Thorne-Wilkins Cemetery

A view of the Thorne-Wilkins Cemetery in Fort Totten Park, 2019 (Tom Loggia)

Since childhood, brothers Thomas and Vincent Loggia heard family stories about ancestors buried within Fort Totten, the former U.S. Army installation on the Willets Point peninsula in northern Queens. The Willets Point name derives from Charles Willets (1781-1833), who purchased the property in 1829. Before that, the peninsula belonged to the Thorne and Wilkins families. Englishman William Thorne (1617-1664) received the land from the Dutch in 1639, and the farmland remained in his family until 1788 when Ann Thorne married William Wilkins. Thomas and Vincent Loggia are descendants of Ann Thorne and William Wilkins. For many years, evidence of their family’s ancestral burial ground was lost and officials were unaware of its presence within the fort. After 20 years of painstaking research, the Loggia brothers recently proved the existence of the burial ground and had it recognized as the Thorne-Wilkins Cemetery.

An 1860 map shows Wilkins Point (present-day Willets Point), the peninsula where Fort Totten is located today. Arrow denotes approximately location of the Thorne-Wilkins Cemetery.

The Thorne-Wilkins Cemetery is a small plot on a knoll about 500 feet inside the entrance of Fort Totten. A clause in the 1829 deed transferring the land from Jacob Thorne Wilkins to Charles Willets reserves the burial ground for the use of the family; this exception was reiterated in later transfers of the property. Some 30 members of the Thorne-Wilkins family are thought to be buried in the plot. Family progenitor William Thorne—one of the original patentees of Flushing, Queens, and a signer of the 1657 Flushing Remonstrance—may be among those laid to rest here. Exactly who is buried here is unknown—the only documentation of the graves was made by James Thorne, Jr., who visited the burial ground in 1857 and sketched five badly weathered tombstones.  Initials (“I.T.” and “A.T.”) and dates ranging from 1709 to 1775 were all that were visible on the stones.

This detail from an 1865 survey of property transferred to the U.S. government for Fort Totten shows the Thorne-Wilkins Cemetery

Between April 1857 and April 1863, the U.S. government acquired the properties to create Fort Totten, which hosted a series of military services until a large portion of the land, including the cemetery plot, was secured by New York City Parks in 2001. At that time, only one memorial stone stood on the site of the Thorne-Wilkins Cemetery—a monument to Charles Willets, the man who acquired the property from the Thorne-Wilkins family. This marker is somewhat of a historical mystery. Records show that in 1855, the Willets family removed Charles Willets’ remains and his weathered tombstone from his “Flushing farm” to a plot in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. His original burial place is not actually known; he may or may not have been interred in the Thorne-Wilkins Cemetery.

Descriptions of the Thorne-Wilkins burial ground before the 1930s do not mention Charles Willets’ tombstone at the site, suggesting this marker was placed there sometime in the early 1900s, possibly to commemorate the namesake of Willets Point rather than as an actual gravemarker. Whatever the case may be, the existence of Willets’ marker at the site in the 20th century, along with the lack of any other headstones, contributed to the loss of association of the burial ground with the Thorne-Wilkins family. By the time the property was taken over by the Parks Department, officials did not know of the Thorne-Wilkins burial ground and mistakenly believed that Charles Willets was the only civilian who had ever been interred within the fort’s grounds.

Sketches of tombstones in the Thorne-Wilkins Cemetery, 1857

In 2016, archaeologist Joan Geismar reviewed and analyzed the extensive material that Thomas and Vincent Loggia had amassed and presented it to the Parks Department to support the Loggias’ appeal to have the burial ground formally recognized as the Thorne-Wilkins Cemetery. The request was successful and in 2019, with the full support of NYC Parks and other family members, Thomas and Vincent Loggia installed a one-ton boulder at the site. One side of the massive stone holds a plaque identifying the burial ground and its history; the opposite side has an inscription honoring their seventh great-grandfather, William Thorne.

Asked in a 2012 interview why he persevered in this family quest to seek out and memorialize the lost Thorne-Wilkins burial ground, Thomas Loggia responded: “People should acknowledge things of importance. Maybe nobody will ever go visit them again. But really, that’s not the point. The point is they existed.”

A 2018 aerial view of part of Fort Totten Park; arrow indicates location of the Thorne-Wilkins Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of the City of New York and Its Environs (Walling 1860); Map of Survey of Land of Willets Point, Recently Purchased from Henry Day, Esq., by the United States (Trowbridge 1865); “Military and Civil Law Conflict,” New York Times Apr 21, 1895; “Willets Point Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle,  Dec 6, 1896; “Whitestone,” Brooklyn Times Union, Apr 26 1902; “Owned Property at Fort Totten,” Daily Star (Queens), Jan 10, 1907; “To Be Sold in Partition,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle,  Apr 4, 1911; “Legendary Tunnel of 1862 Traced at Fort Totten,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 17, 1937; “Until an Ancestral Graveyard is Found, No Time to Rest,” New York Times, Jun 1, 2012; Memo Report: Thorne/Wilkins/Willets Cemetery, Fort Totten, Queens (Geismar 2016); “Hidden in Plain Site: The Thorne-Wilkins Burying Ground,” New York Researcher, 28(4), Winter 2017; Thomas Loggia, personal communication, Jan 19, 2023

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