Category Archives: family burial grounds

Rantus Family Cemetery

A listing for the Rantus Family Cemetery, or Troytown Cemetery, in a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries

In 2014 the gravestone of Wilson Rantus, a prominent African American figure in pre-Civil War Queens, mysteriously turned up in the backyard of a Queens College professor’s home. How or why the 153-year-old marble tombstone ended up in the professor’s yard near the college’s Flushing campus was never ascertained, but it is known that it originally stood in the Rantus Family Cemetery that was nearby. In 1853, Troy Rantus established a burial ground on the family farm that was located in a community called “Head of Vleigh,” just south of today’s Queens College. The cemetery was actively used by the descendants of Troy Rantus into the early 20th century, and was referred to by a number of names including “The Burying Ground of the Family of Troy Rantus the First,” “Troytown Cemetery,” and “The Colored Burying Ground of South Flushing.” The last known burial in the cemetery was in 1911, when James A. Brooks, a 37-year old Queens mail carrier and son of Sarah Rantus, was interred there.

The headstone of Wilson Rantus discovered in 2014 (NY Daily News)

Although records show the family burial ground was the final resting place of at least a dozen members of the Rantus family, when the Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the cemetery in 1919 only two headstones were present—those of Wilson Rantus (d. 1861) and James Rantus (d. 1903). Wilson Rantus was an educated African American farmer and activist who had large landholdings in both Flushing and Jamaica, Queens, in the mid-1800s. He took part in the struggle for equal voting rights in New York State, fought for educational rights for black children, and was a financial backer of Thomas Hamilton’s Anglo-African magazine and newspaper. The inscription on his gravestone was partially transcribed in 1919:

WILSON RANTUS
Died May 13, 1861
Aged 55 years
Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom
Fly, while the raging billows roll…
O, receive my soul at last

In 1952, a home building company obtained permission from the Rantus heirs to remove the bodies from the family cemetery so the company could have clear title to develop the land. At that time, no gravestones remained in the 52-by-84-foot plot, which was described as a “a long-forgotten Negro burial ground” at the southwest corner of 149th street and Gravett Road. The company reportedly removed the human remains “with care and respect” and transferred them to a plot in the Terrace Hill section at Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. The Mainstay Cooperative Apartments now stand on the former site of the Rantus Family Cemetery.

An 1873 map of Flushing showing the approximate location of the Rantus Family Cemetery
The present day area of the Rantus Family Cemetery site

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 57; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 164; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 60-61; “New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, James A. Brooks, 10 Jun 1911; “Builders Seek to Remove Bodies from Burial Ground in Flushing,” Long Island Star-Journal, Oct 24, 1952, 26; “Wilson Rantus, Negro Leader,” Long Island Forum 25(7) July 1962, 143-144; African-American Leaders in Pre-Civil War Queens (Queens Public Library 2008), 12-15; “Queens College Professor Discovers Tombstone of Abolitionist,” New York Daily News, Jun 9, 2014; “Tombstone of 19th century Queens Abolitionist Will Be Placed at His Burial Site, New York Daily News, Jun 11, 2014; “Historic Headstone of 19th Century Abolitionist Will Be Reviewed by Conservationist at Evergreens Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Jun 12, 2014; NYCityMap

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Ferris Family Burial Ground

Bronx historian John McNamara stands at the fence of the Ferris family burial ground in 1932 (BCHS)

In his 1848 history of Westchester county, Robert Bolton describes the village of Westchester, the town seat of the old Westchester township that included much of the present-day East Bronx:

The village of Westchester is situated at the head of navigation, on Westchester creek, twelve miles from the city of New York; it contains about four hundred inhabitants, fifty dwellings, an Episcopal, a Roman Catholic, a Methodist church and two Friends’ meeting houses, three taverns, a post office and four stores . . . [It] is by several years the oldest village in the county, its first settlement (by the Puritans), being coeval with Throckmorton’s purchase, in 1642.

Bolton also mentions the “Ferris burying ground,” that was located in the village near St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The Ferris family presence in the area goes back to the 17th century, as does their old family cemetery that can be found today on the south side of Commerce Avenue, east of Westchester Avenue, in the modern Bronx neighborhood of Westchester Square. John Ferris, an Englishman who was one of the five patentees of Westchester township in 1667, reserves the burial ground by his last will in 1715: “Provided always there shall be a rod square free for all friends and friendly people to bury their dead in the place where they formerly buried without any let, hindrance, or molestation whatsoever.” Benjamin Ferris likewise reserves the family cemetery in his 1777 will, excluding “a place four rods square, where the burying place is” from the Westchester lands to be sold by his executors.

The Ferris family burial ground was located near the southern boundary line of the Ferris property shown on this 1881 map of Westchester Village (Bromley 1881)

In August 1905, members of the Underhill Society of America visited the Ferris burial ground, where they found about 30 gravestones (most dating to the 19th century) and two family vaults—the James Ferris family vault on the north side of the graveyard and that used by the Benjamin Ferris line on the east side. Remains from the James Ferris vault were removed around 1890 and transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery and Trinity Churchyard. Among those moved to Woodlawn were James Ferris (1734-1780) and his wife Charity Thomas Ferris (1734-1809), Revolutionary War patriots whose Throgg’s Neck home was occupied by British Admiral Richard Howe in October 1776. James Ferris was kept in the notorious British prison ships, and died in 1780 as a result of the hardships he endured. Legend has it that Charity Ferris, who stayed in the homestead during the British occupancy, directed one of her servants to memorize the conversations he overheard when waiting on Lord Howe and his officers, and transmitted this information to General Washington, who was with his army at White Plains.

This view across Commerce Ave shows the Ferris cemetery overgrown with weeds and tall grass in July 1928. The spire of St. Peters Episcopal Church on Westchester Ave can be seen in the background (NYPL).
The monument to Cornell Ferris, who died June 13, 1864, is one of the few gravestones left in the Ferris burial ground today (Mary French)

Various Ferris branches maintained the family burial plot for two centuries, but it was increasingly neglected after Charles Ferris, who lived near the burial ground when the Underhill Society had visited in 1905, died in 1908. The site became overgrown, gravemarkers were destroyed or taken by vandals, and even the fencing was stolen. In 1928, vandals broke into the Benjamin Ferris vault, cut open the lead caskets and desecrated the remains; subsequently, the bodies of 15 family members were removed and reinterred at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester, leaving about 16 bodies and gravestones in the Ferris burial ground. The site experienced periods of neglect and restoration throughout the 20th century (Parkchester Kiwanis Club removed 198 tons of debris from the site in 1973), but has been kept in good condition in recent years through the efforts of local Boy Scouts and other civic groups. Only a handful of gravestones still stand in the old burial ground, and its once bucolic surroundings are now a gritty industrial area.

An aerial view of the Ferris burial ground and surroundings in 1924 (NYCityMap)
An aerial view of the Ferris burial ground and surroundings in 2012 (NYCityMap)
A view of the Ferris Family Burial Ground, July 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of the Ferris Family Burial Ground

Sources: A History of the County of Westchester (R. Bolton 1848), Vol. 2, 178-179, 227; Bromley’s 1881 Atlas of Weschester County Pl 41; Early Wills of Westchester County (W.S. Pelletreau 1898), 34-35, 360-361; Partial Geneaology of the Ferris Family (C.E. Crowell 1899); “Ferris Burying Ground 1700,” The Underhill Society of America, Sixteenth Annual Report, 1908, 24-25; May Ferris Doherty notes, 1928 & n.d., Ferris Cemetery file, Bronx County Historical Society; “To Be Exhumed from Debris Itself,” Bronx Press Review, Aug 9, 1973; History in Asphalt (J. McNamara 1978), 47, 83, 290-291; “New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, Charles Coleman Ferris, 09 Apr 1908; “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; NYCityMap

Burroughs Family Cemetery

View of the Burroughs Family Cemetery, ca. 1922 (NYHS)
A view of the Burroughs Family Cemetery, ca. 1922 (New-York Historical Society)

NYC officials proved to have short memories in the 1950s and 1960s when they repeatedly sold and then had to buy back a piece of land in Corona, Queens, after title searches revealed the property was an old cemetery. The plot in question, located near 94th Street and Alstyne and Corona avenues, was earmarked as a private cemetery under a last will and testament admitted to probate on January 3, 1821. It was once part of the estate belonging to the Burroughs family who settled in the area in the 17th century. By the late 1800s, the family had sold off most of their old farm land and retained only the ancestral burial ground. The Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the cemetery in 1919, identifying 16 graves with headstones dating from 1793 to 1871 for members of the Burroughs, Vandervoort, and Waters families.

Location of the Burroughs burial ground in 1919 (Queens Topographical Bureau)
Location of the Burroughs burial ground in 1919 (Queens Topographical Bureau)

As the descendants of those interred there moved out of the area, the cemetery was abandoned, neglected, and became a dumping ground for neighborhood refuse. In 1954, the city seized the property in a delinquent tax action—erroneously it turned out, since private burial grounds, like all cemeteries, are tax exempt. The site was then mistakenly sold at public auction at least twice, in 1956 and 1960. In each case, the city refunded the buyers when they discovered they could not develop the property unless the cemetery was removed, a long and expensive process that would require tracing descendants to obtain permission to move the bodies. It is not known if the remains were ever removed from the Burroughs cemetery site, which is now covered with residential buildings and asphalt.

Another view of the Burroughs Cemetery, ca. 1922. The former Durkee factory (now Elmhurst Education Campus) is in the background (NYHS)
Another view of the Burroughs Cemetery, ca. 1922. The former Durkee factory (now Elmhurst Educational Campus) is in the background (New-York Historical Society)
Approximate location of the former Burroughs Cemetery site.
Approximate location of the former Burroughs Cemetery site today (NYCityMap)

Sources: History of Queens County, New York (Munsell 1882), 344; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens, 12-13; “City Stuck with Two Cemeteries,” Sunday News March 4, 1956; “Oops! City Discovers it Sold a Cemetery!” Long Island Daily Press, Jan 24, 1957; “City Digs Up Info on Lost Cemetery,” Long Island Star Journal, April 22, 1957, 3; “He Buys a Cemetery, Gets His 2Gs Back,” Long Island Star Journal, March 23, 1962, 3; NYCityMap.

Remsen Family Cemetery

View of the Remsen Family Cemetery,1923
View of the Remsen Family Cemetery,1923 (New-York Historical Society)

Situated on a triangular lot near the busy intersection of Woodhaven Boulevard and Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, the Remsen Cemetery is a remnant of Queens’ colonial past and is the final resting place of a family of Revolutionary War patriots. The 2.5 -acre site, bounded by Trotting Course Lane and Alderton Street, originally lay within the property of the Remsen family, who immigrated from northern Germany in the 17th century and established a farm in the area that was then known as Hempstead Swamp.

Tombstone of Jeromus Remsen (1735-1790), ca. 1910 (BHS)
Tombstone of Jeromus Remsen (1735-1790), ca. 1910 (Brooklyn Historical Society)

The cemetery is believed to have been used as the family burial ground from the mid-18th through the 19th centuries. In a 1925 survey of the cemetery, the graves and brownstone gravemarkers of eight Remsen family members were identified, dating from 1790 to 1819. The oldest known grave is that of Colonel Jeromus Remsen, from 1790. Col. Remsen fought in the French and Indian War and, as a colonel of the Kings and Queens County Militia in the Battle of Long Island, he commanded the 7th New York Regiment in the Revolutionary War. His cousins Abraham Remsen, Luke Remsen, and Aurt Remsen were also Revolutionary War officers.

View of the Remsen farm, ca. 1920 (New-York Historical Society)

By 1925, all of the Remsen property had been sold off and the Remsen House, which was near the cemetery, was torn down to make way for residential development. Most of the cemetery’s old tombstones disappeared with time and vandalism, although the local American Legion post and other civic groups strove to maintain it over the years. In 1980, new marble gravemarkers were erected by the Veterans Administration to honor Col. Remsen and the other Revolutionary veterans buried there. A World War I memorial, with two doughboy statues flanking a flagpole, also was created at the site to commemorate Forest Hill’s service in that war. Remsen Cemetery was designated a New York City Landmark in 1981 and is now owned and maintained by the NYC Parks Department.

Location of Remsen Cemetery between Trotting Course Lane and Alderton Ave in Forest Hills
Location of Remsen Cemetery between Trotting Course Lane and Alderton Ave in Forest Hills (NYCityMap)
View of Remsen Family Cemetery, April 2016
View of Remsen Family Cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)
New marker at gravesite of Col. Jeromus Remsen
Gravesite of Col. Jeromus Remsen (Mary French)

View more photos of Remsen Family Cemetery

Sources: “Revolutionary Colonel’s Grave, Ruined by Vandals, Now Faces Tax Lien Sale,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 30 1929, 2; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 62-63; Remsen Cemetery (LPC Designation Report 1981); “Cemeteries of Greater Ridgewood and Vicinity” (R. Eisen, Greater Ridgewood Historical Society Lecture, Aug. 1988); “Remsen Cemetery A Step Closer To Becoming An Official City Park,” Queens Chronicle, March 4, 2004; Legendary Locals of Forest Hills and Rego Park (M. Perlman 2015), 14.

Nagel Cemetery

Some of the remaining headstones in the Nagel Cemetery, ca. 1925
Some of the remaining headstones in the Nagel Cemetery, ca. 1925 (NYPL)

Late in November, 1926, I became aware that during the course of some excavations for the 207th Street Yard of the Rapid Transit System of New York City an obliterated burial ground was discovered between 212th Street and 213th Street, near the Harlem River. This district is in the northernmost part of Manhattan and within the present city limits of New York. Upon investigation by the Board of Transportation, it was learned that this site was the former Nagel, or Nagle, Cemetery. Altogether, 417 bodies were disinterred . . . Arrangements had been made by the Board of Transportation to reinter these bodies in the Woodlawn Cemetery. Toward their close I became informed of these operations and, with the permission of the Board of Transportation, was able to measure those skeletons still left unburied, provided my investigations did not interfere with the work of the contractors. Only twenty skeletons were available. The number of measurements was limited by the time allotted. Photographs were impossible, for I had the bad luck of having to work in the rain. (Shapiro 1930)

When the remains from an old cemetery in northern Manhattan were removed in 1926, anthropologist Harry Shapiro had a chance to collect data on some skeletons of colonial New Yorkers so that their physical characteristics could be compared with those of their counterparts in 17th century London (he found they were essentially the same).  The cemetery was of interest because it was a family burial ground for the Nagels, Dyckmans, and others who settled in northern Manhattan during the second half of the 17th century, and it was said to have graves dating back to 1664. In an 1806 deed, William Nagel asserted that the burial ground, which was on the Nagel farm, “has been made use for that purpose for ages past for sole us as a burial ground for the benefit of my family connections, relations, and friends.” In his will two years later, William Nagel expressly excepts the plot from his own holdings, and provides that it shall have “free access from the road to the same for interments.”

The Nagel Cemetery in 1836, on a lane from Broadway.
The Nagel Cemetery in 1836, on a lane from Broadway (Colton 1836)
The Nagel Cemetery, ca. 1925 (NYPL)
The Nagel Cemetery, ca. 1925 (NYPL)

The cemetery, which in 1926 was bounded by 212th and 213th streets and 9th and 10th avenues, was a plot of about one acre, on the crown of a gently sloping knoll.  It was originally about 200 yards west of the Nagel homestead, known as the Century House, and was reached from Broadway by a little lane bordered with apple trees.  The southern end of the cemetery, which had extended south of 212th Street, was taken in 1908 when the street was opened and a number of bodies were moved and placed in another section of the cemetery. Earlier Colonial burials were in the eastern section of the burial ground in rows about nine feet apart, running due north and south, and marked only by small, unmarked blocks of local rock, set at head and foot of each grave. The western portion of the ground was filled with graves marked with the names of local families, including the Dyckmans, Vermilyes, Ryers, and Hadleys.

Prior to 1926, a number of bodies were removed from the Nagel burial ground to other cemeteries, most notably members of the Dyckman family that were moved to Oakland Cemetery in Yonkers. When the Nagel cemetery was removed by the NYC Board of Transportation, 417 bodies were transferred to a 1,500 square foot plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and marked with an octagonal granite monument, 9 feet high and 6 feet wide, with the inscription “About this stone rest the remains of 417, among them early settlers and soldiers of the Colonial and National Wars, interred 1664-1908, in Nagel Cemetery, West 212th Street, Manhattan, the site of which was covered by a vast public improvement. Reinterred here, 1926-1927, by the city of New York.” The Nagel cemetery property was incorporated into what is today the MTA’s 207th Street Subway Yards.

The Nagel Cemetery in 1916.
The Nagel Cemetery in 1916 (Bromley 1916)
Location of graves removed from the Nagel Cemetery in 1926.
Location of graves removed from the Nagel Cemetery in 1926 (Shapiro 1930)
A present-day view of the Nagel Cemetery site.
Present-day view of the former Nagel Cemetery site (NYCityMap)
Monument at the Nagel cemetery reburial site, Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, May 2016
Monument at the Nagel cemetery reburial site, Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, May 2016 (Mary French)

View more photos of Nagel monument at Woodlawn Cemetery.

Sources: Colton’s 1836 Map Of The City and County Of New-York; Bromley’s 1916 Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan Pl 188; “Who Owns Cemetery?” New-York Tribune Mar 3, 1909 p.1; Washington Heights, Manhattan, its eventful past (Bolton 1924), 202-203; “Old Burial Ground in Subway’s Path,” New York Times Feb 13, 1927 p. 22; “Old New Yorkers: A Series of Crania from the Nagel Burying Ground, New York City” (Shapiro 1930) American Journal of Physical Anthropology 14(3):379-404; “City to Honor Dead Moved for Subway,” New York Times Jul 11 1932 p.15; Burials in the Dyckman-Nagel Burial Ground (Haacker 1954), 1-11; “The Old Nagle Cemetery,” My Inwood, May 9, 2013; NYCityMap.

Cornell Cemetery, Little Neck

Samuel Cornell’s tombstone, April 1927. (QBPL)
Tombstone of Samuel Cornell (d. 1841). Photo taken April 1927. (QBPL)

Here lies a youth in prime of life
By death was snatched away.
His soul is blest and gone to rest,
Though flesh is gone to clay.
He is gone forever his life’s sun is set.
But its golden beams linger to comfort us yet.
He has gone in the fulness of beauty and youth,
An emblem of virtue, a witness for truth.
 
Strangers, remember, you must die.

This poignant epitaph, concluding with a bleak reminder to the living, is from the gravestone of Samuel Cornell, who died in 1841 at the age of 20.  His was one of four markers that were found by the Queens Topographical Bureau in 1923 in a plot located at today’s Little Neck Parkway and Nassau Blvd.  Along with Samuel Cornell’s monument, the 67’ x 74’ graveyard had tombstones for John Cornell (d. 1847), Atletter Ann Herrick (d. 1849) and Emeline Penny (d. 1850).  The site was a known burying ground of the Cornell family, who were among the earliest English settlers in Little Neck. The small cemetery, with the four markers still present, was discovered again in 1952 when a shopping center was built at the site.  The remains from the graveyard were likely moved to the cemetery at Zion Episcopal Church in Douglaston, where other members of the Cornell family are buried.

The Cornell Cemetery near Little Neck Road (todays Little Neck Parkway), as surveyed in 1923 by Queens Topographical Bureau.
The Cornell Cemetery near Little Neck Road (today’s Little Neck Parkway), as surveyed in 1923 by Queens Topographical Bureau.
Approximate location of the Cornell Cemetery on the estate of John Cornell, 1913.
Approximate location of the Cornell Cemetery on the estate of John Cornell, 1913 (Hyde 1913)
View of the Cornell Cemetery in 1952. (NY Herald Tribune)
View of the Cornell Cemetery in 1952. (NY Herald Tribune)
Present day view of the former Cornell Cemetery site, now part  of a shopping center property.
Present day view of the former Cornell Cemetery site, now the location of a shopping center (NYCityMap)

Sources:  Hyde’s 1913 Atlas of the Borough of Queens 3:Pl 20; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens, 64-65; “Queens Builder Finds 100-Year-Old Tombstones on Lot—He’ll Spare Them,” New York Herald Tribune, Dec 29, 1952, 3; NYCityMap.

Brinckerhoff Cemetery

The Brinckerhoff Cemetery in Fresh Meadows, Queens, is a colonial-era burial ground used by Dutch families who settled in the area.  The Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the cemetery in 1919,  identifying 77 graves with headstones dating from 1730 to 1872 for members of the Brinckerhoff, Adriance, Hoogland, Snedecker and other families.  When the descendants of these families moved out of the area, the old graveyard was abandoned, neglected, and eventually taken over by the city.  In the mid-20th century, the city sold the land at public auction to a developer, but plans to build on the site have been blocked for decades by Brinckerhoff descendants and the Queens Historical Society.

Today, no headstones are visible at the 45-by-120-foot cemetery, which is nestled between one-family homes on 182nd Street, north of 73rd Avenue.   The site is covered with brush but is kept free of garbage by neighborhood caretakers.  In May 2012, the Fresh Meadows Homeowners Civic Association issued an urgent appeal for landmarking the cemetery to protect it from development.

Update:  The city declared the Brinckerhoff Cemetery a landmark on August 14, 2012.

Location of the Brinckerhoff Cemetery (NYCityMap)
The Brinckerhoff Cemetery as surveyed in 1919 (Queens Topographical Bureau)
A 1927 view of the Brinckerhoff Cemetery (QBPL)
Tombstones of Stephen Rider (d. 1736) and Charyty Anthony (d. 1763), Brinckerhoff Cemetery, 1927 (QBPL)
The Brinckerhoff Cemetery, July 2010 (Mary French)
The Brinckerhoff Cemetery, July 2010 (Mary French)

Sources: Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens 36-37, 41; “Ghouls Despoil Cemetery,” North Shore Daily Journal, May 18, 1934;“Two Old Cemeteries Auctioned Off by City,” Long Island Star Journal, Feb. 9, 1962; “Suing to Reclaim a Family Plot, Gone but Not Forgotten,” New York Times, March 5, 2000; “Fighting to Keep Builder Off Colonial Graves,” NY Daily News, June 29, 2008; NYCityMap