Willett Family Burial Ground

Location of the Willett Family Burial Ground within the grounds of Mount Hebron Cemetery (NYCityMap)

In 1762, John and Thomas Willett and their wives sold a 120-acre farm in South Flushing, Queens, to the then Lieutenant Governor of the Province of New York, Cadwallader Colden. The Willetts were a family of English ancestry who became prominent in the Flushing area during the late 17th century. Upon conveyance of the Willett farm to Colden, a reservation was made in the deed of “a certain antient burying place, fenced in with a stone fence or stone ditch (wherein the Family of the Willets have hitherto been interred) to and for the use of the Family of the said Willets to bury and deposit their dead from henceforth forever.” Lt. Governor Colden named his new estate Spring Hill and built a large home near the public highway at the northern line of the farm, just a hundred yards or so west of the Willett burying ground.  When Colden died in 1776, he was buried at Spring Hill, presumably in the old Willet graveyard.

After Colden’s son David forfeited the Spring Hill estate in 1783 because of his loyalty to the British during the Revolution, the property passed through several owners, finally becoming part of the 250-acre Durkee family estate that was acquired by Cedar Grove Cemetery Association in 1893.  A large portion of the nonsectarian Cedar Grove Cemetery, including much of the area that had formerly been the Spring Hill estate, later was used to create a separate cemetery for the Jewish community, Mount Hebron. Today the Willett graveyard is located at the northwest corner of Mount Hebron Cemetery.

When local historians visited the Willett graveyard in the late 19th century, boulders and a thick cluster of trees marked the site.  Present were a half a dozen headstones, most broken and covered with moss and weeds. All of the gravestones, which dated from 1722 to 1797, were for members of the Willett family.  No trace of Cadwallader Colden’s gravesite was found.  Some later sources stated that the Willett graveyard had been graded over and had completely vanished, but a 1935 article in the Long Island Daily Press reported that it was still present within a hedge just inside the gates of Mount Hebron. This small hedged plot, containing the tombstones of Elizabeth Willett (d. 1773) and S. Willett (d. 1722), can be found today about 200 feet east of Mount Hebron’s main entrance.

he Willett family burial ground, April 2011 (Mary French)
The Willett family burial ground, April 2011 (Mary French)
he Willett family burial ground, April 2011 (Mary French)

Sources: Genealogical Notes of the Colden Family in America (Purple 1873), 8-10; Abstracts of Wills on File in the Surrogate’s Office, City of New York: Vol. 5 , 416-417; Historical Guide to the City of New York (Kelley 1909), 308; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 74; “Colonial Governor Lies in Unmarked Grave,” Long Island Daily Press Aug. 29, 1935; “The Willett Family of Flushing, Long Island,” New York Genealogical & Biographical Record 80(1):1-9, 80(2):83-96; NYCityMap.

Union Cemetery

The Union Cemetery of the Methodist Protestant churches of Manhattan and Brooklyn was founded in 1851 on 10 acres of land near the Queens county line in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The cemetery’s name was derived from the union of the Grand Street Methodist Protestant Church of Williamsburg and the Attorney Street Methodist Protestant Church of Manhattan in ownership and administration of the burial ground. The Union Cemetery in Bushwick was the second cemetery jointly held by the two congregations. The first Union Cemetery, which was used from about 1844 to 1851, was a two-acre graveyard situated a few blocks from the Grand Street church in Williamsburg; the remains from that site where relocated to the new cemetery in 1852.  The Union Cemetery in Bushwick was used as a burial ground for the two small churches but family plots and single graves where also sold to the general public.  By the 1860s, Union Cemetery was interring about 1,500 individuals annually.

Union Cemetery in 1869 (Dripps 1869)
An 1897 view of Union Cemetery (NYPL)

In 1893, claiming that the cemetery was full and that the City of Brooklyn was threatening to cut streets through the property, the trustees of Trinity Methodist Protestant Church of Williamsburg (which formed from the merger of the Attorney Street and Grand Street congregations in the 1880s) announced plans to sell Union Cemetery and remove the remains from the site.  A number of lot owners protested the action and obtained a temporary injunction against the sale.  After four years of litigation, the state Supreme Court upheld the trustees’ right to dispose of the property and it was sold to merchant Henry Batterman, who proposed to subdivide it into building lots.

Grounds at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Queens were acquired for reinterment of the remains from Union Cemetery.  Between December 1897 and January 1898, remains of an estimated 30,000 individuals were transferred to the new Union burial grounds at Cedar Grove.  The transfer was reportedly undertaken with great care—a single box was used for the contents of each grave, with the intention that each be reinterred in a plot or lot of the same size from which it was removed and in corresponding order along with any associated monuments.

At the end of the removal of the graves from Union Cemetery, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the site had “the appearance of a battlefield, where a terrible struggle has taken place.”  Despite the lengthy fight to sell the property, the Union Cemetery site remained undeveloped and the ground was left with open, empty gravesites for a decade after the remains were removed.  In 1907, the city purchased much of the property and subsequently erected Bushwick High School and Bushwick Playground there.  The rest of the site was built over with residences.

Part of the Union Cemetery reburial grounds at Cedar Grove Cemetery, Queens, April 2011 (Mary French)
A present-day view of the former Union Cemetery site (NYCityMap).

Sources: Methodist Protestants and the Union Cemeteries of Brooklyn (1844-1894) (Biebel 2007); “The Homes of the Dead,” New York Times March 30,1866; “Old Burying Ground Sold,” New York Times May 4, 1893; “Trouble of the Cemetery,” New York Times June 6, 1893; “Old Union Cemetery Sold,” New York Times Dec 5, 1897; “Old Graves Laid Open,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Dec 13, 1897; “Removing the Bodies,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Dec 27, 1897; “Twenty Thousand Bodies,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Jan 18, 1898; “Graves with Many Bodies,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Jan 27, 1898;“Want Old Burial Ground for Park,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Nov 6, 1906; “Playground and School on Old Union Cemetery Site,” Brooklyn Standard Union, May 12, 1907; Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn; Bromley’s 1907-08 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn; NYCityMap.

Mount Carmel Cemetery

Mount Carmel Cemetery consists of two large sections that straddle Mount Neboh Cemetery in Glendale, Queens.  Old Mount Carmel was founded in 1906 on a large parcel of rolling terrain situated on the south side of Mount Neboh Cemetery and just north of today’s Jackie Robinson Parkway. A decade later, New Mount Carmel was established on a tract of relatively flat land between Cooper Avenue and Mount Neboh.  Together the two sections contain about 100 acres and over 85,000 interments and include the gravesites for some of the most important individuals in Jewish American history.

Mount Carmel Cemetery in 1924. New Mount Carmel was still under development at that time (NYCityMap)
Mount Carmel Cemetery today (NYCityMap)

The Honor Row at the entrance to the Workmen’s Circle plot at Old Mount Carmel is home to a pantheon of artistic and political heroes of the Eastern European immigrant working class of late 19th-early 20th century America. Buried here are dozens of labor leaders and writers who gave voice to the Jewish proletariat, including Meyer London, the first socialist elected to U.S. Congress, Abraham Cahan, the founder of the renowned Jewish daily newspaper the Forward, anarchist writer Saul Yanovsky, and socialist poet Morris Winchevsky.

Also here is Mount Carmel’s most famous resident, Sholem Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer whose stories inspired the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Sholem Aleichem’s 1916 funeral drew hundreds of thousands of mourners and was the largest New York City had seen at that time.  He was originally interred at neighboring Mount Neboh Cemetery but was reinterred at Mount Carmel when the Workmen’s Circle created the Honor Row in 1921.

Among the other famous individuals at Old Mount Carmel are Bella Abzug, the first Jewish woman elected to U.S. Congress, and members of the Adler family acting dynasty that began with Jacob Adler, a legendary figure of Yiddish theater.  New Mount Carmel has its own share of notable residents, including comedian Henny Youngman, but is also distinguished by its section for recent Jewish immigrants that features row after row of the large, black granite monuments with etched portraits that are favored by Jews that came to New York after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

The gravesite of Sholem Aleichem, Mount Carmel’s most famous resident (Mary French)
Monuments at the gravesites of recent Jewish immigrants at New Mount Carmel (Mary French)

View more photos of Old Mount Carmel Cemetery.

View more photos of New Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Sources:  Mount Carmel Cemetery; The Jewish Search for a Usable Past (Roskies 1999), 120-145; The Jewish Communal Register of New York 1917-1918, 336-337; “In Mourning, Traditions Mingle,” New York Times, Oct. 28, 1997; “A Reading to Recall the Father of Tevye,” New York Times, May 17, 2010; NYCityMap.