatham Square to the Tradesmen’s Bank; additional unused portions on Oliver and Madison Streets were sold in 1829. A section of the burial ground was taken by the city in 1855 when the New Bowery (today’s St. James Place) was cut through; 256 burials were removed from the graveyard at that time and reinterred in the congregation’s cemeteries on 21st Street and in Brooklyn.
About a hundred headstones and aboveground tombs can still be seen in what remains of the old graveyard, which lies above street level on the south side of St. James Place. Congregation Shearith Israel continues to maintain the cemetery, and it also has an annual Memorial Day ceremony at the site in honor of the Revolutionary War veterans buried there.
Sources: Ratzer’s 1776 Plan of the City of New York; Perris’ 1855 Maps of the city of New York 1:Pl.12; 1861 Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (Valentine 1861):521; The Early History of the Jews in New York 75-76; The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 4:510, 514, 663; Portraits Etched in Stone (David de Sola Pool 1952); NYCityMap