Riker Cemetery

Entrance gate to Riker Cemetery, June 2016 (Mary French)

Long before the name “Riker” was synonymous with the violence and despair of one of America’s most notorious penitentiaries, it was a mark of pedigree that brought to mind one of New York’s most prominent families. The story of this Dutch American dynasty begins with Abraham Rycken van Lent, who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1638 and in 1654 received a land grant near the shore of Bowery Bay in northwestern Queens. In 1664 he was granted the neighboring island on which the Rikers Island jail complex now stands. Abraham Rycken’s descendants occupied their mainland estate and offshore island for the next 200 years, most of them eventually adopting the anglicized surname Riker. An 1877 article in the Newtown Register proclaimed the Rikers “one of the most versatile, patriotic, and learned families” the area had produced, a prolific and distinguished folk that included a host of soldiers, lawyers, merchants, and physicians.

This detail from an 1849 map shows the Riker Cemetery situated behind the Abraham Lent house (then owned by Isaac Rapelye) on Bowery Bay Road (today’s 19th Road)

Adjoining Abraham Rycken’s homestead (which now lies under LaGuardia Airport) was that of Harck Siboutsen, who around 1650 settled the land immediately west of Rycken’s property. Rycken’s son Ryck-Abramsen—who used the surname Lent rather than Riker—married Siboutsen’s daughter Catrina. Their son Abraham Lent (1674-1746) inherited the Siboutsen homestead and ca.1729 erected a house there (likely incorporating an earlier structure) that still stands at 78-03 19th Road in East Elmhurst. Behind this house is Riker Cemetery, first recorded in Abraham Lent’s 1742 will. In that will he directed that his farm be sold to the highest bidder among his children, with the provision “except for the Burying place, which is to remain entire as it now lies for the use of the relations and friends, with free egress to the same.”

Tombstones in Riker Cemetery, ca. 1900 (Whittemore)

In 1919 the Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the 88×78-foot Riker Cemetery, locating 132 gravestones. A number of these were rough-hewn fieldstones and tablets with no markings or inscribed only with initials (a brownstone marked “A.L.” might be that of Abraham Lent). The earliest identifiable graves were those of Johannis Riker (1721-1744) and Abraham Riker (1655-1746), the eighth son of Abraham Rycken and inheritor of the Riker homestead and Rikers Island.

Obituary of Revolutionary War veteran John Berrien Riker, 1794

The most illustrious occupant of Riker Cemetery is Dr. John Berrien Riker, a patriot of the American Revolution. Born on the Riker homestead in 1738, he was educated at Princeton University and subsequently practiced medicine in New Jersey. Historians credit Riker with saving the life of future U.S. President James Monroe during the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, when he clamped a severed artery in a near-fatal gunshot wound to Monroe’s shoulder. After Trenton Riker remained with Washington’s army and was commissioned as a surgeon of the 4th Battalion of New Jersey troops in February of 1777. When peace was established in 1783, Riker returned to his native home in Queens where he died in 1794 at age 57. 

Also here is the grave of Dr. William James MacNeven (1763-1841), a celebrated Irish physician, scientist, and member of the United Irishmen who was exiled from Ireland after the failed rebellion of 1798. Connected to the family by his 1810 marriage to Jane Margaret Riker, MacNeven’s burial site in Riker Cemetery has long been a place of pilgrimage for local Hibernian societies. MacNeven is likewise memorialized in a 35-foot-tall cenotaph in St. Paul’s Churchyard in Manhattan.

This 1923 view of Riker Cemetery from 19th Avenue shows the wooden fence that surrounded the burial ground before it was replaced by the current brick enclosure ca. 1930 (NYPL)

Riker family members continued to be buried in their ancestral burial ground at Bowery Bay into the 1930s and various occupants of the nearby Abraham Lent house looked after the cemetery throughout the years. For most of the 19th century the house was occupied by members of the Rapelye family, who were affiliated with the Rikers through intermarriage and are said to have guarded the cemetery with “jealous care.” In 1941 a branch of the Riker family re-acquired the property and installed an elderly Swiss caretaker, Rudolph Durheim, to look after the house and burial ground. Durheim was interred in the cemetery upon his death in 1944.

A view of tombstones in Riker Cemetery, June 2016 (Mary French)

Since the 1970s the Abraham Lent home has been owned and occupied by Michael Smith and his wife Marion Duckworth Smith, who restored the home and preserved the Riker Cemetery.  When Michael Smith died in 2010, he was interred in Riker Cemetery alongside several of Mrs. Smith’s family members. Today the house is the oldest building in New York City still used as a private residence; the adjacent burial ground is protected by a high brick wall with a wrought-iron gate emblazoned, “RIKER.”

This 2008 aerial image shows the modern surroundings of Riker Cemetery (arrow); the adjacent Abraham Lent house can be seen near 19th Road; the entrance to the Rikers Island Bridge is a half-block west on 19th Avenue (NYCityMap)
Rikers Island Bridge entrance, June 2016 (Mary French)

View more photos of Riker Cemetery

Sources: Sidney’s Map of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; The Annals of Newtown (Riker 1852); Long Island Historic Homes, Ancient and Modern (Whittemore 1901); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932); 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984); The Rikers: Their Island, Homes, Cemetery and Early Genealogy (Nutt 2004); “Walks through Old Cemeteries—The Riker Family,” Newtown Register, Aug 23, 1877; “Residences Which Are Historical,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 22, 1899; “Alonzo D. Riker,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 23, 1910; “Shrine of Irish Patriot Found at Old Riker Grave Yard on Bowery Bay Shore,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1920; “J.J. Riker Rites Tomorrow,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 5, 1932; “High Walls Protect Old Riker Cemetery,” Long Island Daily Press, Dec 16, 1935; “Pioneers and Irish Patriots Share Resting Place in Old Riker Cemetery,” Long Island Star Journal, Jun 18, 1940; “Died,” Greenleafs New York Journal, Sept 10, 1794; Revolutionary War Pension Applications—John Berrien Riker (Ancestry.com); “Doctor Riker’s Decision,” Hektoen International, Summer 2016; “Re-naming Rikers,” Pacific Standard, Jun 14, 2017

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