Category Archives: Queens

Rapelje Cemetery, Astoria

A view of Rapelje Cemetery from 20th Street, July 2021 (Mary French)

Residents of an apartment building near the northwest corner of 20th Street and 21st Avenue in Astoria, Queens, are probably unaware that an old burial ground is preserved within the grassy courtyard of their complex. The property is part of a tract of land that once belonged to Jacob Rapelje (1714-1776), a great-grandson of Joris Jansen Rapelje, one of the earliest settlers of New Amsterdam.

Jacob Rapelje House, northeast corner of Shore Blvd and 21st Ave, 1922 (NYPL)

Jacob and his wife Catherine lived with their family at what was then known as Hellgate in Newtown township, where Jacob was town supervisor for 18 years. The Rapelje home overlooked the East River, standing at what is now the northeast corner of 21st Avenue and Shore Boulevard. To the east of the house was their family burial ground, which now lies within the Astoria Terrace Gardens apartment complex. Property documents for the complex—part of a vast development built in 1948 to help relieve the postwar housing shortage—specifically exclude “the Burial Ground known as the Rapelje Cemetery” from the property and provide the precise location of the 52-foot x 63-foot parcel.

A 1965 tax map delineates the boundaries of Rapelje Cemetery

No tombstones are present at the site today, but a 1904 article in the Brooklyn Times Union describes markers that once stood there. At that time the little burial plot was “in a field some distance back from the Shore road,” on property owned by Mrs. George A. Trowbridge. About a dozen weather-beaten tombstones were clustered alongside a large rock and surrounded by a group of trees. Although the inscriptions on many of the headstones were illegible, others were remarkably clear and easily read. Among these were stones, inscribed in Dutch, marking the graves of Jacob Rapelje, who died in May 1776 at age 62, and his wife Catherine, who died two months later, aged 55 years. Nearby were the graves of their daughter Sarah Rapelje Brinkerhoff (1755-1787), her husband George Brinkerhoff (1738-1802), and other members of the Rapelje family.

This 1927 photo of Rapelje Cemetery shows the tombstones of Sarah Rapelje Brinkerhoff and her mother Catherine Rapelje (NYCMA)

Also present in 1904 were headstones marking the graves of Capt. Ichabod Sheffield (1780-1830) and his parents, Isaac and Wealthy Sheffield. Capt. Sheffield, whose tombstone recorded that he was born in Stonington, Connecticut, and “For the last thirty years has been a respected owner and shipmaster from the Port of New York,” made international news for his involvement in an incident during the Barbary Wars of the early 1800s. Sheffield was captain of the schooner Mary Ann, captured by Algerian pirates in the Straits of Gibraltar on October 26, 1807. The operations of his vessel taken over by nine pirates, including a boy, Capt. Sheffield and his crew were captive for three days when they determined to retake the Mary Ann. Following a struggle in which they threw four of their captors overboard and set four others adrift in a boat, Capt. Sheffield brought the Mary Ann safely into Naples with the boy on board with his crew. Notice of the hostilities was immediately sent to American consuls and shipmasters throughout the Mediterranean and Capt. Sheffield became well known for his bravery.

A 1919 survey identified four tombstones at the site

By 1919, when the Queens Topographic Bureau surveyed the Rapelje Cemetery, Capt. Sheffield’s tombstone had disappeared, as had Jacob Rapelje’s and most of the other headstones in the plot. Four gravemarkers were found at that time, and only one—Sarah Rapelje Brinkerhoff’s—was legible. All are gone now, and nothing identifies the site as a burial ground or memorializes those interred there. Currently owned by the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the plot is nicely landscaped with trees and other plantings and protected on three sides by hedges and a wooden fence.

Another view of Rapelje Cemetery in July 2021, facing toward 20th Street (Mary French)
A 2012 aerial view showing location of Rapelje Cemetery within the Astoria Terrace Gardens apartment complex (NYCityMap)

Sources: The Annals of Newtown (Riker 1852); “Graves of Ancient Worthies on Shore Road,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jul 2, 1904; “Rapalaye Home in Astoria Recalls First L.I. Resident,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jan 22, 1928; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932); The WPA Guide to New York City (Federal Writers Project 1939); 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984); Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Vol 6 (United States Office of Naval Records 1944); Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Allen 1905); “FHA Financing for New Apartment Unit in Astoria,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 28, 1947; “First Families Enter Astoria Housing Project,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 27, 1948; Astoria Venture Corporation property agreement dated July 1, 1977;  Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020)

St. Monica’s Cemetery

Detail from an 1859 map of Jamaica, arrows denote the original St. Monica’s church and adjoining cemetery at the bottom of Washington St (now 160th St) and the new St. Monica’s church built in 1856 a short distance north of the original site.

In October 1838, the Bishop of New York sent Rev. Michael Curran to Jamaica, Queens, to establish a parish for the town’s growing Irish Catholic population. Many of the area’s large farms employed Irish laborers, and construction of the Long Island Railroad along Jamaica Avenue in the 1830s brought an increasing number of Irish workers to Jamaica. Property was secured on the west side of Washington Street (now 160th Street), near South Street, and here a small frame church was erected and dedicated to Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. This humble little structure, 80 feet long by 25 feet wide, accommodated the 200 Catholics who came from miles around to hear Mass each Sunday. Vacant land adjoining the church was employed as a parish burial ground.

An 1897 map depicting St. Monica’s Cemetery and St. Monica’s Church.

St. Monica’s parish grew rapidly and before long their tiny wooden church was no longer adequate. In 1856 the congregation moved to a new brick building at 94-20 160th Street, a short distance north of their original church and adjoining cemetery. The old church building was used for a time as a meeting hall and eventually sold and demolished. St. Monica’s parish continued at their new location until 1973 when the church closed and the City of New York took over the building and surrounding blocks as part of the York College Urban Renewal Project. Since 2009 the former church  has housed the York College Child and Family Center.

Obituary for an 1887 interment at St. Monica’s Cemetery.

St. Monica’s Cemetery is intact today at the southwest corner of 160th Street and Liberty Avenue, in the middle of the York College Campus. About one acre in size, it is maintained by Catholic Cemeteries Diocese of Brooklyn.  Some 3,000 local Catholics have been laid to rest here, and tombstones now standing date from about 1840 to the early 2000s. Names on the tombstones reflect the changing demographics of the area—earlier burials are largely Irish, while more recent markers represent Italian families who settled in the area in the 20th century.

St. Monica’s Cemetery is noteworthy in local history as the spot where “the most beloved dog in Jamaica” took up residence. In 1923, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the unnamed stray who was known to the neighborhood for years:

And now upon a grave, apparently neglected, with a small, obliterated wooden cross, he makes his bed. We observed him the other afternoon lying atop the little grave as though mourning someone he had known when a tiny pup or someone dear to his ancestors. A pathetic picture he makes, indeed. Neighbors say the nameless dog howls bitterly late at night and sometimes during the day, and that efforts to keep him off the burial ground have been vain . . . Out of sheer pity the kindly folks on the block have declined to interfere with the strange dog’s actions. They sympathize with him by bringing him food, and even shut their ears to his nightly howls. And already the kiddies on the block have saved their pennies so that someday when the faithful and homeless dog passes away he will be given a resting place.

A view of tombstones in St. Monica’s Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of St. Monica’s Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of St. Monica’s Cemetery

Sources: Jamaica (Walling 1859); Sanborn’s 1897 Insurance Maps of Jamaica, Queens Co., Pl 10; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901); Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910); The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); “Andrew McCormick’s Funeral,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 26, 1887; “St. Monica’s Church Celebrates Half Century’s History,” Brooklyn Times Union, Oct 13, 1906; “St. Monica’s, Jamaica,” The Tablet, Jun 18, 1910; “Cemetery His Estate, Lonely Grave Top His Choice of Boudoir,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 9, 1923; York College Child Care Center – St. Monica’s Church

Knollwood Park Cemetery

Knollwood Park Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)

In 1947, Evergreens Cemetery sold a 20-acre notch of the northern part of their grounds to Knollwood Park Cemetery corporation, which opened the first new Jewish cemetery in New York City since 1915. Whereas their earlier counterparts sold much of their land to Jewish burial societies and other communal organizations, Knollwood Park publicized their modern cemetery as “New York City’s only Jewish burial estate dedicated exclusively to private family plots.”  Their early advertisements emphasize that they sold “no land to societies, lodges, and organizations”—thus avoiding the over-crowding of graves and monuments seen in many communal plots, as well as the neglect common in older Jewish cemeteries as many plot-owning organizations went defunct in the 20th century.

A 1950 newspaper ad for Knollwood Park Cemetery

Situated along the Brooklyn-Queens border, Knollwood Park Cemetery now has over 17,000 interments and is the last Jewish cemetery developed in the city’s five boroughs. Most of the cemetery is divided into plots with a family stone marking the plot and flat markers for individuals. In 2008, Knollwood Park was acquired by Mount Carmel Cemetery, the large Jewish cemetery located in nearby Glendale, Queens, and today is operated as a division of Mount Carmel.

Knollwood Park Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)
Location of Knollwood Park Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens

Sources:  “Knollwood Park Cemetery” [Advertisement], New York Post, Mar 15, 1950; “To Jewish Families” [Advertisement], New York Daily News, May 3, 1950; “News for Jewish Families” [Advertisement], New York Post, Jun 12, 1956; Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008 (Rousmanier 2008); “Knollwood Park Cemetery Burial Data Now Online,” Museum of Family History, Apr 27, 2010; OpenStreetMap

Riker Cemetery

Entrance gate to Riker Cemetery, June 2016 (Mary French)

Long before the name “Riker” was synonymous with the violence and despair of one of America’s most notorious penitentiaries, it was a mark of pedigree that brought to mind one of New York’s most prominent families. The story of this Dutch American dynasty begins with Abraham Rycken van Lent, who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1638 and in 1654 received a land grant near the shore of Bowery Bay in northwestern Queens. In 1664 he was granted the neighboring island on which the Rikers Island jail complex now stands. Abraham Rycken’s descendants occupied their mainland estate and offshore island for the next 200 years, most of them eventually adopting the anglicized surname Riker. An 1877 article in the Newtown Register proclaimed the Rikers “one of the most versatile, patriotic, and learned families” the area had produced, a prolific and distinguished folk that included a host of soldiers, lawyers, merchants, and physicians.

This detail from an 1849 map shows the Riker Cemetery situated behind the Abraham Lent house (then owned by Isaac Rapelye) on Bowery Bay Road (today’s 19th Road)

Adjoining Abraham Rycken’s homestead (which now lies under LaGuardia Airport) was that of Harck Siboutsen, who around 1650 settled the land immediately west of Rycken’s property. Rycken’s son Ryck-Abramsen—who used the surname Lent rather than Riker—married Siboutsen’s daughter Catrina. Their son Abraham Lent (1674-1746) inherited the Siboutsen homestead and ca.1729 erected a house there (likely incorporating an earlier structure) that still stands at 78-03 19th Road in East Elmhurst. Behind this house is Riker Cemetery, first recorded in Abraham Lent’s 1742 will. In that will he directed that his farm be sold to the highest bidder among his children, with the provision “except for the Burying place, which is to remain entire as it now lies for the use of the relations and friends, with free egress to the same.”

Tombstones in Riker Cemetery, ca. 1900 (Whittemore)

In 1919 the Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the 88×78-foot Riker Cemetery, locating 132 gravestones. A number of these were rough-hewn fieldstones and tablets with no markings or inscribed only with initials (a brownstone marked “A.L.” might be that of Abraham Lent). The earliest identifiable graves were those of Johannis Riker (1721-1744) and Abraham Riker (1655-1746), the eighth son of Abraham Rycken and inheritor of the Riker homestead and Rikers Island.

Obituary of Revolutionary War veteran John Berrien Riker, 1794

The most illustrious occupant of Riker Cemetery is Dr. John Berrien Riker, a patriot of the American Revolution. Born on the Riker homestead in 1738, he was educated at Princeton University and subsequently practiced medicine in New Jersey. Historians credit Riker with saving the life of future U.S. President James Monroe during the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, when he clamped a severed artery in a near-fatal gunshot wound to Monroe’s shoulder. After Trenton Riker remained with Washington’s army and was commissioned as a surgeon of the 4th Battalion of New Jersey troops in February of 1777. When peace was established in 1783, Riker returned to his native home in Queens where he died in 1794 at age 57. 

Also here is the grave of Dr. William James MacNeven (1763-1841), a celebrated Irish physician, scientist, and member of the United Irishmen who was exiled from Ireland after the failed rebellion of 1798. Connected to the family by his 1810 marriage to Jane Margaret Riker, MacNeven’s burial site in Riker Cemetery has long been a place of pilgrimage for local Hibernian societies. MacNeven is likewise memorialized in a 35-foot-tall cenotaph in St. Paul’s Churchyard in Manhattan.

This 1923 view of Riker Cemetery from 19th Avenue shows the wooden fence that surrounded the burial ground before it was replaced by the current brick enclosure ca. 1930 (NYPL)

Riker family members continued to be buried in their ancestral burial ground at Bowery Bay into the 1930s and various occupants of the nearby Abraham Lent house looked after the cemetery throughout the years. For most of the 19th century the house was occupied by members of the Rapelye family, who were affiliated with the Rikers through intermarriage and are said to have guarded the cemetery with “jealous care.” In 1941 a branch of the Riker family re-acquired the property and installed an elderly Swiss caretaker, Rudolph Durheim, to look after the house and burial ground. Durheim was interred in the cemetery upon his death in 1944.

A view of tombstones in Riker Cemetery, June 2016 (Mary French)

Since the 1970s the Abraham Lent home has been owned and occupied by Michael Smith and his wife Marion Duckworth Smith, who restored the home and preserved the Riker Cemetery.  When Michael Smith died in 2010, he was interred in Riker Cemetery alongside several of Mrs. Smith’s family members. Today the house is the oldest building in New York City still used as a private residence; the adjacent burial ground is protected by a high brick wall with a wrought-iron gate emblazoned, “RIKER.”

This 2008 aerial image shows the modern surroundings of Riker Cemetery (arrow); the adjacent Abraham Lent house can be seen near 19th Road; the entrance to the Rikers Island Bridge is a half-block west on 19th Avenue (NYCityMap)
Rikers Island Bridge entrance, June 2016 (Mary French)

View more photos of Riker Cemetery

Sources: Sidney’s Map of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; The Annals of Newtown (Riker 1852); Long Island Historic Homes, Ancient and Modern (Whittemore 1901); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932); 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984); The Rikers: Their Island, Homes, Cemetery and Early Genealogy (Nutt 2004); “Walks through Old Cemeteries—The Riker Family,” Newtown Register, Aug 23, 1877; “Residences Which Are Historical,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 22, 1899; “Alonzo D. Riker,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 23, 1910; “Shrine of Irish Patriot Found at Old Riker Grave Yard on Bowery Bay Shore,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1920; “J.J. Riker Rites Tomorrow,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 5, 1932; “High Walls Protect Old Riker Cemetery,” Long Island Daily Press, Dec 16, 1935; “Pioneers and Irish Patriots Share Resting Place in Old Riker Cemetery,” Long Island Star Journal, Jun 18, 1940; “Died,” Greenleafs New York Journal, Sept 10, 1794; Revolutionary War Pension Applications—John Berrien Riker (Ancestry.com); “Doctor Riker’s Decision,” Hektoen International, Summer 2016; “Re-naming Rikers,” Pacific Standard, Jun 14, 2017

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