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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)