The graveyard surrounding the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in downtown Brooklyn is believed to be the oldest Catholic cemetery on Long Island. St. James was founded in 1822 when a group of about 70 Brooklyn Catholics purchased property on the corner of Chapel and Jay Streets to establish a church and a place of interment. It was the first Catholic church built in Brooklyn and the first on Long Island. Shortly after the church was erected, the yard around it began to be used as a burial ground for clergy and laity. When the original ground was filled, more property was procured until the cemetery extended in a tongue back to about 100 feet of Bridge Street. Some 7,000 adults and children are said to have been interred in the graveyard between 1823 and 1849, when burials there were prohibited by law.
In 1900, about 200 tombstones were still standing in the graveyard at St. James, including a number of old wooden crosses and boards among the marble and red sandstone slabs; by 1914, all the wooden markers had disappeared and only about 100 tombstones were left. Many graves reportedly are beneath the rear of the church, covered over when the church was rebuilt and enlarged in 1902. Most of the markers that are still present in the churchyard today lie flat in the ground, preserved but hidden from passersby by the wall that surrounds the parish grounds.
Beneath an industrial complex just northwest of Flushing Avenue in Bushwick lies a former burial ground of the Schencks, one of Brooklyn’s prominent Dutch colonial families. The Bushwick Schencks descended from Johannes Schenck (1656-1748), who emigrated to America in 1683 and, in 1712, settled in Bushwick where he acquired a large plantation. The family burial ground is believed to have been established around 1724 on a parcel of land purchased by Johannes’ son Peter “at ye head of ye kill adjoining land of said Peter Schenk” near the Queens-Brooklyn dividing line. A 1770 conveyance of the property included the clause: “excepting and always reserving unto . . . Abraham Schenk, his heirs and assigns, the burying-ground . . . and also full and free liberty, privilege and license for the friends and relations of Johannes Schenk, deceased, to pass and repass to and from the said burying-ground at all times forever after.”
When local historians visited the site in the 1860s and 1870s, the burial ground was still in existence, a 40 x 100 foot plot located behind two barns on the farm of Nicholas Wyckoff. Tombstone inscriptions for 18 members of the Schenck family who died between 1740 and 1858 were recorded, including that of family progenitor Johannes Schenck, “ye First of the Family Depd this Life, Febry ye 5th, 1748, Agd 92.” The remains from the Schenck graveyard were removed during the late 19th century, some to Greenwood and some to Evergreens Cemetery. The Museum of the City of New York has among its collections three tombstones from the Schenck family burial ground—that of Johannes Schenck, mentioned above, as well as the gravestone of his daughter-in-law Maria Schenck (d. 1740), and a marker from the double grave of Maria Schenck (d. 1776) and Maria Magdelena McPhern (d. 1782), a daughter and granddaughter of Abraham Schenck, respectively.
Sources: A History of the City of Brooklyn, Vol. 2 (H.R. Stiles 1869), 377-378; Memoir of Johannes Schenk, the Progenitor of the Bushwick, L.I., Family of Schenck (P.L. Schenck 1876), 23-27; “Old Homes and Cemeteries,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Sept 29, 1879; “Human Remains—Removing Bodies from the Old Schenck Cemetery at Bushwick,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Nov. 29, 1880; Hopkins’ 1880 Detailed Estate and Old Farm Line Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, Vol. 2, Pl. H; MCNY Cat. Nos. 39.327.1-39.327.3
St. Mark’s Church stands on the site of the chapel built in 1660 by Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor of Dutch New Amsterdam, and its grounds are all that remain of Stuyvesant’s vast “bouwerie,” or farm. Stuyvesant was interred in the family vault beneath the chapel when he died in 1672. During the 18th century, the chapel fell into a state of dilapidation, until little remained except the foundation and the Stuyvesant family vault beneath. In 1793, Stuyvesant’s great-grandson, Peter Stuyvesant IV, donated the chapel property to the Episcopal Church with the stipulation that a new church be erected. Originally intended to be a chapel of Trinity Parish, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery was completed in 1799 as the first New York City Episcopal parish separate from Trinity. The Stuyvesant vault is still present under the east wall of the church; it was closed permanently when the last family member was interred there in 1953.
In addition to the Stuyvesant vault, St. Mark’s had two burial sites attached to its church during the first half of the 19th century—the yards surrounding the church, which were used exclusively for vault interments, and a cemetery further east along 11th Street for conventional graves. Peter Stuyvesant IV donated a 242 x 190 plot just east of 2nd Avenue, between 11th and 12th Streets, for the cemetery in 1803. One of the stipulations in Stuyvesant’s grant of the plot was that any of his present or former slaves and their children have the right to be interred in the burial ground free of charge. An unknown number of individuals were buried at St. Mark’s Cemetery until burials there were prohibited in 1851. The remains from this graveyard were removed to Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn in 1864 and residences were built on the site.
The first underground burial vaults were built in the grounds adjoining the church in 1807. In these tombs lie the remains of many important individuals and members of prominent and wealthy families of 19th century New York. Among those interred here are Mayor Philip Hone, English governor Henry Sloughter, and Daniel D. Tompkins, governor of New York and U.S. vice-president under James Monroe. Millionaire A.T. Stewart was interred in a vault in the east yard in 1876; two years later his remains were stolen and reportedly held for ransom. The suspicious events surrounding the theft and rumors of ransom demands were well publicized for several years following the crime. The case was never officially resolved, although some stories hold that Stewart’s widow negotiated the return of the remains in 1881 and reinterred them elsewhere.
As the neighborhood surrounding St. Mark’s changed from upper class townhouses to tenement slums during the first half of the 20th century, the churchyard fell into disrepair. The Preservation Youth Project restored it for community use in the 1970s, creating a playground in the east yard and a quiet garden in the west yard. Many of the flat vault markers can still be seen among the newer pavements.
In 1694, Jacobus Van Cortlandt acquired a tract of land in “Lower Yonkers” that became the nucleus of what is now Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Jacobus was the youngest son of Oloff Van Cortlandt, a wealthy Dutch merchant who founded the Van Cortlandt dynasty that was influential in New York from the colonial period into the 19th century. Jacobus added to his estate throughout his lifetime and in 1732 acquired the tract upon which his son Frederick built a family home in 1748-49. Frederick fell ill and died during completion of the house in 1749, and his will directed that he be buried in “a Family Vault which I intend to Build on my plantation on a little Hill which lies to the Northeastward of Tuttle Brook.” This burial vault was completed shortly after Frederick’s death and was used as a family burial ground until the Van Cortlandt estate was acquired for a city park in 1888.
The Van Cortlandt burial vault is situated atop a steep ridge that became known as Vault Hill. The site gained renown in 1776 when Augustus Van Cortlandt, Frederick’s son who was then New York City Clerk, hid the city records in the family burial vault to protect them from destruction during the British occupation of New York in the American Revolution. A fieldstone wall surrounds the burial ground but most of the headstones and markers were removed when the site was vandalized in the 1960s.
In 1732, when Jacobus Van Cortlandt acquired the tract of present-day Van Cortlandt Park on which the Van Cortlandt House Museum now stands, George Tippett, who sold the property to Van Cortlandt, stipulated that a cemetery included in the tract should be reserved as a burying ground for Tippett and his heirs. This same cemetery is referred to in a 1717 document wherein George Tippett granted the Betts family the continued use of the site that had been “used as a burying ground for a great many years by the families of Betts and Tippitt.” The tract had been connected to these families since 1668, when William Betts and George Tippett (grandfather of the George Tippett mentioned above) purchased the property.
The cemetery has been known by a number of names over the years, including the Kingsbridge Burial Ground, the Tippett Family Cemetery, and the Berrian-Bashford Burying Ground. When local historian Thomas H. Edsall visited the burial ground in the 1880s, he found that most of the graves were marked by fieldstones containing no inscriptions or only the initials of the deceased. Five inscribed headstones were present. These dated from 1794 to 1808 and marked the graves of members of the Berrian, Bashford, and Ackerman families that were descendants of the Betts and Tippetts. Today, this burial ground is situated east of the Van Cortlandt House and just west of the southern part of Van Cortlandt Lake. All of the grave markers are now gone and a stand of trees has grown up in their place. The site is enclosed by an iron pipe rail fence.