On the same day in 1654 that Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered a church be built at Flatbush, he authorized the same for the neighboring settlement at Flatlands (then known as New Amersfort), another of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The first church edifice at Flatlands, erected in 1663, stood on a gently elevated spot at the head of a little stream that ran into Jamaica Bay. This site is occupied by the present Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church, at East 40th Street and Kings Highway. Constructed in 1848, it is the third church building on the site.
West and southwest of the church building is the roughly two-acre cemetery where generations of Flatlanders are laid to rest; names include Lott, Voorhees, Wyckoff, Stothoff, Schenck, Kouwenhoven, and Funck, among others. Though only a few hundred gravestones remain today, over 2,000 people are believed to have been interred in the cemetery between the late 17th century and the mid-20th century. The oldest surviving tombstones date to the 1760s; the most poignant of these marks a grave shared by three young brothers—children of Peter and Willempie Amirman—who died on consecutive days in September 1767.
Members of Flatlands’ historic African American community are also interred here. An 1882 inventory of tombstones in the cemetery identifies eight graves of “colored people,” including several members of the Paupau family that died between the 1830s and 1850s. According to research by the Friends of the Lott House in Marine Park (part of the historic town of Flatlands), the Paupaus were of African and Native American ancestry and resided in Flatlands as early as 1830. Descendants of this family were interred in the cemetery into the 20th century.
Flatlands was established in 1636 when a group of Dutch settlers bought 15,000 acres of land from local Canarsee tribal chiefs, and there was a tradition among the old families of Flatlands that the site of the church and cemetery was a former Native American burial ground. This story ostensibly was confirmed in 1904, when construction of a new Sunday school/lecture building at the southern end of the cemetery grounds uncovered what were believed to be Native American human remains. While excavating for the foundation of the new building, workers dug up 12 skeletons “of massive proportions,” according to newspaper reports, with nothing indicating they had ever been in coffins. “There is little doubt that the dozen skeletons exhumed are the remains of Indians,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle proclaimed, and residents of the neighborhood concluded this was proof of their “Indian burial ground” folklore. The bones were placed in a box and reinterred in another section of the cemetery.
In the early 1900s, several distinct sections made up what is now the Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery. These included the churchyard proper, immediately west of the church building and owned by the congregation, the “Indian burial plot” at the north end of the property, where the Native American remains uncovered in 1904 were reburied; the privately-owned DeBaun and Terhune family burial plots, forming a narrow strip below the churchyard; and the public burial ground along the southern boundary of the property, owned by the town of Flatlands. All of these sections are now owned and managed by the church. In the 1920s, the cemetery grounds were graded to street level, beautified with plantings, and enclosed by a fine wrought-iron fence. The present Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church continues to serve the ever-changing population of the local community, and the pretty, spacious grounds of the church cemetery offer a quiet place to recall the site’s long history.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 32; [Map of Flatbush Ave. at Alton Pl. and Overbaugh Pl.], undated; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901); The Ferry Road on Long Island (Armbruster 1919); Tercentenary Anniversary, 1654-1954 (Protestant Dutch Reformed Church of Flatlands 1954); “Inscriptions on the Tombstones in and around the Churchyard in the Village of Flatlands, Kings County, N.Y.” Kings County Genealogical Club Collections, 1(2), Jul 1882; Cemetery Inscriptions from Flatlands, Brooklyn, New York (Frost 1914); “Flatlands’ Church-Yard,” Kings County Rural Gazette, Apr 25, 1874; “Flatlands—The Duty of Sexton,” Kings County Rural Gazette, Apr 22, 1876; “Gravestones,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 21, 1882; “Old Burial Grounds,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 29, 1886; “Find Dead Men’s Bones in Excavation” Brooklyn Standard Union, Aug 12, 1904; “Bones of Aborigines in Flatlands Churchyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 12, 1904; “Urge City to Purchase Flatlands Property,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 2, 1911; “Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020); “Meet Julia Paupau Teare,” Hendrick I. Lott House Facebook post, May 6, 2020