Category Archives: public cemeteries

Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery

This 1922 photo of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Cemetery features the tombstones of Anne Wyckoff Schenck (d. 1766) and her husband, Steven Schenck (d. 1767) (NYPL)

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.

1873 map of Flatlands depicting the church and cemetery at what is now East 40th Street, Flatbush Ave, and Kings Highway. A public school, since demolished, is shown at the northwest corner of the grounds; the Sunday school/lecture building at the southern boundary of the grounds was rebuilt at the same location in 1904

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.

Tombstone of William Paupau at Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

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.

A view of the Flatlands Reformed Dutch church and cemetery, ca. 1910 (MCNY)

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.

This undated survey of Flatbush Avenue between Alton Place and Overbaugh Place shows parts of the various sections that historically comprised Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery
A view of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery in May 2016 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church complex (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Cemetery

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

Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery

A view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church in about 1890. Part of the cemetery can be seen on the south side of the building (BHS)

In 1654, Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered that a church be built in the new settlement at Flatbush (then known as Midwout), one of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The site selected for this church was that now occupied by the present Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church, at the southwest corner of Flatbush and Church avenues. This structure, completed in 1798, is the third church on the site.

To the south and west of the church building is the cemetery that contains the graves of members of the early families of Flatbush; names include Lott, Vanderbilt, Martense, Lefferts, Vanderveer, Stryker, Cortelyou, Bergen, Van Sicklen, and Suydam, among others. Nearly 500 tombstones stand in the graveyard, the oldest dating to 1754, but there are many more unmarked graves throughout the property. During the 17th and 18th century the church grounds served as the public burial place for Flatbush, and every inhabitant was entitled to be buried there irrespective of their religious background. Since no burial records were kept, the names and dates of many of those interred in the cemetery are unknown.

This detail from an 1873 map of Flatbush depicts the church and cemetery at the southwest corner of what is now Flatbush and Church Avenues. The parsonage, shown south of the church grounds on Flatbush Ave, was relocated to its current location at the southwest corner of the church grounds in 1920

One of the oldest legible monuments in the cemetery is the headstone of Abraham Lott (1684-1754). Abraham was a grandson of Peter Lott, a French Huguenot who emigrated from the Netherlands and was among the original Dutch settlers of Flatbush. Abraham’s brownstone gravemarker, inscribed in Dutch, has the typical arched shape used in the 18th century and displays a carving of a winged cherub at the top. 

Although Flatbush had an African burial ground located on Reformed Dutch property one block east of the church, there is evidence suggesting some local slave owners may have paid to have their servants buried within the main church cemetery. In her 1881 social history of Flatbush, Gertrude Vanderbilt describes a small fenced enclosure beyond the western boundary of the church cemetery “where lies buried a colored woman by the name of Flora,” who died in 1826 at age 104. Also in the enclosure were two other “colored persons,” who, along with Flora, were domestics in the family of Mrs. A.L. Lloyd. A 1914 inventory of tombstones in the cemetery does not mention these graves, and they are not found at the site today.

This 1923 photo, taken from East 21st Street, shows part of the cemetery to the rear of the church building (NYPL)

Around 1870, the church prohibited new graves in the cemetery because, as pastor Dr. John E. Lloyd later explained, the church grounds “were almost sown with graves and buried bodies and it would be almost impossible to dig in any part without unearthing some of the skeletons.” Burials ceased except for occasional interments in family plots. When 97-year-old Catharine Hart Wyckoff was buried here in 1889, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported it was the first interment in the old church graveyard in more than 20 years.

As Flatbush transformed from a rural village to a suburban neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, so too was the old Dutch cemetery changed. After grading and paving of Flatbush Avenue was completed in 1892, the level of the cemetery was considerably below that of the street so 400 loads of soil were spread over the graveyard, and the tombstones raised so that they stood in regular order according to the grade. During excavations for installation of cesspools around the church in 1911, graves were disturbed and reportedly plundered by the workmen doing the digging, who were accused of stealing jewelry and other personal ornaments from the graves. In 1920, about 30 graves were relocated when the parsonage—built in 1853 next to the church along Flatbush Avenue—was moved to its current location at the southwest corner of the church grounds, facing Kenmore Terrace. More graves may have been relocated when the church house was erected on the south side of the cemetery in 1923-1924.

Today the landmarked Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church complex remains at the heart of Flatbush, standing at what is now one of the busiest commercial intersections in Brooklyn. Hallowed ground for over three centuries, this historic site is protected from the frenetic activity that surrounds it by a handsome wrought-iron fence.

A view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery in April 2016. In the background is the church house erected in 1923-24 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church complex (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 25; The History of the Town of Flatbush in Kings County, Long-Island (Strong 1842); The Social History of Flatbush (Vanderbilt 1881); Inscriptions from Reformed Dutch Churchyard at Flatbush, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Frost 1914); Between Heaven and Earth: Church and Society in Pre-Revolutionary Flatbush, Long Island (Nooter 1995); “She Lived Long,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 27, 1889; “In the Religious World,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 6, 1892; “Ghouls Plunder Graves of Old Dutch Families,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 29, 1911; “Ancient Parsonage Starts on Journey,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 20, 1920; “Brooklyn Scenes. Church Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 18, 1938; Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, Expanded Landmark Site Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commision 1979); Stage IB Archaeological Investigation P.S.325-K, Church and Bedford Avenues, Brooklyn (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2001); Guide to the Lott Family Papers ARC.186 (Brooklyn Historical Society 2021)

Wallabout Cemetery

Wallabout Cemetery is depicted on this 1834 map of Brooklyn

Just north of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn is a site in the middle of the superblocks formed by the vast Whitman-Ingersoll public housing developments. Situated between St. Edwards Street, North Portland Avenue, Auburn Place, and Park Avenue, this site contains the Walt Whitman Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, P.S. 67/Charles A. Dorsey School, and the former Cumberland Hospital—the birthplace of sports greats Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson, now a homeless shelter and medical clinic. In the century before these institutions were erected here, this land was the Wallabout Cemetery, a public burial ground for the citizens of the City of Brooklyn.

In the 1820s, the rapidly growing town (later city) of Brooklyn was running out of places to bury its dead. “Where shall I deposit the remains of my friend,” was a frequent question among the town’s citizens, according to the author of a letter published in the Long Island Star. The letter writer further commented that a survey of the “scanty burying grounds among us” was convincing evidence of the need for a public cemetery to be used by all denominations. In 1824 the town appointed a committee to find a suitable property for this purpose, eventually choosing five acres of farmland within a mile of the village, near Fort Greene and Wallabout Bay.

A diagram of the Wallabout Cemetery allotments from an 1835 newspaper article

At a town meeting in April of 1827, the burial ground committee announced that preparation of the public cemetery was almost completed and that some graves had already been made in the allotments assigned to eight denominations—Reformed Dutch, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Friends, Catholic, Baptist, and Universalist—and a ninth, common lot for use by the town for burial of the poor and those unaffiliated with a church. “The different allotments are separated and ornamented with forest trees,” the committee reported, “the fences and gateway are of solid masonry and the passage and road in front of the passage is paved.” Their report on the cemetery further boasts that “no place in the town is now more eligibly situated and better prepared for the purposes of interment, and that it probably contains space enough for each of our citizens who are journeying to this grave yard for a century to come; and that the work will remain a lasting monument of credit to this town.”

Despite these lofty aspirations, a mere 10 years later the Long Island Star lamented that Wallabout Cemetery “is shamefully neglected by its keepers, if such it have, and the cattle, horses and hogs have been allowed to break over its enclosure.” Upkeep of the public cemetery was an ongoing problem, evidenced by regular newspaper reports of its poor condition. In 1849, burials were disturbed when Canton Street (now St. Edwards Street) was constructed along the cemetery’s west side; a year later, the city’s Board of Health reported that Wallabout Cemetery was “densely crowded with bodies” and recommended its closure.

A notice of the Wallabout Cemetery’s closure by the Brooklyn Board of Health in 1854

The City of Brooklyn finally closed the cemetery in 1854. In 1857 the state legislature  passed a bill authorizing  sale of the land and providing for burial plots for each denomination in the new, large cemeteries that opened in Brooklyn and Queens in the mid-19th century. Churches were responsible for removing the remains from their allotments, a process that took several years. In January 1861, Brooklyn Mayor Samuel S. Powell reported that the last of the remains had been removed from the Wallabout Cemetery and deposited in a plot acquired by the city at Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

As with many 19th-century cemetery removals, some graves in the Wallabout Cemetery were missed during the process and encountered during later construction. In 1867 laborers digging for a cellar on the former cemetery site exhumed a coffin containing human remains; the inscription on the coffin plate was John Switzer, who died in June 1846. Many years later, in March 1924, workers for the Brooklyn Edison Company found human bones when excavating for a conduit at St. Edwards Street along what had been the western boundary of the former cemetery. The bones were reportedly “of both sexes, one wrist bone decorated with a bracelet or arm band of crude iron.” Remains of other 19th-century Brooklynites that may have been overlooked during the removal of Wallabout Cemetery possibly rest today beneath the grounds of the public institutions built on the site in the early 20th century.

Wallabout Cemetery in 1855
A 2018 aerial view of the former Wallabout Cemetery site

Sources: Martin’s 1834 Map of Brooklyn, Kings County, Long Island ; Perris’ 1855 Maps of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 20; Laws of the State of New York, Passed at the 81st Session of the Legislature, Begun January 5th and Ended April 19th, 1858, Chap. 232; “Report,” Long Island Star, Jun 16, 1824; [Letter to Editor—Public Cemetery], Long Island Star, Jan 5, 1825; “Town Meeting,” Long Island Star, Apr 5, 1827; “Brooklyn Cemetery,” Long Island Star, Jul, 30, 1835; “The Violated Grave,” Long Island Star, Jan 11, 1838; “Common Council,” Long Island Star, Dec 30, 1839; “Common Council,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 24, 1841; “The Burial Ground, Once More,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 28, 1844; “Burial Grounds,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Oct 24, 1846; “Cemetery at the Wallabout,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 9, 1849; “The Mayor’s Communication of the Wallabout Cemetery,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 16, 1849; “Common Council,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 22, 1850; “Removal of Dead Bodies,” Brooklyn Evening Star, May 22, 1850; “Public Notice,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jul 24, 1854; “Things at Albany,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 20, 1856; “New York Legislature,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 26, 1857; “Notice to Episcopalians,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 10, 1857; “Office of the Commissioners for Sale of the Burial Ground at the Wallabout,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Dec 15, 1857; “Wallabout Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 27, 1858;  “Great Sale of 11th Ward Property,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jun 8, 1858; “Burial of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 17, 1860; “Common Council Proceedings,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 29, 1861; “Human Remains Found,” Commercial Advertiser, Oct 14, 1867; “Thinks Old Skeletons Are From Ancient Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 25, 1924; NYC Then&Now

St. Peter’s Church Cemetery & Friends Cemetery, Westchester Square

St. Peter’s Church Cemetery in January 2021; the markers in the foreground are part of the Friends Cemetery (Mary French)

The vibrant East Bronx neighborhood known as Westchester Square is one of the borough’s oldest settlements, founded in 1654 by a group of English colonists. Called Oostdorp (east village) by the Dutch, it was renamed West Chester after it transferred to the British in 1664. When the county of Westchester was formed in 1683, Westchester Village became the county seat and grew into a center of activity at the head of Westchester Creek.

At the outset of the village’s founding, a large tract of land was set aside at the heart of the settlement for common use by the community. It was on a portion of this common land, or village green, that the settlers established a community burial ground. The first Episcopal church structure was erected on the village green in 1700, on the same site as the present St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The Society of Friends built a meetinghouse in 1723 immediately south of St. Peter’s Church. Both the Friends meetinghouse and the Episcopal church were situated adjacent to the community burying ground.

An 1868 map of the Town of Westchester shows St. Peter’s Church and the Friends meetinghouse, and their adjoining cemeteries, situated on Westchester Ave

That section of the historical village green that included the community burial ground, the Episcopalian church, and the Friends meeting house—an area now situated on the east side of Westchester Avenue between Seabury Avenue, Herschell Street, and Butler Place—is owned today by St. Peter’s Church. The cemetery adjoining the church includes the community burial ground that originated with the founding of Westchester Village, as well as plots used by St. Peter’s Church and the Friends meeting house. As such, it is the burial place of some of the earliest European settlers of the Bronx and is the borough’s oldest active cemetery.

St. Peter’s Church Cemetery

A 1927 view of St. Peter’s Church and Cemetery (NYPL)

In 1795 the trustees of the town of Westchester released to the Church of St. Peter’s the parcel of ground on which the church was erected “and also the Burying Ground adjoining the said church, as it is now enclosed and fenced, and which has heretofore been used for a Burial Place by the inhabitants of the Township, containing about one acre.” This burial ground had been used by the community since the founding of the village in the 17th century. Though belonging to the town, the burial ground overlapped with St. Peter’s churchyard and had been utilized by the church throughout the 18th century for its deceased members. The 1795 release of the property contained a stipulation that the Town of Westchester would be permitted to continue to bury its inhabitants, without any fee, in vacant parts of the burial ground, so that the community would “always be permitted to bury their dead near to and adjoining their families who have heretofore been buried in the said Burial Ground.”

James Minor Lincoln’s 1909 sketch of the St. Peter’s and Friends properties

In 1909, James Minor Lincoln collected inscriptions from 1,024 monuments in St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, the earliest dating to 1702. In his manuscript, Lincoln noted: “It is estimated that this cemetery has been filled two or three times, no grave can be dug anywhere without turning up bones and old gravestones that have been buried.” St. Peter’s interred 30-40 bodies a year in their overcrowded cemetery in the early 1900s; to expand the burial ground, in 1925 the church acquired the adjoining lot where the Friends meetinghouse had stood. Some of this property, which included a Friends burial ground (see below), was incorporated into St. Peter’s Church Cemetery and subsequently used for new burials. Interments are still made in St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, though they’ve been infrequent since the mid-20th century.

St. Peter’s Church and Cemetery complex was designated a city landmark in 1976 and was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1983. The cemetery wraps around the Gothic Revival church building (erected in 1855) with the largest section of the burial ground extending on the building’s south side. A smaller, 19th-century Gothic-style building, formerly used as a mortuary chapel and Sunday school, is located in the southwest corner of the cemetery. Tree-lined paths wind through an assortment of ancient and modern tombstones, family plots, vaults, and mausoleums memorializing three centuries of Westchester Square’s inhabitants.

Friends Cemetery

A view of the Friends Cemetery in August 1908; the fence separating the property from St. Peter’s Church Cemetery can be seen on the left side of the image (WCHS)

The Society of Friends, a dominant presence in the early years of Westchester Village, had a graveyard behind the meetinghouse they erected in 1723 neighboring St. Peter’s Church on Westchester Avenue. When James Minor Lincoln collected inscriptions from St. Peter’s Church Cemetery in 1909 he also inventoried the adjoining Quaker burial ground, which was separated from the St. Peter’s property by a fence. Lincoln found 88 crude fieldstones and modest marble tombstones marking the Quaker graves, the earliest dated 1754. 

After the meetinghouse was destroyed by fire in 1892, the Quaker property was vacant except for the Friends Cemetery that abutted St. Peter’s Church Cemetery.  As part of the 1925 acquisition of the Friends lot by St. Peter’s, the church agreed that the Quaker burial ground would remain exclusively for interment of members of the Society of Friends and descendants of those interred there, and that it would be maintained with the same “reverent care” as the church’s cemetery. The last known interment in the Friends Cemetery was in 1927.

A plaque mounted on a stone marker identifies the Friends Cemetery at St. Peter’s Church Cemetery (Mary French)

Today the Friends Cemetery is located at the southern end of St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, where the Quaker graves are found in two concentrations. The larger of the two is clearly defined by four stone markers, one containing a “Friends Burial Place” plaque. The second, smaller concentration is situated at the southeast corner of St. Peter’s Cemetery, bordering Butler Place, and its boundaries are not clearly designated. Further south of the Friends Cemetery is an open field that was part of the land St. Peter’s acquired with the Friends meetinghouse property. This vacant lot, never utilized by St. Peter’s for burials, is currently slated for development into an affordable housing complex. Community members familiar with the history of the site have raised concerns that the field might contain unmarked Quaker burials, but archaeological test excavations conducted in 2019 and 2020 found no evidence of graves and/or human remains in this parcel of land.

Modest headstones in the Friends Cemetery at the southern end of St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, Jan 2021 (Mary French)
2012 aerial view of Peter’s Church Cemetery and the Friends Cemetery (NYCityMap)

View more photos of St. Peter’s Church Cemetery and the Friends Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 16; The History of the Several Towns, Manors and Patents of the County of Westchester: From Its First Settlement to the Present Time (Bolton 1881); Cemetery Inscriptions, St. Peter’s P.E. Church of Westchester (Lincoln 1910, NYHS manuscript); Annual reports of the Board of Health of the City of New York, 1900-1925; The Story of St. Peter’s, Westchester in the City of New York 1693-1976 (Lang 1976); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016); “Grave Concerns Continue Over Proposed Housing Site,” Bronx Times, Jul 7, 2019; Phase IA Historical Documentary and Archaeological Assessment Report for the St. Peter’s Church Property, Bronx (Chrysalis 2019); Phase IB Archaeological Field Testing for Saint Peter’s Church-Proposed Westchester Square Development Project, Bronx (Chrysalis 2020)

Newtown Cemetery

A view of tombstones in Newtown Cemetery, ca. 1900 (Seyfried)

Sometime after English colonists established the village of Newtown in 1652 at what is now Queens Boulevard and Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens, an acre of land about a half-mile east of the settled village was set aside as the community burial ground. Newtown Cemetery stood on a hill near the Horse Brook meadows, situated at today’s southeast corner of 56th Avenue and 92nd Street. Here generations of early and well-known Newtown families were laid to rest, including members of the Moore, Fish, Field, Waldron, Sackett, Coe, and Titus families.

An 1852 map shows Newtown Village and the “Ancient Public Burial Ground” near the Horse Brook meadows

The early history of Newtown Cemetery is obscure, but it likely came into use shortly after the settlement was founded. When a committee from Newtown’s Board of Health examined the burial ground in 1888 they found 105 inscribed tombstones ranging from 1730 to 1864, but more graves were marked with uninscribed fieldstones, a common practice of the early colonial period. The oldest identified burial in the cemetery was that of Content Titus (d.1730), who settled in Newtown in 1672 and was an elder of Newtown’s Presbyterian church. Among the other pioneers interred in Newtown Cemetery were direct ancestors of New York governor and U.S. senator Hamilton Fish (1808-1893).

A record of the stone ordered to mark the grave of Civil War veteran George Ballback in Newtown Cemetery

A reporter for the Brooklyn Times Union visiting the cemetery in February 1889 found one of the graves of more recent interment, that of Civil War veteran George Ballback (d.1875). According to the reporter, Ballback was over seven feet in height and, as “the tallest soldier in the Army of the Potomac,” was recognized by General Grant for this distinction. A plain headstone, erected by the local Grand Army Post, marked Ballback’s grave, which was decorated with a small American flag and a pot of flowers left there from the previous Memorial Day.

During the 19th century, most of Newtown’s families acquired plots in new cemeteries that opened in the area and deserted the old community burial ground, which town officials continued to use as a place to bury the poor and unknown until 1891 when they purchased a plot in Mount Olivet Cemetery for this purpose. With the 1898 consolidation of the towns of Queens County into Greater New York, the disused and neglected Newtown Cemetery became city property. “Nothing has been done since Father Knickerbocker became its owner,” the Times Union reported after revisiting the cemetery in November 1900, and as the site continued in a state of abandonment and encroaching development threatened to disturb graves there, several families and entities took charge of disinterring some burials and moving them to other cemeteries. Among these were the remains and headstones of Content Titus and four other leaders of colonial Newtown’s Presbyterian church; in 1901 the Presbyterian Church of Elmhurst transferred them to their cemetery on Queens Boulevard.

This 1888 newspaper clipping reports the burial of an unclaimed body in Newtown Cemetery

In 1915, local civic groups asked city officials to convert the old Newtown Cemetery into a public park to meet the needs of Elmhurst’s community, which had no place in the neighborhood where children could play. Although the Parks department took possession of the property in 1917, the site was not converted for another decade. In 1927-1928, all the old headstones in the cemetery were laid flat and covered with soil, the ground leveled, and playground apparatus installed. A major reconstruction in 1935 created Newtown Playground essentially as it exists today, disturbing some burials in the process. Renovations to the playground in 1997 and 2019 included careful plantings and contemplative landscaping meant to honor and protect the remains of those still buried beneath the park.

This undated photo shows the rough-hewn granite gravestone of Content Titus (d.1730), the oldest identifiable burial in Newtown Cemetery, which was moved to the Presbyterian church cemetery on Queens Blvd in 1901  (Powell & Meigs)
A 1919 survey of the cemetery identified its boundaries and located 86 tombstones at the site
A 2018 aerial view of Newtown Playground

Sources:  Riker’s 1852 Map of Newtown; “The Old Town Cemetery,” Newtown Register, Jun 21, 1888; “Newtown,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 17, 1888; “With the Dead,” Brooklyn Times Union, Sep 14, 1888; “A Visit to Newtown’s Oldest Cemetery,” Brooklyn Times Union, Feb 15, 1889; “An Ancient Burial Ground,” Brooklyn Citizen, Aug 27, 1891; “Over a Century Buried,” Newtown Register, Nov 14, 1901; “In Potter’s Field,” Newtown Register, March 11 1915; “Hamilton Fish in Elmhurst,” Newtown Register, Apr 1, 1915; “Dig Up Bones of Early Settlers In Old Cemetery,” Daily Star, July 22 1915; “Court Street Cemetery,” Newtown Register, Aug 26 1915; “Tells Women About Parks,” Daily Star, Sept 17, 1915; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 8-11; Archaeological Documentary Study, Reconstruction of Newtown Playground (Pickman 1995); Elmhurst: From Town Seat to Mega-Suburb (Seyfried 1995); George Ballback, “United States Records of Headstones of Deceased Union Veterans, 1879-1903” (FamilySearch); Newtown Playground; NYC Then&Now