Located on a quiet residential block in the Bensonhurst section of southwestern Brooklyn, the old New Utrecht Cemetery is a relic of a time when this locale was the heart of one of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The one-acre burial ground, at the corner of 16th Avenue and 84th Street, was established in 1654 when the Dutch settled the village of New Utrecht. The cemetery was centrally located on the village’s main thoroughfare (now 84th Street) and the town’s first house of worship, the New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church, was constructed at its northeast corner in 1700. Although owned by the church, the cemetery was traditionally a community burial place where any inhabitant of New Utrecht could be buried regardless of religious affiliation.
In 1828 the Reformed Dutch congregation tore down their building adjacent to the cemetery and built a new church two blocks away, at 84th Street and 18th Avenue, where it is today. In 1899, St. John’s German Lutheran Church (later Metropolitan Baptist Church) was erected where the Dutch church formerly stood; this building still stands at the northeast corner of the cemetery. Clustered closest to the church are the family plots of the earliest New Utrecht families, including the Van Brunts, Cortelyous, Cowenhovens, Cropseys, and Bennetts. Further from the building are plots for families who settled in the area in the 19th century a later—many with Scotch-Irish and Italian surnames. Behind the church is an unmarked area of the cemetery where American Revolutionary War soldiers are said to be buried.
In the northwest corner of the cemetery, near the intersection of 16th Avenue and 84th Street, is another section unmarked by gravestones. This is the old “slave burying ground,” once fenced off the rest of the grounds, where members of the local African American community were buried into the 20th century. Though the names of most of those interred here are unknown, historical obituaries provide information for a few. Among them is John Hicks, a former slave of the Cortelyou family, buried “in that section set apart for colored people in the New Utrecht Cemetery” when he died in 1896. Also here is Anthony Thompson, who died in the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People in 1911 at age 98. Born enslaved at Paterson, New Jersey, Thompson escaped by running away at age 16, eventually settling in New Utrecht and fathering 13 children.
At the northeast corner of the cemetery is a large granite obelisk memorializing physicians James E. Dubois and John L. Crane, who died of yellow fever while treating local victims of the disease during an 1856 epidemic. The seven-ton monument, which previously stood 18 feet high, broke off during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and has lain on the ground since then. The townsmen of New Utrecht resolved to erect the monument at a meeting in December of 1856, where they made the following declaration:
That by the heroic courage and benevolence displayed by them in visiting all having the yellow fever, both rich and poor, until they were taken down themselves with that awful disease, thus sacrificing their own lives for their fellow suffers; resolved, therefore, that as they have endeared their memory to us, their neighbors and friends, we will erect a suitable monument to their many virtues.
Approximately 1,300 people have been interred in New Utrecht Cemetery during the past three centuries. Although the cemetery is still active, burials there are now rare.
Sources: Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus (Bangs 1912); New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1998); “Respect to the Martyrs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 2, 1856; “Burial of a Former Slave,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 17, 1896; “The Story of New Utrecht,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 1, 1900; “New Utrecht Village’s Old Dutch Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 23, 1900; “Old Church Graveyard in Sad State of Neglect,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 24, 1905; “Obituary—Anthony Thompson,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 1, 1911; “Stones in New Utrecht Cemetery Crumbling, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 23, 1931; “A Burial Ground for the Mighty, Laid Low by Weeds,” New York Times, Dec 2, 2007