In the early 1730s, the growing city of New York—then about 9,000 people clustered at the south end of Manhattan—was grappling with the problem of poverty. The “Number and Continual Increase of the Poor within this City is very great and Exceeding burthensome to the Inhabitants thereof,” the Common Council reported in 1734, necessitating construction of a municipal poorhouse, or almshouse. The Almshouse opened in 1736 on the Commons, a triangular piece of communal pastureland at what was then the northern edge of the city. The Almshouse served as a shelter for the poor who were unable to work due to old age or illness and a workhouse/house of corrections for impoverished people considered able to work but “living Idly and unimployed,” as well as “all disorderly persons, parents of Bastard Children, Beggars, Servants running away or otherwise misbehaving themselves, Trespassers, Rogues, [and] Vagabonds.”
Along with housing the sick, impoverished widows, and orphans, the Almshouse put the idle back to work and incarcerated criminals. Inmates (the term used to refer to residents of all public institutions during this time period) received clothing and followed strict daily schedules consisting of meals, prayer, and work (carding wool, making buttons, shredding old rope for reuse, or raising garden crops). In 1785, the Almshouse had 301 inmates—63 men, 133 women, 50 boys, 49 girls, and “2 Black Men & 4 Black Women.” Stays ranged from a day up to the death of an inmate.
Over the course of the 18th century, the Commons became the site of a number of other public buildings including the Gaol, or Jail, completed in 1759, east of the Almshouse; the Bridewell, a prison built in 1775 west of the Almshouse; and the Barracks, four structures constructed at the north end of the Commons beginning in 1757 to house soldiers. Areas surrounding these buildings were used as institutional burial grounds. A fenced burial place for deceased Almshouse inmates was established in 1757 “to the Eastward of and adjoining to the fence of the said Work House, of the Length of two Boards.” Apparently this graveyard was filled by 1785, when the Keeper of the Almshouse requested new grounds for this purpose and the city ordered that vacant ground “in the rear of the Barracks” be used for interment of those dying in the Almshouse and the Bridewell.
In 1797, the city built a new almshouse just north of the first almshouse, which was demolished at that time. In 1803, City Hall was erected on the site the first Almshouse, and the Commons began to transform into today’s City Hall Park, located just south of Chambers Street, between Broadway and Centre streets. In 1816, the poor were relocated to a complex at Bellevue and the second Almshouse building was used a cultural center until it was demolished in 1857; it is now the site of Tweed Courthouse. As the Commons changed from an area of social welfare, penal institutions, and military housing to the seat of local government, the Almshouse burial grounds vanished beneath City Hall Park. Long thought to have been obliterated by two centuries of construction activity, the forgotten burial grounds reappeared during archaeological work connected with recent renovation projects.
More than 50 graves, and disturbed human remains representing at least 200 more individuals, have been found in the north section of City Hall Park since the late 1990s and are believed to be associated with the first Almshouse and the Commons’ other 18th-century institutions. Intact burials were left in place during the excavations, protected to prevent disturbance and covered over again; they rest under the lawns and paved areas near City Hall and Tweed Courthouse. Disturbed burials and fragmentary human remains were collected, analyzed, and eventually reburied in the northeastern corner of the park near Chambers and Centre streets.
Analysis of the skeletal remains suggests people consistent with the Almshouse population—most appear to be of European ancestry; males and females, young and old adults, infants and children are all represented; and many show the traces of lives spent in hard work, poorly healed fractures, and pathologies caused by illness or poor nutrition. These discoveries provide a view of an overlooked segment of society—those unfortunate and unruly early New Yorkers laid to rest in the Almshouse burial grounds, souls no longer forgotten.
Several cemeteries in Queens have intriguing features hidden within them—small burial grounds that predate the cemeteries in which they are nestled. These earlier graveyards were on family estates acquired by religious and non-denominational corporations that assembled swathes of land to form new, large-scale cemeteries in the second half of the 19th century.
Estate owners tried to protect their family burial grounds with covenants in wills and deeds that exempted them from property transfers and directed that they be preserved intact. Three of these early burial grounds are located within the boundaries of Calvary and Mount Zion cemeteries in western Queens, and hold the remains of some of the pioneer settlers of Newtown, the historic township that comprised much of the area. These are the burial places of the Alsops, Cumbersons, and Betts, families of English origin who had neighboring farms in Newtown and were prominent in local events and public life during the colonial period and later, but disappeared from the area as their estates were broken up and sold off.
Alsop Family Burial Ground
In 1691, Richard Alsop inherited a sizeable estate along Newtown Creek upon the death of his uncle, Thomas Wandell. Wandell created the estate through acquisition of a 100-acre plantation originally granted to Richard Brutnell in 1643, and adding to it 50 acres patented in 1652 to Richard Colfax. Succeeding his uncle, Richard Alsop resided on what became known as the Alsop farm until his death in 1718, living in the home his uncle had built on the north shore of Newtown Creek. Alsop was buried on the crown of a hill near the house—the same spot where his uncle had been laid to rest in 1691, and a site where Alsop’s descendants would be buried for over 170 years.
Richard Alsop’s offspring became distinguished in the legal profession and mercantile life; his son Richard (1695-1764), a justice of the peace, took over the paternal farm at Newtown. One of Richard Alsop II’s sons, also Richard (1730-1790), a highly respected and influential citizen of Newtown who served in the magistracy for many years, inherited the estate next. Richard III’s son, John Alsop (1779-1837), succeeded as owner of the Alsop farm; in 1845, his widow sold the property—then consisting of about 115 acres—to the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Trustees secured the land to establish a new cemetery for Manhattan’s Roman Catholic population. The Alsop farm became the original section of Calvary Cemetery, known as Old Calvary, bounded today by the Long Island Expressway, Laurel Hill Boulevard, Review Avenue, and Greenpoint Avenue. When Mrs. Ann Alsop sold the farm to the Trustees, the agreement provided that the Alsop family burial ground would remain inviolate and the Trustees have maintained it to this day.
The Alsop Family Burial Ground is situated in the southeastern part of Old Calvary where it is enclosed—and separated from the consecrated grounds that surround it—by a metal fence. Some two dozen gravemarkers still stand in the 75×54 foot plot, including several brownstone monuments with the winged death’s head motif common on colonial gravestones. The oldest headstone in the plot marks the grave of the first Richard Alsop (d. 1718), the progenitor of the Newtown Alsops; his wife Hannah, who survived him by 39 years, rests beside him. A large granite obelisk commemorates the final family members interred here: William Alsop (d. 1883), the last known direct descendant, and his wife Sarah Leaird Alsop, who died in 1889. The old Alsop mansion, built by Thomas Wandell ca. 1651, stood within the boundaries of Old Calvary until 1880, when it was demolished as Calvary laid out the grounds for gravesites.
Cumberson Family Burial Ground
By the 1870s, much of Old Calvary Cemetery was full and church authorities began purchasing large parcels of land east of the original cemetery to accommodate more burials; these tracts would come to form New Calvary Cemetery, which stretches from Queens Boulevard to 55th Avenue in three divisions. Among the land that became part of the north end of New Calvary is a portion of an estate established by Thomas Cumberson in 1761 on the west side of the Road to English Kills (58th Street), near present-day Queens Boulevard. The Cumberson farm is the scene of a vivid account in Riker’s 1852 Annals of Newtown, which details an attempted robbery of Thomas Cumberson’s home by deserting British soldiers during the military occupation of Newtown from 1776 to 1783. The episode ends with Cumberson mortally wounding one of the robbers, who soldiers buried in the woods at the north end of the farm. The Cumberson home was rebuilt after the Revolution, and stood at today’s 58th Street near 43rd Avenue until it was torn down in 1915.
Thomas Cumberson’s son and successor to the estate, the second Thomas Cumberson (1775-1849), seems to have created the small burial ground just south of the Cumberson home that was used by his family during the first half of the 1800s. In 1848, Cumberson authorized in his will that his heirs could sell his farm but not the graveyard at the southern end of the property; he devised and bequeathed the burial ground to his children and grandchildren, and to their heirs and assigns, to be kept and used by them as a burial place and for no other purpose.
An 1887 article in the Newtown Register describes a visit to the “lonely little cemetery” of the second Thomas Cumberson, who was “remembered by his neighbors as a man of cultivated mind and of singular powers of memory in treasuring up the traditions of Newtown.” The handful of tombstones included those to “Thomas Cumberson, who died March 31, 1849, aged 74,” “Hannah Cumberson, wife of Thomas Cumberson, who died November 1, 1847,” “In memory of Jane Cumberson, who died October 25, 1829, aged 16 years, 8 months, 21 days,” “Frances Jane Cumberson, daughter of Peregrine and Frances Cumberson, died July 24, 1848, aged 13 years,” and “Sacred to the memory of Peregrine Cumberson, who departed this life October 29, 1834, aged 34 years.”
Today, no tombstones remain in the Cumberson Family Burial Ground, located at the southwest corner of 58th Street and Queens Boulevard. The descendants of the first Thomas Cumberson, who established the farm in 1761, held a reunion in the late 1880s; of the 200 present, only one bore the Cumberson name. The Cumberson’s are now extinct in the area and those at rest in the tiny, unmarked preserve at the northeast corner of New Calvary Cemetery are the only link to the family’s history in old Newtown.
Betts Family Burial Ground
Just south of the Cumberson farm, on the opposite side of today’s 58th Street, was the 120-acre estate founded by Captain Richard Betts in 1656. Betts built his home on the east side of the Road to English Kills and north of the Road to Newtown (later Penny Bridge Road and then Borden Ave), at what is now the northeast corner of 58th Street and 54th Avenue. An extensive landholder active in public affairs, Capt. Betts was an influential figure in Newtown’s history. A zealous revolutionist against the Dutch, he held a number of provincial government positions under English rule, including a 1678 commission as “High Sheriff of Yorkshire upon Long Island.” He left large landed possessions to his children and his descendants occupied portions of the paternal estate into the early 20th century.
Capt. Betts was 100 years old when he died in 1713; legend has it a few days before he died he dug his own grave in the family burial ground near his home. Both the site of the old Betts house and the family graveyard are now within Mount Zion Cemetery, part of land purchased by developers in the 1890s to establish a cemetery to accommodate the burial needs of the city’s burgeoning Jewish immigrant population. The Betts house is long gone, but the burial ground lies secluded on a gently sloping hill in the southwestern part of Mount Zion.
About 30 headstones survive in the roughly 85×65 foot plot, which includes an old right-of-way (no longer used) to 54th Avenue. No headstone is here for the grave of the illustrious Capt. Betts, its absence possibly accounted for by the fact that his sons were members in the Society of Friends and early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones. Three rough stones containing only initials and dates are the oldest in the burial ground—these identify the graves of Capt. Betts’ grandson Daniel Betts (d. 1759), his wife Mary Betts (d. 1757), and their son Daniel Betts (d. 1762). Most of the graves in the plot are marked with white marble tombstones commemorating family members who occupied the estate in the 19th century, the most recent marker dating to 1885.
Sources: Riker’s 1852 Map of Newtown Long Island; Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 52 ;The Annals of Newtown (Riker 1852), 212-214, 334-338, 373-378; History of Queens County (Munsell 1882, 340); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 66-68, 70-71 & Supplement 1975, 5-7; 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984), 76, 179, 183; Woodside: A Historical Perspective (Gregory 1994), 5-9; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1 (1899), 375-377; Wills of Real Estate, Queens County, Liber, 1845-1849 (Case 1940), 65; “Personal—Alsop,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 26, 1880; “Relics of Long Ago,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 25, 1880, 1; “The Last of the Alsops,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 1, 1889, 6; “A Protestant Burial Ground Maintained by Catholics,” New York Times, Apr 12, 1950; “Walks Through Old Cemeteries in Newtown,” Newtown Register, Nov 11, 1875; “Walks Through Old Cemeteries,” Newtown Register, March 15 1877, 4; “Old Newtown and Its Confines,” Newtown Register, Jun 30, 1887, 8; “Many Points of Interest in Queens Co.,” Daily Star, Oct 3, 1917, 8.
In his 1848 history of Westchester county, Robert Bolton describes the village of Westchester, the town seat of the old Westchester township that included much of the present-day East Bronx:
The village of Westchester is situated at the head of navigation, on Westchester creek, twelve miles from the city of New York; it contains about four hundred inhabitants, fifty dwellings, an Episcopal, a Roman Catholic, a Methodist church and two Friends’ meeting houses, three taverns, a post office and four stores . . . [It] is by several years the oldest village in the county, its first settlement (by the Puritans), being coeval with Throckmorton’s purchase, in 1642.
Bolton also mentions the “Ferris burying ground,” that was located in the village near St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The Ferris family presence in the area goes back to the 17th century, as does their old family cemetery that can be found today on the south side of Commerce Avenue, east of Westchester Avenue, in the modern Bronx neighborhood of Westchester Square. John Ferris, an Englishman who was one of the five patentees of Westchester township in 1667, reserves the burial ground by his last will in 1715: “Provided always there shall be a rod square free for all friends and friendly people to bury their dead in the place where they formerly buried without any let, hindrance, or molestation whatsoever.” Benjamin Ferris likewise reserves the family cemetery in his 1777 will, excluding “a place four rods square, where the burying place is” from the Westchester lands to be sold by his executors.
In August 1905, members of the Underhill Society of America visited the Ferris burial ground, where they found about 30 gravestones (most dating to the 19th century) and two family vaults—the James Ferris family vault on the north side of the graveyard and that used by the Benjamin Ferris line on the east side. Remains from the James Ferris vault were removed around 1890 and transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery and Trinity Churchyard. Among those moved to Woodlawn were James Ferris (1734-1780) and his wife Charity Thomas Ferris (1734-1809), Revolutionary War patriots whose Throgg’s Neck home was occupied by British Admiral Richard Howe in October 1776. James Ferris was kept in the notorious British prison ships, and died in 1780 as a result of the hardships he endured. Legend has it that Charity Ferris, who stayed in the homestead during the British occupancy, directed one of her servants to memorize the conversations he overheard when waiting on Lord Howe and his officers, and transmitted this information to General Washington, who was with his army at White Plains.
Various Ferris branches maintained the family burial plot for two centuries, but it was increasingly neglected after Charles Ferris, who lived near the burial ground when the Underhill Society had visited in 1905, died in 1908. The site became overgrown, gravemarkers were destroyed or taken by vandals, and even the fencing was stolen. In 1928, vandals broke into the Benjamin Ferris vault, cut open the lead caskets and desecrated the remains; subsequently, the bodies of 15 family members were removed and reinterred at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester, leaving about 16 bodies and gravestones in the Ferris burial ground. The site experienced periods of neglect and restoration throughout the 20th century (Parkchester Kiwanis Club removed 198 tons of debris from the site in 1973), but has been kept in good condition in recent years through the efforts of local Boy Scouts and other civic groups. Only a handful of gravestones still stand in the old burial ground, and its once bucolic surroundings are now a gritty industrial area.
Sources: A History of the County of Westchester (R. Bolton 1848), Vol. 2, 178-179, 227; Bromley’s 1881 Atlas of Weschester CountyPl 41; Early Wills of Westchester County (W.S. Pelletreau 1898), 34-35, 360-361; Partial Geneaology of the Ferris Family (C.E. Crowell 1899); “Ferris Burying Ground 1700,” The Underhill Society of America, Sixteenth Annual Report, 1908, 24-25; May Ferris Doherty notes, 1928 & n.d., Ferris Cemetery file, Bronx County Historical Society; “To Be Exhumed from Debris Itself,” Bronx Press Review, Aug 9, 1973; History in Asphalt (J. McNamara 1978), 47, 83, 290-291; “New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, Charles Coleman Ferris, 09 Apr 1908; “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; NYCityMap
NYC officials proved to have short memories in the 1950s and 1960s when they repeatedly sold and then had to buy back a piece of land in Corona, Queens, after title searches revealed the property was an old cemetery. The plot in question, located near 94th Street and Alstyne and Corona avenues, was earmarked as a private cemetery under a last will and testament admitted to probate on January 3, 1821. It was once part of the estate belonging to the Burroughs family who settled in the area in the 17th century. By the late 1800s, the family had sold off most of their old farm land and retained only the ancestral burial ground. The Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the cemetery in 1919, identifying 16 graves with headstones dating from 1793 to 1871 for members of the Burroughs, Vandervoort, and Waters families.
As the descendants of those interred there moved out of the area, the cemetery was abandoned, neglected, and became a dumping ground for neighborhood refuse. In 1954, the city seized the property in a delinquent tax action—erroneously it turned out, since private burial grounds, like all cemeteries, are tax exempt. The site was then mistakenly sold at public auction at least twice, in 1956 and 1960. In each case, the city refunded the buyers when they discovered they could not develop the property unless the cemetery was removed, a long and expensive process that would require tracing descendants to obtain permission to move the bodies. It is not known if the remains were ever removed from the Burroughs cemetery site, which is now covered with residential buildings and asphalt.
Sources: History of Queens County, New York (Munsell 1882), 344; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens, 12-13; “City Stuck with Two Cemeteries,” Sunday News March 4, 1956; “Oops! City Discovers it Sold a Cemetery!” Long Island Daily Press, Jan 24, 1957; “City Digs Up Info on Lost Cemetery,” Long Island Star Journal, April 22, 1957, 3; “He Buys a Cemetery, Gets His 2Gs Back,” Long Island Star Journal, March 23, 1962, 3; NYCityMap.
Situated on a triangular lot near the busy intersection of Woodhaven Boulevard and Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, the Remsen Cemetery is a remnant of Queens’ colonial past and is the final resting place of a family of Revolutionary War patriots. The 2.5 -acre site, bounded by Trotting Course Lane and Alderton Street, originally lay within the property of the Remsen family, who immigrated from northern Germany in the 17th century and established a farm in the area that was then known as Hempstead Swamp.
The cemetery is believed to have been used as the family burial ground from the mid-18th through the 19th centuries. In a 1925 survey of the cemetery, the graves and brownstone gravemarkers of eight Remsen family members were identified, dating from 1790 to 1819. The oldest known grave is that of Colonel Jeromus Remsen, from 1790. Col. Remsen fought in the French and Indian War and, as a colonel of the Kings and Queens County Militia in the Battle of Long Island, he commanded the 7th New York Regiment in the Revolutionary War. His cousins Abraham Remsen, Luke Remsen, and Aurt Remsen were also Revolutionary War officers.
By 1925, all of the Remsen property had been sold off and the Remsen House, which was near the cemetery, was torn down to make way for residential development. Most of the cemetery’s old tombstones disappeared with time and vandalism, although the local American Legion post and other civic groups strove to maintain it over the years. In 1980, new marble gravemarkers were erected by the Veterans Administration to honor Col. Remsen and the other Revolutionary veterans buried there. A World War I memorial, with two doughboy statues flanking a flagpole, also was created at the site to commemorate Forest Hill’s service in that war. Remsen Cemetery was designated a New York City Landmark in 1981 and is now owned and maintained by the NYC Parks Department.