Tag Archives: colonial cemeteries

Stockbridge Indian Burial Ground

Stockbridge Indian Monument at Van Cortlandt Park, Sept 2010 (Mary French)

A small, grassy clearing at the northeastern corner of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx is the burial place of Chief Daniel Nimham and about 17 of his fellow members of the Stockbridge Indian Company who died while fighting with the Patriots during the Revolutionary War. Daniel Nimham was the last sachem of the Wappinger confederacy of Indians of the lower Hudson River Valley. Made head of his tribe in 1740, Nimham came to prominence for his efforts to recover tribal homelands and for his service to the English during the French and Indian Wars. 

1778 sketch by Capt Johann von Ewald, a Hessian officer who fought for Britain during the Revolution, depicting a member of the Stockbridge Indian Company

By the 1750s, Nimham and his clan had joined with allied Mohican groups at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. At the start of the American Revolution, members of the Stockbridge tribes pledged their loyalty to the American cause. Daniel Nimham was given a military commission as a captain in the Continental Army and his son Abraham Nimham was put in charge of the Stockbridge Indian Company. In April of 1778, the Nimhams and the Stockbridge militia unit joined Washington’s army at White Plains.

In the summer of 1778, the Nimhams and their detachment of some 60 Indians found themselves skirmishing with British and Hessian troops alongside American militia units operating on the Bronx border. On August 31, 1778, the detachment was outflanked and surrounded by a formation of British rangers and Hessian jaegers during fighting along a ridge in today’s Van Cortlandt Park. Outnumbered five to one, Daniel, Abraham, and at least 15 other Stockbridge men were killed. The Nimhams and the other slaughtered Indians were buried in a common grave near the battle site.

This Sept 3, 1778 article from the Royal American Gazette, a Tory newspaper published in British-occupied New York, reports the death of Chief Nimham, his son, and other Stockbridge Indians earlier that week

In 1906 the Bronx Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a monument to Chief Nimham and his men. Consisting of a stone cairn and a plaque, the monument is near the intersection of Van Cortlandt Park East and Oneida  Avenue; the burial ground is in the field behind the monument. The plaque is inscribed “August 31, 1778.  Upon this Field Chief Nimham and Seventeen Stockbridge Indians, as Allies of the Patriots, Gave their Lives for Liberty.” The Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution, and other groups frequently honor Daniel Nimham and the other fallen Stockbridge warriors with ceremonies at the monument. In 2005, veterans from the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians held a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial, with the United States Military Academy West Point providing the Honor Guard for the event.

Section of Van Cortlandt Park Alliance map showing location of the Stockbridge Indian monument
A view of Stockbridge Indian memorial and burial ground, Sept 2010 (Mary French)
A panel from the “Native New York” exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in  NYC depicts present-day Stockbridge-Munsee veterans visiting the burial ground

Sources: “New-York, September 3,” Royal American Gazette, Sep 3, 1778; “Old Historic Cemeteries,” Daily Argus (Mount Vernon, NY), Jan 9, 1905; Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Vol 2 (Hodge 1910); The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912); “The Indian Field Massacre,” Bronx County Historical Society Journal Vol XIV(2)(Fall 1977); “The Nimhams of the Colonial Hudson Valley, 1667-1783,” The Hudson River Valley Regional Review 9(2) (September 1992); Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016); “A Trip for the Ages,” Mohican News, November 15, 2005; “Remembering the Sacrifice of a True Patriot,” DAR Blog, Sep 8, 2021; “Why We Serve—Origins of Native American Military Service” (Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian); “Native New York,” (Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian)

Moore-Jackson Cemetery

Tombstones in the Moore-Jackson Cemetery in 1925 (NYPL)

Throughout the five boroughs, New Yorkers are actively protecting the forgotten and neglected burial places of their neighborhoods. Some are silent guardians tending to these old plots with little fanfare, while others are vocal advocates striving for preservation. Most have no familial or cultural ties to those interred in the graveyards they caretake and defend but feel called to save these historic sites and honor their departed local forerunners.

For more than 25 years, Ceil Pontecorvo almost single-handedly maintained the Moore-Jackson Cemetery next door to her apartment building on 54th Street in Woodside, Queens. Noticing that the old graveyard had become a neglected dumping ground, she determined that the people buried there “deserve better than this” and began planting flowers and shrubbery, picking up weeds and garbage, and was among those who lobbied the city to landmark the Colonial-era site, which they won in 1997.

At left is a map detail showing location of the Moore-Jackson Cemetery in Woodside, Queens (mid-block between 31st St and 32nd St, the site extends from 51st to 54th St). At right is a 1919 survey showing location of graves at the site.

The Moore-Jackson Cemetery was established by 1733 on the farm of Samuel Moore and Charity Hallett Moore, just north of their homestead on Bowery Bay Road (present-day 51st Street) at the outskirts of the colonial village of Newtown. The Moores were early English settlers of Newtown, played a prominent role in the development of Queens, and intermarried with such leading families as the Rikers, Berriens, Blackwells, and Rapelyes. Among those interred in the cemetery is Nathaniel Moore (d. 1802), the owner of the land during the American Revolution. A staunch loyalist, Nathaniel Moore housed a division of the British Army following its victory at the Battle of Long Island and some say the British capture of Manhattan was planned in the Moore home. A great-granddaughter of Nathaniel’s married into the Jackson family, from which the cemetery and nearby Jackson Heights get their names.

A view of the Moore-Jackson Cemetery in 1927 (NYCMA)

The cemetery remained in active use until at least 1868 and contained at least 51 graves which were marked with fieldstone, brownstone, and marble gravestones. By the early 20th century, most of the Moore descendants had moved away, and the burial ground fell into periods of neglect and rediscovery. In 1998, the last surviving heir of Nathaniel Moore transferred ownership of the site to the Queens Historical Society.

Today, about a dozen headstones still stand at the Moore-Jackson Cemetery and only a few have legible inscriptions. Most of the gravestones are clustered near the side of the property bordering 54th Street and although that section was well kept by Ms. Pontecorvo and others, the rest of the half-acre property, which extends to 51st Street, remained “a jungle” for decades. In 2017, several Woodside residents came together to clean up the overgrown lot and received permission from the Queens Historical Society to create a community garden on part of the property. The cemetery has now entered a new phase of neighborhood guardianship. While the burial area near 54th Street is preserved, the remainder of the site is a vibrant community garden that provides fresh food, green space, and programs for local residents.

A view of tombstones at the Moore-Jackson Cemetery in October 2010. The gravestone in the foreground, commemorating Augustine Moore, is the oldest legible marker at the site today (Mary French)
The aerial view at left shows the Moore-Jackson Cemetery in 2018; at right is a more recent view depicting the raised planting beds and other features of the new community garden at the property (NYCThen&Now/Google)

Sources: Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932); Woodside: A Historical Perspective, 1652-1994 (Gregory, 1994); Moore-Jackson Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1997); Moore-Jackson Cemetery Phase IA Archaeological Assessment Report (Bergoffen 1999); “A Long-Orphaned Family Plot,” New York Times, Jan 19, 1997; “A Hidden Cemetery of an Earlier Era Becomes More Visible,” New York Times, Jul 2, 2000; “Volunteers Want Help Revitalizing Colonial-Era Cemetery in Woodside,” DNAinfo, Oct 11 2017; “Historic Woodside Site Revamped Into Community Garden,” Astoria Post , Jan 14, 2022; Moore-Jackson Cemetery and Community Garden

New Utrecht Cemetery

A view of New Utrecht Cemetery, ca 1915. Metropolitan Baptist Church is in the background. The Dubois-Crane obelisk, toppled by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, can be seen rising above the other tombstones at the northeast corner of the cemetery (MCNY)

Located on a quiet residential block in the Bensonhurst section of southwestern Brooklyn, the old New Utrecht Cemetery is a relic of a time when this locale was the heart of one of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The one-acre burial ground, at the corner of 16th Avenue and 84th Street, was established in 1654 when the Dutch settled the village of New Utrecht. The cemetery was centrally located on the village’s main thoroughfare (now 84th Street) and the town’s first house of worship, the New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church, was constructed at its northeast corner in 1700. Although owned by the church, the cemetery was traditionally a community burial place where any inhabitant of New Utrecht could be buried regardless of religious affiliation.

A finely-carved, early tombstone at New Utrecht Cemetery, photographed ca. 1910 (BHS)

In 1828 the Reformed Dutch congregation tore down their building adjacent to the cemetery and built a new church two blocks away, at 84th Street and 18th Avenue, where it is today. In 1899, St. John’s German Lutheran Church (later Metropolitan Baptist Church) was erected where the Dutch church formerly stood; this building still stands at the northeast corner of the cemetery. Clustered closest to the church are the family plots of the earliest New Utrecht families, including the Van Brunts, Cortelyous, Cowenhovens, Cropseys, and Bennetts. Further from the building are plots for families who settled in the area in the 19th century a later—many with Scotch-Irish and Italian surnames. Behind the church is an unmarked area of the cemetery where American Revolutionary War soldiers are said to be buried. 

1896 newspaper clipping reporting John Hicks’ burial at New Utrecht Cemetery

In the northwest corner of the cemetery, near the intersection of 16th Avenue and 84th Street, is another section unmarked by gravestones. This is the old “slave burying ground,”  once fenced off the rest of the grounds, where members of the local African American community were buried into the 20th century. Though the names of most of those interred here are unknown, historical obituaries provide information for a few. Among them is John Hicks, a former slave of the Cortelyou family, buried “in that section set apart for colored people in the New Utrecht Cemetery” when he died in 1896. Also here is Anthony Thompson, who died in the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People in 1911 at age 98. Born enslaved at Paterson, New Jersey, Thompson escaped by running away at age 16, eventually settling in New Utrecht and fathering 13 children.

This photo from a 1900 newspaper article depicts the “slave burying ground” at the northwest corner of New Utrecht Cemetery

At the northeast corner of the cemetery is a large granite obelisk memorializing physicians James E. Dubois and John L. Crane, who died of yellow fever  while treating local victims of the disease during an 1856 epidemic. The seven-ton monument, which previously stood 18 feet high, broke off during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and has lain on the ground since then. The townsmen of New Utrecht resolved to erect the monument at a meeting in December of 1856, where they made the following declaration:

That by the heroic courage and benevolence displayed by them in visiting all having the yellow fever, both rich and poor, until they were taken down themselves with that awful disease, thus sacrificing their own lives for their fellow suffers; resolved, therefore, that as they have endeared their memory to us, their neighbors and friends, we will erect a suitable monument to their many virtues.

Approximately 1,300 people have been interred in New Utrecht Cemetery during the past three centuries. Although the cemetery is still active, burials there are now rare.

View of New Utrecht Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view of New Utrecht Cemetery at 84th St and 16th Ave in Bensonhurst (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of New Utrecht Cemetery

Sources: Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus (Bangs 1912); New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1998); “Respect to the Martyrs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 2, 1856;  “Burial of a Former Slave,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 17, 1896; “The Story of New Utrecht,”  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 1, 1900; “New Utrecht Village’s Old Dutch Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 23, 1900; “Old Church Graveyard in Sad State of Neglect,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 24, 1905; “Obituary—Anthony Thompson,”  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 1, 1911; “Stones in New Utrecht Cemetery Crumbling, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 23, 1931; “A Burial Ground for the Mighty, Laid Low by Weeds,” New York Times, Dec 2, 2007

Pell Family Burial Ground

Pell family burial ground, ca. 1900 (Weschester Co. Historical Society)

When I received a Pell Grant as an undergraduate pursuing an anthropology degree at the University of Arkansas in the early 1990s, I didn’t imagine that I would one day wander down a remote wooded path in the Bronx in search of a tiny cemetery where Pell ancestors are buried. Pell Grants are named in honor of former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (1918-2009), whose forefather Thomas Pell bought a large tract of wilderness from a council of Native American sachems in 1654. The British crown later granted Thomas Pell a royal charter for this 9,000-acre expanse, named the  Manor of Pelham, that covered parts of what is today the Bronx and Westchester County. With this land grant, the seed was planted from which grew a dynasty that has had far-reaching influence throughout American history.

Extract from a map of the colonial manors of Westchester county showing those that extended over what is today the Bronx and southern Westchester. The Manor of Pelham is at right, stretching along Long Island Sound; arrow indicates approximate location of the Pell family burial ground.

The Pell family burial ground is located just southeast of the Bartow-Pell mansion, built between 1836 and 1842 by Robert Bartow, a Pell descendant. The house and burial ground are on land that was part of the ancient Manor of Pelham and, except for a brief period, this property was in the hands of Pell descendants for 234 years before the city acquired it in 1888 to become part of Pelham Bay Park. Six tombstones dating from 1748 to 1790—including one for Joseph Pell (d. 1752), the Fourth Lord of the Manor of Pelham—are enclosed in this plot of roughly 100 square feet near the Sound at Pelham Bay. The cemetery’s location on ancestral land made the burial ground a venerated site for the Pell family; they added a large memorial stone in 1862 and a fence with inscribed granite posts in 1891.

After Thomas Pell died in 1669, his descendants began to sell off pieces of his manor and its acreage shrank. The American Revolution brought an end to the Pell lordship and manor—members of the family being Loyalists, they fled to Canada for British protection. They were disgraced and their property was confiscated. Their original manor house, located near where the Bartow-Pell mansion now stands, was burned. But their exile was temporary—once political passions cooled, the Pells returned to New York and resumed their prominent place in society.

Tombstones in Pell family burial ground, June 2014. The stone in the foreground marks the grave of Joseph Pell, Fourth Lord of the Manor, who died in 1752 (Mary French)

The old Pell cemetery has been a historical attraction since the city acquired it, and in 1905 was deemed “one of the most interesting nooks of the beautiful and immense Pelham Bay Park” by a local newspaper. The cemetery also has occasionally attracted visitors with nefarious intentions. Acting on a legend that says the plot contains gold and jewels hidden by the Pells, thieves have periodically tampered with the graves in their search for booty. One such case occurred in 1914 when police found a fresh hole dug five feet deep in the burial ground. Further evidence suggested that the bandits had been at work on another grave at the site before they were frightened away.

In 1988, the Pells had a family reunion at the Bartow-Pell mansion. As part of the festivities, the relatives walked down the short path bordered with horse chestnut trees to inspect graves in the ancestral burial ground. Claiborne Pell, a descendant of the original lords of the manor, was an attendee at this reunion. Like his relatives, he had a great appreciation for the place of his ancestors in colonial history and understood that he was raised as American nobility. Though he was born into privilege and vast family wealth, Claiborne Pell envisioned a grant program that would enable low-income students to attend college. As a recipient of this program, a Pell Grant helped put me on a career path that would eventually lead me to New York, and, consequentially, to the Pell ancestral graveyard. Mine is one of countless examples of the ways we are intertwined with—and indebted to—those who have gone before us.

Pell family burial ground, June 2014 (Mary French)
2014 aerial view of the Bartow Pell mansion and Pell family burial ground (arrow) (NYC Then&Now

View more photos of Pell Family Burial Ground

Sources: Map of the Manors Erected Within the County of Westchester: Compiled from the Manor Grants and Ancient Maps (De Lancey 1886); History of the County of Westchester (Bolton 1848); The History of Several Towns, Manors and Patents of the County of Westchester, Vol 2 (Bolton 1881); History of Westchester County,Vol 1 (Scharf 1886); “Where the Pells Lie,” New York Tribune, Dec 6, 1903; “Where the Pells Lie,” [Letter to Editor], Dec 27, 1903; “Old Historic Cemeteries,” Daily Argus (Mount Vernon, NY), Jan 9, 1905; “Ghouls Try to Rob Old Pell Graves,” New York Tribune, Oct 31, 1914; “Pell’s Grave Violated,” New York Times, Oct 31, 1914; The Pell Manor: Address Prepared for the New York Branch of the Order of Colonial Lords of Manors in America (Pell 1917); A Brief, But Most Complete & True Account of the Settlement of the Ancient Town of Pelham…(Barr 1947); National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form—Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, 1974; “Claiborne Pell, 90, Patrician Senator Behind College Grant Program, Dies,” New York Times, Jan 2, 2009; We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante (Pell 2009); Pell Family Burial Plot—Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum; Here Lyes the Body: The Pell Family Burial Ground, Mansion Musings, Oct 22, 2016; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016)

Merrell Cemetery

View of Merrell Cemetery, 1932 (NYPL)

Between 1889 and 1902, Staten Island historian William T. Davis located 21 homestead graveyards across the borough. Today only two of these private family burial grounds are preserved. One of these, Merrell (or Merrill) Cemetery on the north side of Merrill Avenue west of Richmond Avenue in Bulls Head, is still owned by family heirs and was used into the late 20th century.

Merrell Cemetery is a remnant of the 250-acre plantation owned by John Iyon Merrell (1740-1818), which stretched from Bulls Head to the Arthur Kill. Iyon Merrell was a descendant of Richard and Sarah Merrell, who emigrated from Warwickshire, England, in 1675 and settled on Staten Island. Prominent and influential, the Merrell family held land in the area for many years and intermarried with the Decker and Braisted families, as well as with other local clans. Merrell family heirs formed an association to ensure continued care of their family burial ground and in July 1903 rededicated the site after a cleanup and beautification that included installation of a sign at the entrance bearing the words “MERRELL CEMETERY 1675—1903.”

Detail from a 1917 map showing Merrell Cemetery at Bulls Head, Staten Island

In 1923, William Davis and his colleagues recorded about 30 marked graves in the half-acre Merrell Cemetery, the earliest dating to 1794.  They speculated there likely were many more unmarked graves at the site, possibly dating to the late 1600s. The cemetery had a frontage of 78 feet along Merrill Avenue, extended 280 feet in a northerly direction, and was “well kept up with privet hedges along the sides of the long rectangular lot.”

Headstone marking the grave of Gertrui Merrell, the oldest known interment in Merrell Cemetery (FACSI)

Although Merrell Cemetery fell into periods of neglect over the decades, descendants were interred here throughout the 20th century. The last known burial occurred in 1996 when Ruth Merrell was laid to rest alongside her husband John. In recent years the cemetery has been in legal limbo as the family association that holds the deed for the property became defunct and the site was abandoned. Merrell Cemetery is now maintained by Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island. A number of the early gravestones first recorded by William Davis over a hundred years ago are still present at the site. Among them is the rough-hewn fieldstone marking the grave of Iyon Merrell, carved with the inscription “I.Y.M. D.1818.”

View of Merrell Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)
Location of Merrell Cemetery, adjacent to P.S. 60 on Merrill Ave (NYCityMap)

Sources: Bromley’s 1917 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Richmond, Staten Island, Pl 37;“Homestead Graves,” Proceedings of the Natural Science Association of Staten Island, Special No. 9, 1889; Staten Island Gravestone Inscriptions, Vol 1 (Davis et al 1924); Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island  (Salmon 2006); “Sarah Jane Braisted,” Richmond County Advance, Mar 28, 1903; “Merrell Cemetery,” Richmond County Advance, Jul 18, 1903; “Enthusiastic Meeting,” Richmond County Advance, Aug 08, 1903; “The Abandoned Graveyards of Staten Island,” Chronicles of Staten Island 1(9), 1987; “Debris and Inaccessibility to Graves a ‘Disgrace’ at Merrell Family Cemetery,” Staten Island Advance, Jan 4, 2012