Underhill Family Burial Ground

A view of the Underhill burial ground featuring the tombstone of Nathaniel Underhill (1690-1775), August 1901 (Underhill Society)

And my son Israel shall allow and set apart a piece of ground 4 rods square, lying in the field, called Hedden field, for a burying ground for myself and family forever, and I do except and reserve the same as I have showed him, and do order him and his to grant the liberty to pass and repass through my farm to the same.

With this clause in his last will and testament of February 25, 1775, Nathaniel Underhill (1690-1775) instructed his son Israel to preserve the family burial ground on their farm in what is today the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. Nathaniel was a grandson of Captain John Underhill, an early English settler and soldier in New England noted for his role in the Pequot War (1636-37), who eventually settled in Long Island. Nathaniel’s father, also Nathaniel (b. 1663), was the founder of the Westchester branch of the family, moving from Long Island and establishing a farm in what was then a southern part of the county. The elder Nathaniel is thought to have been the first to set aside land as a family burial ground on the Underhill farm at Williamsbridge, and may have been buried there.

An 1881 map showing the Lorillard-Spencer Estate, formerly Underhill land. Arrow indicates the approximate location of Underhill burial ground.

In 1812, the Underhills conveyed their lands at Williamsbridge to the Lorillard family and by the late 19th century the burial ground, largely forgotten and “going to decay from neglect,” was part of what was known as the Lorillard-Spencer Estate. Interest in the family cemetery at Williamsbridge was revived with the creation in 1892 of the Underhill Society of America by descendants of John Underhill. In August 1901, members of the Society visited the burial ground, where they located 16 graves in a plot measuring 60 feet on its west and east sides and 57 feet on its north and south sides. The oldest gravestone was that of Nathaniel Underhill, who earmarked the cemetery in his 1775 will. His tombstone, which featured a winged cherub’s head, was inscribed, “Here Lyes the Body of Nathaniel Underhill Was Born August the 11 1690 And Departed This Life November The 27 1775 Aged 85 Years, 3 Months, and 16 Days.” The most recent tombstones were those of Nathaniel’s son Israel and his wife Abigail, both of whom died in 1806. Society members took three photographs of the burial ground during their 1901 visit—the only known images to document the site.

Members of the Underhill Society of America stand among tombstones in the family burial ground, August 1901 (Underhill Society)

The City of New York seized most of the Underhill burial ground property in 1913 for the extension of 205th Street (today’s Adee Avenue), with financial compensation paid to an Underhill family association. Members of the Underhill Society, incorporated as Underhill Westchester Burying Ground, Inc., acquired a 100’ x 40’ lot at the northwest corner of Adee Avenue and Colden Avenue that contained what was left of the burial ground. In 1916, in anticipation of the street extension, the Underhill Society reported that graves in the portion of the burial ground that had been taken by the city would be moved to the lot at Adee and Colden avenues. A history of the Underhill family compiled in the 1930s states that remains from the burial ground were removed to the cemetery at St. Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon, where some Underhill family members worshipped in the 18th century. However, local historians and preservations believe that, although tombstones from the site were moved to St. Paul’s ca. 1920, the graves are still in the parcel at Adee and Colden avenues.

The grave markers of Abigail and Israel Underhill in the Underhill burial ground, August 1901 (Underhill Society)

Three sandstone burial markers from the old family cemetery—those of Nathaniel Underhill and his son Israel (both mentioned above), as well as that of Anne Underhill, who died in 1786—are preserved at St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site, where they are mounted to the exterior southern wall of the bell tower. Since 1989, the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services has owned the parcel at Adee and Colden avenues. A chain-link fence encloses the site but there is nothing to indicate it is “the burying ground forever” of a prominent colonial-era family.

A 2016 aerial view of the plot at Adee and Colden avenues that contains the Underhill burial ground (nyc.gov)
A view of the Underhill burial ground site in 2017 (Google)

Sources: Bromley’s 1881 Atlas of Weschester County, Pl 44-45; Abstracts of Wills on File in the Surrogate’s Office, City of New York, Vol 8, 1771-1776 (NY Historical Society 1899), 320-321; Annual Reports of the Underhill Society of America, 1897-1916; Underhill Genealogy, Vol 2 (Frost 1932), 64-65, 87-89, 119-121; Burial Markers from the 18th Century Installed at St. Paul’s Church in the 20th Century, St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site, December 2014; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 247-255

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Spring Street Presbyterian Church Burial Vaults

An 1852 map showing the Spring Street Presbyterian Church

Many of New York City’s cemeteries have been bulldozed for development over the years, the graves and the stories of the people buried in them lost to collective memory. In the last few decades, though, discovery of historic burial grounds during construction activities has provided opportunities to learn about segments of society that have made important contributions to the city’s history, but generally are overlooked in the historical narrative. The 1991 discovery of remains at the African Burial Ground site in Lower Manhattan revealed a wealth of information about life and death for Africans in colonial New York and became an enormously important site for the modern African American community, underscoring and commemorating their deep historical presence in the city and the nation. Recovery of remains from the site of one the Quarantine cemeteries on Staten Island in 2003 renewed interest in the history of the Quarantine Grounds and the link they provide to New York City’s history as a gateway for millions of immigrants. Another of the city’s “hidden histories” was uncovered with finding the burial vaults of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church, a congregation with a unique history of class and race inclusiveness.

Remains found in one of the burial vaults during excavation in 2006 (Meade 2007)

In December 2006, human bones were found in backhoe fill when a parking lot at the southeast corner of Spring Street and Varick Street in Manhattan was being torn up for construction of a 46-story luxury hotel, Trump SoHo (recently renamed The Dominick). Research determined that the remains were of individuals interred in underground burial vaults associated with the Spring Street Presbyterian Church that stood on the site from 1811 until 1966, when the church was demolished and the parking lot was paved over the location. Archaeological excavations at the site recovered the remains of approximately 200 individuals, as well as artifacts including engraved metal coffin plates, coffin wood and nails, shroud pins, ceramics, coins, fabric, and a few personal items, including ribbons, buttons, hair combs, shoes, a whistle, and a gold wedding band. The human remains and artifacts were sent to Syracuse University where they were studied by anthropologists from 2007 until 2014, when they reinterred at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

A view of Spring Street Presbyterian Church in 1927 (NYPL)

The burial vaults at the Spring Street Presbyterian Church were four underground rooms, two made of limestone and two of brick, that were built along the southeast side of the church building and used between 1820 and 1846. During the nearly 200 years that had passed since the vaults were used, the wood coffins stacked within them had rotted and collapsed, leaving behind the piles of bones and artifacts that were unearthed during the excavation. Like the long-forgotten vaults, the distinctive history of Spring Street Presbyterian Church and its congregants had been obscured until it came to light again when the vaults were rediscovered. During the time period the burial vaults were in use, the church was a radical abolitionist congregation situated in a working-class neighborhood and its congregants were individuals of multiple classes and races (the church began admitting African Americans into full membership in 1820, seven years before slavery was abolished in New York).

Diagram showing location of the burial vaults within the Spring Street Church property (Mooney et al 2008)
Severe bowing in leg bones of one of the Spring Street children, evidence of rickets (Ellis 2014)

The Spring Street remains—the only large collection of human remains recovered in the city that date to the first half of the 19th century—allowed anthropologists to gain an understanding of what life was like for these people in rapidly urbanizing New York. The remains told of variations in health (for example, 75 of the burials were children, and half of them suffered from rickets) and morphological features of the bone, teeth, and hair indicated significant differences in ancestry, suggesting that people from diverse backgrounds were interred together in the vaults at Spring Street. Equally important as the scientific finds, the discovery established a connection to and chance to commemorate New Yorkers who were in the forefront of early battles against slavery and were vanguards in the fight for civil rights.

Silver coffin plate of Oswald Williams Roe, one of the children interred in the burial vaults (Mooney et al 2008)
A 2016 aerial view showing the Trump SoHo on the former Spring Street Church site (nyc.gov)
Monument marking the reburial site at Greenwood Cemetery (David Pultz)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Spring Street Archaeology Project (Syracuse University); Archaeological Investigations of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church Cemetery (Mooney et al 2008); Topic Intensive Documentary Study: Spring Street Presbyterian Church (Meade 2007); The Children of Spring Street: The Remains of Childhood in a Nineteenth Century Abolitionist Congregation (Ellis 2014, PhD Dissertation); David Pultz, personal communication, June 19 2014; “Trump SoHo Project Is on Hold After Discovery of Human Remains,” New York Sun, Dec 13 2006; “Burial Vaults Inspire a Celebration of a Church Opposed to Slavery,” New York Times, Oct. 8 2014; “Return from Obscurity: NY’s Spring Street Presbyterian Church,” News—Presbyterian Church USA, Nov 10 2014

Frederick Douglass Memorial Park

Entrance to Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, ca. 1935 (Friends of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park)

In 1890 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an article about discriminatory burial practices in New York City’s cemeteries. “In this city, except in isolated instances, the color line is strictly drawn at the grave,” the piece asserts. “Although not generally known, even among the proscribed race, the bodies of blacks may not be interred in the same section of certain cemeteries with those of whites.” African Americans often were segregated to the less desirable sections of cemeteries or, in some cases, completely barred from purchasing graves. The situation was “a source of considerable feeling and discontent among colored people,” the Eagle reported. “The utmost dissatisfaction is expressed at it and there is a growing feeling that some steps should be taken to remedy it.” The black community was still struggling with this problem 45 years later when a group of Harlem businessmen created Frederick Douglass Memorial Park in Staten Island to combat segregated burials. The cemetery was open to all—and had an interracial board of directors—but was created and managed by African Americans with the intention of providing a place where the city’s black residents could be buried affordably and with dignity.

The New York Age, a foremost African American newspaper, announces the opening of the cemetery in June 1935

Frederick Douglass Memorial Park is situated adjacent to Ocean View Cemetery on Amboy Road in the Oakwood section of Staten Island. Touted as “an ultra-modern cemetery” when it was established in 1935, this new burial ground was planned along the memorial park model that came to dominate cemetery landscape design in the 20th century. Grave markers were generally required to be flat against the ground, thus making lawn care more economical and giving greater emphasis to the park-like setting. The burial park attracted African Americans from Harlem, Brooklyn, and other areas of the city, and by 1949 Frederick Douglass Memorial Park had over 10,000 interments. Its grounds—which began as 53 acres but dwindled to its present 17 acres by the 1960s—became the final resting place of a number of prominent black public figures, including Negro League baseball player Sol White, blues singer Mamie Smith, and jazz trumpeter Tommy Ladnier.

Unveiling the Frederick Douglass monument, May 1961 (Friends of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park)

In 1961 the cemetery erected a monument to its namesake, the esteemed abolitionist, orator, and statesman who died in 1895 and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY. The Frederick Douglass cenotaph, located near the cemetery’s entrance, features a bronze bas-relief portrait mounted on an eight-foot-tall granite slab. The $20,000 monument was created by British-born artist Angus McDougall (known for the iconic apple paperweight he designed for the Steuben Glass Company) and was New York City’s first public sculpture to honor Douglass.

Despite its early success, Frederick Douglass Memorial Park has fallen on hard times in recent years. Business slowed as the cemetery ran out of space for new graves, and it now does only a small number of burials each year. Plagued by poor stewardship, financial woes, and disrepair, since 2005 the cemetery has been operated by a series of court-appointed receivers. The current management, along with the non-profit organization Friends of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, is working to reestablish financial stability, restore the grounds, and preserve the heritage of this historic African American cemetery.

Location of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park in Oakwood, Staten Island
A view of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, April 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park

Sources: “Where the Color Line Exists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 7 1890; “Frederick Douglass Memorial Park…,” New York Age, June 22 1935; “Frederick Douglass Memorial Park Fills Long-Felt Need,” New York Age, July 30 1949; “Monument Honors Ex-Slave Crusader,” New York Times, May 29 1961; “Monument Dedicated In N.Y.” New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, VA), Jun 10 1961; “A Place of Dignity Falls on Hard Times, New York Times, Oct 17 2008; “Hard-pressed Staten Island Cemetery Counting on Descendants,” Staten Island Advance, May 14 2009; “A Cemetery Holding Black Bodies is in Disrepair,” New York Amsterdam News, May 11 2017; “In Oakwood, a Troubled Final Resting Place Searches for Help,” Staten Island Advance, Jun 20 2017; Castaways of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, Staten Island, NY (Eric K. Washington); NYCityMap

Friends Cemetery, Flushing

Pen-and-ink drawing depicting the Friends Meeting House and Graveyard in Flushing, ca. 1880 (MCNY)

When English Quakers arrived in New Netherland in 1657, they were unwelcome among the Dutch but found acceptance in some of the English settlements on Long Island, especially at Flushing in present-day Queens. Soon many were holding Quaker meetings in their homes, attracting the attention of Dutch civil authorities. When Governor Peter Stuyvesant issued an order forbidding colonists to allow Quakers into their houses, Flushing town leaders delivered the Flushing Remonstrance, one of the earliest documents proclaiming religious freedom in America. In 1662, Stuyvesant arrested John Bowne, a prominent figure in Flushing’s Quaker community, for holding services in his home. Bowne successfully appealed to the Dutch West India Company and Stuyvesant was ordered to permit all faiths to worship freely. With religious toleration now the law of the colony, Flushing’s Quakers could hold their services without fear of disturbance and continued to meet at Bowne’s house twice a week for thirty years.

An 1852 map of Flushing, showing the Friends Meeting House on the south side of Broadway (today’s Northern Blvd), east of Main Street

In 1676 Bowne provided land for a burial ground for Flushing’s Quaker community, and in 1694 a meetinghouse was built on land adjacent to the Quaker cemetery. For more than 300 years, the Flushing Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends has worshipped at this old meetinghouse, situated at 137-16 Northern Boulevard in what is now a bustling commercial area in downtown Flushing. The cemetery, located behind the wood-shingled meetinghouse, is the oldest Quaker burial ground in New York City and is the final resting place for many early Quakers and prominent local families, including the Bownes, Hicks, Farringtons, and Lawrences.

Tombstones in the Quaker cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)

No one knows how many are buried in the one-acre graveyard since there are no burial records and the early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones—their unmarked graves in keeping with the faith’s principle of humility. When markers began to be used in the 19th century, they were designed to be simple and modest—typically small, plain stones with little more than a name or initials. About 130 tombstones are visible in the graveyard today, recording individuals who died between the 1820s and the 1890s, when the cemetery closed to new interments. After a period of neglect, the graveyard is now nicely maintained and blooms with indigenous flowers and bushes. Old elm trees and oaks shade the perimeter and help set the place apart from the teeming urbanism that surrounds it. This peaceful oasis is a reminder of a time when Flushing was a leading center of American Quakerism and the nation’s struggle for religious freedom.

A 1922 photo of the Friends cemetery and meetinghouse (NYHS)
A view of the Friends cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)
An aerial view of Friends Meeting House and Graveyard in 2016 (nyc.gov)

View more photos of the Flushing Friends Cemetery

Sources: Dripps 1852 Map of Kings and Part of Queens Counties, Long Island N.Y.; The Graveyard at Flushing Meeting House (Flushing Meeting); Friends Meeting House Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1970); The Bownes (Bowne House Historical Society); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010), 461, 1062; History of Queens County, New York (Munsell 1882), 113-114; Cemetery Inscriptions from Quaker Burying Ground at Flushing, Long Island (Frost n.d.); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens: A Supplement (Queens Topographical Bureau 1975), 30-35; “Quakers Say Contractors Desecrated a Historic Queens Graveyard,” New York Times, April 2, 2012

Holy Cross Cemetery

Officers salute during the burial of slain Poughkeepsie police officer and Brooklyn native John Falcone at Holy Cross Cemetery in Feb 2011 (Associated Press)

By the 1840s, the enormous increase in New York’s Catholic population had exhausted all available space in existing Catholic cemeteries in Manhattan and Brooklyn. To meet the necessity, the Archdiocese of New York opened Calvary Cemetery in Queens in 1848 as a new burial ground for Manhattan’s Catholics and, a year later, established Holy Cross Cemetery to serve the Catholic community of the city of Brooklyn. Since 1822, when the first Catholic church in Brooklyn was founded, Brooklyn’s Catholics had been buried in parish churchyards or in the Catholic section of Wallabout Cemetery, a public cemetery near Fort Greene that had allotments for the different religious denominations. Holy Cross Cemetery began with the purchase of 17 acres in the town of Flatbush in Kings County and had 6,000 interments in its first year of operation. After years of expansion, it now entails 96 acres of land and is the final resting place of over 500,000 people.

An 1873 map of the town of Flatbush showing Holy Cross Cemetery, then about 40 acres in size

Unlike Calvary Cemetery, which is set among the rolling hills along the Brooklyn-Queens border, the landscape of Holy Cross Cemetery is “a surface as level from one end to another as an Illinois prairie,” as it was aptly described by Brooklyn historian Henry Stiles in 1870. Situated today in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the cemetery is a roughly rectangular expanse bordered by Brooklyn and Schenectady Avenues and Snyder Avenue and Cortelyou Road. The grounds are plainly spread out and divided into broad fields of tombstones and greenery. There are many fine, statuseque monuments, but more modest markers are the rule. The main entrance at Brooklyn and Tilden Avenues leads to a small chapel that was built in 1855 and is still used today. The chapel was part of the improvements made when Holy Cross came under the control of Bishop John Loughlin after the Brooklyn Diocese was created in 1853. Some of the pioneer priests of the diocese are interred in catacombs beneath the chapel, and nearby are the graves of some of Brooklyn’s oldest Catholic families.

Deathbed motif on an 1856 marker in the early Irish section of Holy Cross Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara)

Well-known figures can be found at Holy Cross—businessman James (Diamond Jim) Brady, Dodgers great Gil Hodges, and bank robber Willie Sutton among them—but the graves of the lesser known are what give this cemetery its character. The earliest section of the cemetery is rich in mid-19th-century Irish-Catholic markers. Hundreds of tombstones here display traditional Hibernian motifs and record the history of immigrants who fled famine in Ireland and made Brooklyn their home. Later sections are dominated by gravestones of the Italian and Hispanic families who followed.

A listing for Holy Cross Cemetery in a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries
A 2012 aerial view of Holy Cross Cemetery’s current 96 acres in East Flatbush, Brooklyn

View more photos of Holy Cross Cemetery

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 20; Holy Cross Cemetery (Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Brooklyn); Tombstones of the Irish Born: Cemetery of the Holy Cross, Flatbush, Brooklyn (Silinonte 1992); Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara 1989), 54; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 72; The Eagle & Brooklyn: The Record of the Progress of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle… (Howard & Jervis 1893), Vol 1, 360; A History of the City of Brooklyn (Stiles 1870), Vol 3, 633-634, “Our Public Cemeteries,” New York Herald, Jun 2, 1867; “Vandal Topples 63 Headstones and Statues at Historic Brooklyn Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Feb 13, 2018; NYCityMap