Category Archives: institutional cemeteries

Prison Ship Martyrs Tombs

Map of Wallabout Bay from 1776 to 1783 illustrating British prison ships and three areas along the shore where prisoner graves were purported to be found (arrows)

During the American Revolution, thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and civilians perished aboard British prison ships anchored near New York City. Captured during the Battle of Brooklyn or in other military engagements fought in what is now the city, Americans were crowded aboard rotting British ships moored in Wallabout Bay, a shallow cove on the Brooklyn side of the East River. Here they endured appalling conditions and died in vast numbers, their bodies then hastily buried on nearby beaches. The actual death toll cannot be reconstructed from surviving records, but it is estimated as many as 12,000 Americans perished aboard the British prison ships during the seven years of the Revolution—almost twice the number believed to have been killed in action during the war. 

Detail from an 1869 map showing the first Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb in the triangular lot on Hudson Ave, adjacent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard

After the war ended, human remains littered the sandy shores of Wallabout Bay, washed out of the shallow gravesites of those who had become known as the prison ship martyrs. Many bones appeared on property owned by John Jackson, a politician and member of the Tammany Society. Jackson donated a piece of land from his estate for a tomb and memorial site for the remains of the prison ship martyrs. On this small triangular lot, situated on what is now Hudson Avenue, between York and Front Streets and adjacent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Tammany Society built a burial vault where they interred, in 1808, 13 coffins filled with the remains of the prison ship dead that had been collected from the beaches of Wallabout Bay.

Lithograph depicting the original Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb on Hudson Ave, after it was improved by Benjamin Romaine in the 1830s (NYPL)

Although the 1808 interment was accompanied by great fanfare and public excitement, plans to erect a suitable memorial at the vault never materialized, and the tomb was soon forgotten and allowed to deteriorate. In 1828, Benjamin Romaine—a Tammany leader who had himself been a Revolutionary War prisoner—acquired the site. He erected an ante-chamber over the vault, added decorations and inscriptions, and, in hopes of preventing future desecration, appropriated the tomb as a burial place for himself and his family. However, following Romaine’s 1844 death, the prison ship martyrs tomb again fell into disrepair and obscurity.

Around this same time, nearby Fort Greene (originally Fort Putnam, constructed in 1776), was turned into a public park and in 1867 landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (designers of Central and Prospect Parks) were engaged to redesign the park and create a new tomb for the remains of the prison ship martyrs. In 1873 workmen quietly transferred the coffins from the original prison ship martyrs crypt to the new tomb built into the middle of a series of terraces created in the northwest part of the park. Facing the corner of Myrtle Avenue and St. Edwards Street, the crypt was surrounded by a granite mausoleum, 10 feet high, 30 feet long, and 15 feet wide and embellished with pillars and fretwork. Though the mausoleum still lacked a monument memorializing the prison ship dead, these patriots were no longer forgotten, as services at the “tomb of the martyrs” in Fort Greene Park became part of Brooklyn’s Memorial Day ceremonies for the remainder of the 19th century.

An early 1900s view of the terrace at Fort Greene Park, with the Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb in the middle (arrow) (NYPL)

In 1905 the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White was hired to design a new entrance to the crypt and transform the terrace into a wide granite stairway leading to a plaza on top of the hill. At the center of the plaza would be a 149-foot Doric column honoring the prison ship martyrs, designed by esteemed architect Stanford White. On November 14, 1908, some  40,000 people stood in a storm of sleet and snow in Fort Greene Park as the folds of a massive American flag, more than 200 feet long, fell slowly away from the towering granite shaft during the monument’s dedication ceremony.

The redesigned tomb and grand staircase, with the newly-unveiled monument above, 1909 (NYHS)

At the center of the grand staircase below the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is the entrance to the crypt where the patriots are entombed. Beyond a bronze door, a short passageway leads to a room lined with 22 bluestone caskets that hold the remains of the prison ship martyrs collected in the early 1800s along Wallabout Bay as well as bones unearthed in later years. Although the crypt is occasionally opened for historic tours, it is generally closed to the public. Speaking at the opening of the new Visitors Center at Fort Greene Park in 2006, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough called the Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb one of the most sacred Revolutionary War sites in the country and, like Arlington National Cemetery, a place that every American should visit.

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument and Tomb, March 2022 (Mary French)
A view of the interior of the crypt, ca. 2006, shows some of the bluestone caskets that hold the remains of prison ship martyrs (NYC Parks Dept)
2018 aerial view of Fort Greene Park, arrows denote the monument and the entrance to the crypt (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of the Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb and Monument

Sources: Johnson’s Diagram of the Wallabout Bay &c. from 1776 to 1783; Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn; A History of the City of Brooklyn including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh, Vol 1 (Stiles 1867);  [Yesterday at the Wallabout], Public Advertiser, Apr 7, 1808; “Arrangement for the Grand and Solemn Funeral Procession,” American Citizen, May 24, 1808; “Tomb of the Patriot Prisoners,” Long Island Star, Jul 8, 1839; “Martyrs’ Monument, Brooklyn Union, Apr 11, 1873; “The Prison-Ship Martyrs,” New York Times, Jun 19, 1873; “Revolutionary Martyrs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 18, 1873; “Not Forgotten!” Brooklyn Times Union, May 30, 1887; “Where History Lies Entombed,” Brooklyn Citizen, Feb 27, 1898; “Centenary of First Tomb of Prison Ship Martyrs,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Jun 16, 1907; “Nation Honors Martyred Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 15, 1908; “Resurrecting Patriots, and Their Park,” New York Times, Sep 23, 1995; Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); 1776 (McCullough 2005); Martyrs Monument/Monument Lot, Block 44, Lot 14, Brooklyn: Memo Report on Archaeological Investigations (Geismar 2003); Fort Greene Park Archaeological Assessment (Geismar 2005); Archaeological Documentary Study: Rose Plaza on the River (AKRF 2007); Phase IA Cultural Resources Investigation for Admiral’s Row Section, Former Brooklyn Navy Yard (Panamerican Consultants, Inc. 2008); Prison Ship Martyrs Monument/Fort Greene Park Visitor Center historical panels, New York City Parks & Recreation 

Stockbridge Indian Burial Ground

Stockbridge Indian Monument at Van Cortlandt Park, Sept 2010 (Mary French)

A small, grassy clearing at the northeastern corner of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx is the burial place of Chief Daniel Nimham and about 17 of his fellow members of the Stockbridge Indian Company who died while fighting with the Patriots during the Revolutionary War. Daniel Nimham was the last sachem of the Wappinger confederacy of Indians of the lower Hudson River Valley. Made head of his tribe in 1740, Nimham came to prominence for his efforts to recover tribal homelands and for his service to the English during the French and Indian Wars. 

1778 sketch by Capt Johann von Ewald, a Hessian officer who fought for Britain during the Revolution, depicting a member of the Stockbridge Indian Company

By the 1750s, Nimham and his clan had joined with allied Mohican groups at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. At the start of the American Revolution, members of the Stockbridge tribes pledged their loyalty to the American cause. Daniel Nimham was given a military commission as a captain in the Continental Army and his son Abraham Nimham was put in charge of the Stockbridge Indian Company. In April of 1778, the Nimhams and the Stockbridge militia unit joined Washington’s army at White Plains.

In the summer of 1778, the Nimhams and their detachment of some 60 Indians found themselves skirmishing with British and Hessian troops alongside American militia units operating on the Bronx border. On August 31, 1778, the detachment was outflanked and surrounded by a formation of British rangers and Hessian jaegers during fighting along a ridge in today’s Van Cortlandt Park. Outnumbered five to one, Daniel, Abraham, and at least 15 other Stockbridge men were killed. The Nimhams and the other slaughtered Indians were buried in a common grave near the battle site.

This Sept 3, 1778 article from the Royal American Gazette, a Tory newspaper published in British-occupied New York, reports the death of Chief Nimham, his son, and other Stockbridge Indians earlier that week

In 1906 the Bronx Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a monument to Chief Nimham and his men. Consisting of a stone cairn and a plaque, the monument is near the intersection of Van Cortlandt Park East and Oneida  Avenue; the burial ground is in the field behind the monument. The plaque is inscribed “August 31, 1778.  Upon this Field Chief Nimham and Seventeen Stockbridge Indians, as Allies of the Patriots, Gave their Lives for Liberty.” The Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution, and other groups frequently honor Daniel Nimham and the other fallen Stockbridge warriors with ceremonies at the monument. In 2005, veterans from the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians held a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial, with the United States Military Academy West Point providing the Honor Guard for the event.

Section of Van Cortlandt Park Alliance map showing location of the Stockbridge Indian monument
A view of Stockbridge Indian memorial and burial ground, Sept 2010 (Mary French)
A panel from the “Native New York” exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in  NYC depicts present-day Stockbridge-Munsee veterans visiting the burial ground

Sources: “New-York, September 3,” Royal American Gazette, Sep 3, 1778; “Old Historic Cemeteries,” Daily Argus (Mount Vernon, NY), Jan 9, 1905; Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Vol 2 (Hodge 1910); The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912); “The Indian Field Massacre,” Bronx County Historical Society Journal Vol XIV(2)(Fall 1977); “The Nimhams of the Colonial Hudson Valley, 1667-1783,” The Hudson River Valley Regional Review 9(2) (September 1992); Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016); “A Trip for the Ages,” Mohican News, November 15, 2005; “Remembering the Sacrifice of a True Patriot,” DAR Blog, Sep 8, 2021; “Why We Serve—Origins of Native American Military Service” (Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian); “Native New York,” (Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian)

Presentation Sisters Cemetery

Presentation Sisters Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

A long driveway off Arthur Kill Road in Greenridge leads to the small cemetery belonging to the Sisters of the Presentation of Staten Island, an order of Roman Catholic nuns that has its origins in the Irish city of Cork. Hemmed in today by residential development, the hilltop burial ground once offered views of sloping hillsides and ridges dotted with fields, orchards, and barnyards. This bucolic environment is what led the Presentation Sisters, assigned to teaching positions at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan, to open a retreat on what had been the Frost farm in the western part of Staten Island. Shortly after opening their 80-acre retreat in 1884, the nuns began hosting needy children from their Manhattan parish; within a few years, the retreat had evolved into St. Michael’s Home for destitute children. In 1921, St Michael’s Home and Convent housed 33 Presentation Sisters and 400 children.

This snippet from a 1917 map shows the St. Michael’s Home complex and the Presentation Sisters Cemetery (arrow)

The Presentation Sisters left St. Michael’s Home in the 1940s, relocating their convent to another area of Staten Island and relinquishing operation of the children’s home to the Sisters of Mercy. Over the years, the Presentation Sisters worked at local churches, taught at local schools, and became an indelible part of Staten Island’s Catholic community. In the 1960s, nearly 120 nuns were members of the order. As of 2020, the Staten Island Presentation Sisters congregation had only eight members at their present convent, built in 2010 on Woodrow Road in Annadale. 

St. Michael’s Home was closed by the Archdiocese of New York in 1978. At the time of closing, the substantial complex held 12 buildings—including a chapel, gymnasium, administration building, and dormitories—and the burial ground where the Presentation Sisters have interred members of their community for over 100 years. Most of the St. Michael’s Home complex was demolished and much of the property sold, except for about six acres reserved for St. John Neumann Church, a new parish that operated on the grounds until its 2017 closure.

Presentation Sisters Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

Approximately 80 nuns are buried in the Presentation Sisters Cemetery, which is a short distance behind the St. John Neumann church building. Enclosed by a wrought-iron fence and gate bearing the words “My Jesus Mercy,” the tidy cemetery has rows of uniform headstones marking the nuns’ graves, the earliest dating to 1886. In the southern section of the cemetery is a monument inscribed “In Memory of the Children of St. Michael’s Home Buried on this Sacred Ground,” which marks a plot where about two dozen youngsters from the home, who died without relatives to claim them, are interred. Several other individuals associated with St. Michael’s Home are also interred in the cemetery.

The Presentation Sisters Cemetery is still active; the most recent burial is Sister Margaret Mary Quinn. Born in Manhattan, Sister Margaret Mary entered the Presentation Sisters of Staten Island in 1946. For 32 years, she served at St. Teresa parish and school in West New Brighton, where she was instrumental in starting a preschool program and food pantry. Sister Margaret Mary died at the Woodrow Road convent in August 2020 at age 90.

Two 2018 aerial views show the Presentation Sisters Cemetery in its modern surroundings, and in closer detail. St. John Neumann Church and its expansive front lawn can be seen directly northwest of the burial ground (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of the Presentation Sisters Cemetery

Sources: Bromley’s 1917 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Richmond, Staten Island, Pl 43; The Official Catholic Directory 1921; Staten Island and Its People, Vol. 2 (Davis & Leng 1930); Phase 1 Archaeological Sensitivity Evaluation, Arden Heights Watershed, South Richmond Drainage Plans, Staten Island, New York (Historical Perspectives, Inc. 2001); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006); “Many at Funeral of Father Byrnes,” Perth Amboy Evening News, Mar 6, 1908; “Elks to Honor Late Chaplain,” Perth Amboy Evening News, May 26, 1909; “Few in Number, Rich in Land, an Order Sells Some Holdings,” New York Times, Apr 17, 2005; “St. John Neumann Church to Close,” Staten Island Advance, May 1, 2017; “Sister Margaret Mary Quinn,” Catholic New York, Sep 24, 2020; Staten Island Presentation Sisters Congregational Story 

Naval Cemetery

Detail from an 1869 map showing the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Naval Hospital, and Naval Cemetery (arrow)

Established in 1801 on the shores of Wallabout Bay, the Brooklyn Navy Yard served as one of the nation’s foremost naval shipbuilding facilities from 1801 until it was decommissioned in 1966. In 1824, the Navy purchased land directly eastward of the main Navy Yard property to build a hospital complex. Opened in 1838, the Brooklyn Naval Hospital became a leading center of medical innovation, developing new techniques in anesthetics, wound care, and physical therapy. The hospital closed in 1948, but the property remained in use as a naval receiving station until 1990.

The Naval Hospital campus and Naval Cemetery in 1904

In the early 1830s, the Navy established a burial ground on the eastern edge of the hospital campus. The two-acre Naval Cemetery was used from about 1831 to 1910 and was the burial place for more than 2,000 people of all races and creeds, most of them officers and enlisted men of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. Interred here were two Congressional Medal of Honor winners, Vendovi, the “Fijian Cannibal Chief” who died in the Naval Hospital in 1842, and individuals from more than 20 different countries.

Among early interments at the Naval Cemetery were 28 sailors and Marines who perished when the U.S. receiving ship Fulton exploded while moored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in June 1829. Originally laid to rest at Wallabout Cemetery, in November 1834 the remains of those killed in the Fulton explosion were disinterred and escorted under Marine guard to a stone vault in the Naval Cemetery grounds.

In 1897, a New York Times reporter visited the Naval Cemetery and described the graveyard behind the Naval Hospital:

It is little larger than the ordinary city block, and is inclosed on the hospital side with a high brick wall, and on the other three sides with a tall iron fence, which is badly in need of a coat of paint. Outside this railing, and facing Flushing Avenue, are several foundries, machine shops, factories and stables that completely prevent a view of the cemetery from the street. The entrance is through a small street running back from Flushing Avenue, and separating the city and Government property. It is seldom traveled and never cleaned. The children in the neighborhood use the place as a playground. There are heavy chains and a stout padlock on the cemetery gate.

The cemetery is rarely visited. One’s first impression of it is that it receives no attention outside of keeping the grass cut and the trees trimmed… Scattered throughout the cemetery are tall elms. One of the things that strike the visitor most forcibly is the lack of monuments. There are no handsome stones to mark the last resting places of the men who gave their lives to their country. In fact some of the graves have no headpieces except the kind that the Government furnishes. Some of these have been broken away or lost, and it is not known who lies beneath. 

Newspaper clipping reporting a burial at the Naval Cemetery in February 1900

When the Times reporter explored the cemetery in 1897, most of the graves were marked with cast-iron markers about a foot square, many of them rusty, worn, and broken. These were replaced in 1899 with uniform marble headstones like those used in national cemeteries. Despite this improvement to the old Naval Cemetery, there was little room remaining for additional burials by this time and it closed to interments in 1910. In 1926 the Navy disinterred remains from the burial ground and reinterred them at Cypress Hills National Cemetery. The trees were subsequently removed from the property and the site graded to create a playing field. With the assumption that the area no longer contained burials, the Navy reused the grassy space of the former cemetery for a variety of primarily recreational purposes for the next 50 years or so.

Photo of the Naval Cemetery taken in February 1926, a few months before remains and headstones were removed and transferred to Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Brooklyn Times Union)

During the process of transferring the Naval Hospital campus to the City of New York in the 1990s, questions arose about the former Naval Cemetery. Extensive archival and archaeological investigations of the site concluded that the remains of 987 individuals were recorded as being relocated, leaving hundreds of burials unaccounted for and potentially still at the site. Replanted as a meadow, the site is now preserved and reopened to the public in 2016 as the Naval Cemetery Landscape, a park that is part of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative. Its design includes a raised walkway that allows visitors to explore the landscape without disturbing the hallowed ground of the former cemetery.

A view of the Naval Cemetery Landscape just after it opened to the public in May 2016 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of the Naval Cemetery Landsapce (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn; Hyde’s 1904 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn 3:1; “Interesting Ceremony,” Long Island Star, Nov 27 1834, “The Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 2, 1875; “G.A.R. Services,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 23, 1887; “Jack Tar’s Burial Ground,” New York Times, Dec 19, 1897; “Heroes’ Last Resting Place,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Oct 24, 1899; “Burial at Naval Cemetery,” Brooklyn Times Union, Feb 23, 1900; “Talk of Closing the Old Naval Cemetery,” Brooklyn Times Union, May 16, 1907; “No Mourners for These Sailor Dead,” New York Times, Oct 16, 1910; “Navy Yard Cemetery Plan is Denounced as ‘Ghoulish,’” Brooklyn Times Union, Feb 24, 1926; “Capt. Blackwood Outlines Plans to Abandon Cemetery,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Feb 28, 1926; “Exercises to Mark Transfer of Last Body from Naval Cemetery,” The Chat, Oct 16, 1926; Archaeological Evaluation (Stage 1A Documentary Study), Former Naval Station (NAVSTA) New York, Navy Yard Annex Site Brooklyn, New York (Geismar 1996); State of the Research, Naval Hospital Cemetery, Historical Documentation, Naval Station Brooklyn, New York (Geismar 1999); “Prairie Heals an Old Wound at a Former Brooklyn Cemetery,” New York Times, July 11, 2016; Brooklyn Greenway Initiative—Naval Cemetery Landscape

Ursuline Sisters Burial Grounds

The Ursuline Convent and Academy, East Morrisania, by Edward Valois, ca.1868; lithograph issued by George Schlegel (MCNY)

On April 11, 1892, the remains of 25 women were exhumed from a property along Westchester Avenue in East Morrisania and transported about five miles north for reburial in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx. In life, the women were members of a sisterhood rooted in 16th century Italy where Angela Merici founded the Ursuline Order, the first Roman Catholic institute dedicated to the education and spiritual development of young women. Extending their presence throughout Europe and into North America, the Ursulines established a strong identity as educators and founded communities and schools for the education of girls wherever they went. The Ursuline Convent and Academy at East Morrisania, established in 1855, was the first successful Ursuline community in New York—a previous attempt to establish an Ursuline convent in Manhattan in 1812 attracted no postulants, and disbanded in 1815.

An 1887 map shows the East Morrisania Ursuline Convent and grounds, which extended from Jackson St to St. Ann’s Ave

The Ursulines thrived at East Morrisania, which was, in the mid-19th century, a rural suburb about nine miles north of the city. The Ursuline Convent and Academy was a picturesque locale, as described by a visitor who attended commencement exercises at the institution in 1862:

[The] Convent stands on an eminence which slopes gently down to a grassy plain and spacious grounds stretch around it on every side, allowing ample room for the pupils to exercise and recreate themselves in. On account of its elevated position it is visible for miles, forming quite a feature in the landscape, and imparting an air of antiquity and Catholicity to the scene.

By the 1870s, the Ursuline community at East Morrisania included about 40 professed nuns and 20 novices and postulants, and their girls’ academy attracted 70 pupils a year. Half of the community’s nuns taught at the academy, while the other sisters handled the convent’s domestic and administrative affairs. Nuns who died at the convent were interred in a burial ground on the community’s 8.5-acre property, situated on the north side of present-day Westchester Avenue between Jackson Street and St. Ann’s Avenue. It is not known exactly where within the property the burial ground was located.

This excerpt from an 1870 U.S. Census schedule for the Town of Morrisania is a partial list of the nuns living in the Ursuline Convent at that time.

Among those interred at the Ursuline burial ground at East Morrisania were Sister Agnes Boyce, native of Ireland, who died at the convent in 1874, aged 39; Sister Teresa Fuekenbusch, native of Prussia, died 1873, aged 35; Sister Florian Gilooly, from Wisconsin, died 1883, aged 28; and Sister Clotilda Lowenkamp, from Maryland, who died in 1890 at 30 years old. Tuberculosis was the most common cause of death among the young nuns laid to rest in the community’s burial ground.

The opening of the new Ursuline academy at Bedford Park is announced in this 1892 advertisement

As the area surrounding the Ursuline Convent at East Morrisania became more populated and industrialized, the community planned a move to a less-developed part of the Bronx. The Ursulines purchased a 10-acre property in the Bedford Park neighborhood in 1887 and moved the school and convent there in 1892. The East Morrisania property was subdivided and sold off to developers and burials exhumed from the site were reinterred in designated grounds at the Bedford Park location. By 1906, however, all burials from the Ursuline property at Bedford Park were transferred to a plot the order acquired at St. Raymond’s Cemetery. Although the Academy of Mount St. Ursula continues to operate today at Bedford Park, the convent there closed in 2007 and most of its members relocated to the Ursuline convent at New Rochelle.

Detail from a 1900 map depicting the Ursuline Convent and Academy at Bedford Park

Sources: Robinson’s 1887 Atlas of the City of New York, Vol 5, Pl 7; Sanborn’s 1900 Insurance Maps of the City of New York, Vol 13, Pl 38Bodies in Transit Register X:1881-1894, Municipal Archives, City of New York; United States Census, 1870 & 1880, FamilySearch; Sadliers’ Catholic directories, 1873-1896; “Religious Reception,” Metropolitan Record, Feb 2, 1861; “St Joseph’s Ursuline Academy,” Metropolitan Record, July 26, 1862; “Academy of Mount St. Ursula” [Advertisement], Eastern State Journal (White Plains), Aug 27, 1892; St. Angela Merici and the Ursulines (O’Reilly 1880), 389-390; “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 256-257; Ursulines of the Eastern Province