The modern Fordham Manor Church on Reservoir Avenue near West Kingsbridge Road is the successor to one of the earliest congregations in the Bronx. In 1696, the Dutch Reformed Church organized a society in the area then known as the Manor of Fordham. In 1706 they built their first church on the north side of Fordham Road, in present-day Devoe Park. After this building was destroyed in the Revolutionary War, a new church was built in 1801 on property about a mile north, at Kingsbridge Road. This was the first of three edifices to stand on that site; the second church was built in 1849, and the present building was erected in 1940. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Dutch Reformed Church of Fordham Manor used two local cemeteries to bury their dead—a public burial ground near their original house of worship on Fordham Road and a small cemetery next to their church on Kingsbridge Road.
Public Burial Ground, Fordham Road
Until 1909, an “ancient Dutch burying ground” stood at the southeast corner of today’s Sedgwick Avenue and West Fordham Road, where an apartment building is located today. Exactly when this cemetery was established is not known; it may have been used as far back as the 1600s when Dutch families began to settle in the area. Deeds dated before the Revolution refer to the one-and-a-half-acre cemetery as a public burial ground and it was known to have been used as a free burial ground by local authorities into the 19th century. During its early history, this public cemetery was linked with the Dutch Reformed church that originally stood 200 yards from it, on the opposite side of Fordham Road. After the congregation moved up to Kingsbridge Road in the early 1800s, their ties with the village burial ground were eventually broken. By the late 1800s, the public burial ground at the intersection of Sedgwick Ave and Fordham Road was known to many locals as the “Berrian Cemetery,” for one of the families who owned land surrounding the cemetery and who had interred a number of their kinfolk in the graveyard.
One 19th-century historian estimated that perhaps 1,000 people were interred in the cemetery on Fordham Road and Sedgwick Avenue. Genealogists who visited the site in the 1870s and 1880s recorded tombstones with family names including Berrian, Valentine, Cromwell, Laurence, DeVoe, Hart, and Rowland. The earliest date found was 1810 and the latest was 1863. Less than two dozen graves had headstones with identifiable inscriptions; many more graves were designated by rough, flat stones with no markings. Guarding the graveyard was a magnificent willow tree, over 20 feet in circumference, which stood at the edge of the property.
By the turn of the century, the cemetery was neglected and partially destroyed by street construction. The western portion of the graveyard was taken by the city in 1874 for the opening of Sedgwick Avenue and a section on the north part of the property was cut off in the 1890s when Fordham Road was widened. Many families had arranged to have their family members’ remains moved to other cemeteries, the numerous disinterments causing further disturbance to the burial ground. Newspaper articles describe it as a place of “sad havoc,” a mass of broken tombstones, brush, and rubbish. Ownership and responsibility of the property was a tangle of uncertainty until the early 1900s when a court-appointed referee ruled that the Camman family, who had acquired the Berrian farm in 1852, could sell the cemetery property once they arranged for removal of the remains. Workmen excavated the cemetery in the winter of 1908-1909 and packed up any bones they found. The exhumed remains were reburied in a plot at Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester. In 1927 a six-floor apartment building, still present, was erected on the site of the old Dutch burial ground of Fordham Manor.
Fordham Manor Church Cemetery, Kingsbridge Road
In 1801, Dennis Valentine, Sr., donated land for construction of a new Dutch Reformed Church at the Manor of Fordham. The plot, 90 feet deep and 74 feet across, was located near the northwest corner of what is now Kingsbridge Road and Reservoir Avenue. In 1836, the church appointed a committee to look for land for a burial place. The congregation apparently continued to use the old burial ground at Fordham Road and Sedgwick Avenue for some time after they moved to their new location, the donation having included only enough property to accommodate the building. In 1849, Dennis Valentine, Jr., donated additional lands adjacent to the 1801 church property to provide sufficient ground for erection of a new house of worship and for a burial ground. The new building was erected on the property immediately adjoining the 1801 structure and facing Kingsbridge Road. Land to the rear of the church was used for a cemetery. The last known interment here was in 1884.
Several families had vaults in the church cemetery, including members of the Valentine, Briggs, and Archer clans. After Woodlawn Cemetery was established in 1863, each of these families acquired plots there and had the remains of their family members relocated to Woodlawn from the church cemetery. Notable among the removals from the Valentine family vaults were the remains of Virginia Clemm, wife of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1847, Virginia Clemm died while she and her husband were living in a rented cottage (preserved as Poe Cottage) on the Valentine farm. She was laid to rest in the private vault of Dennis Valentine, Sr., which he built in the 1830s on his land adjacent to the 1801 Fordham Manor Church building. Although officially separate from the church burial ground, it was generally considered part of the cemetery. When the Valentine family removed the remains from their vaults in the late 1870s, Virginia Clemm’s remains were taken to Baltimore for reburial alongside her husband, who died in 1849.
In August of 1912, the journal Genealogy published inscriptions from the Fordham Manor Reformed Church Cemetery. The burial ground behind the church was described as “a neglected corner plot, overgrown with weeds, where a few tombstones, some badly broken, still remain.” Inscriptions from the 20 tombstones found at the site included members of the Poole, Webb, Archer, Horton, Corsa, and Webb families. The earliest dated to 1843 and the latest to 1870.
In the early 1920s, the Fordham Manor Reformed Church authorities made plans to purchase a nearby house and have it moved to the church property for use as a parsonage. Before this could be done, it was necessary to clear the cemetery of bodies. After receiving the necessary permissions, in 1925 the remains of 32 people were exhumed from the cemetery behind the church and reburied in a plot at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester. In 1940, the Fordham Manor Reformed Church demolished their 1849 church building and the parsonage, sold the southern portion of their property along Kingsbridge Road, and built a new edifice on the northern part of their land, where their cemetery once stood. The 1940 building, which faces Reservoir Road, is the home of the present Fordham Manor Church, now a nondenominational congregation.
Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl 8; Hyde’s 1901 Atlas of the Borough of the Bronx, Pl 25 & 32; Genealogy of the DeVeaux Family (De Voe 1885); History of Bronx Borough (Comfort 1906); The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912); History of Fordham Manor Reformed Church, 1696-1946 (Attwood 1946); “Old Burial Grounds in Westchester Co, NY,” NYG&B Record 20 (2) 1889; “Notes & Queries,” NYG&B Record 22 (4), 1891; “Neglected Graves at Fordham Heights,” Evening Telegram, May 7, 1892; “A Neglected Cemetery,” New York Times, Dec 22, 1901; “Facts About the Berrian Cemetery,” New York Times, Dec 30, 1901; “Old Historic Cemeteries,” Daily Argus (Mount Vernon, NY) Jan 9, 1905; “Historical Cemetery Despoiled,” Magazine of American History, 36 (11), Nov 1908; “Poole Family Burials,” Genealogy 2(6), Aug 10, 1912; “From a New York Cemetery,” Genealogy 2(7), Aug 17, 1912; “Church in Bronx to Have New Home,” New York Times, Feb 17, 1940; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016)