Tag Archives: family cemeteries

Watt-Pinkney Family Burial Ground

An 1849 map shows Archibald Watt’s Harlem estate

On a June day in 1910, an undertaker and his assistants labored in the drizzling rain to remove coffins from the Watt-Pinkney estate that covered an entire city block between 139th street and 140th streets and 6th and 7th avenues (today’s Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard) in Harlem. Complete with magnificent trees, flower and vegetable gardens, two barns, and a row of chicken houses, this single-block enclave was a vestige of a vast farm purchased by Archibald Watt in 1826.

Born in Scotland, Archibald Watt came to New York in 1820 and made his fortune as a merchant and land speculator. In 1827, he married Mrs. Mary Pinkney, a widow whose deceased husband came from a wealthy Maryland family. Archibald became stepfather to Mary’s two daughters—17-year-old Mary Goodwin Pinkney and two-year-old Antoinette Pinkney. Archibald and Mary would go on to have two additional children, Thomas and Grace Watt.

Watt-Pinkney mansion at 139th Street near 7th Ave, ca. 1910 (MCNY)

Archibald’s stepdaughter Mary G. Pinkney became his confidant and business secretary and was deeply involved in his real estate deals. When he was hard-pressed for ready cash during a financial downturn in 1843, it was Miss Pinkney who came to his rescue with a $40,000 inheritance left to her by her father. In return, Archibald willed her his Harlem estate “in consideration of love and affection.” Until her death at age 98, Mary Pinkney made her primary residence at the old family manor house near the corner of 139th Street and 7th Avenue and took great pride in the grounds. Dubbed “the wealthiest spinster in the world” when she died in 1908, her real estate holdings in upper Manhattan were worth an estimated $50 million.

The 14-month old daughter of Thomas Watt, Mary Pinkney Watt’s 1858 burial record notes her place of interment as “Vault in her grandfather Archibald Watt’s garden”

Mary Pinkney’s will included a clause directing that “the mortal remains of the members of my family that lie buried in the private burial grounds situate in the plot between 139th street and 140th streets and between Sixth and Seventh avenues shall be removed to the plot now owned by me at Woodlawn Cemetery.” Six of Mary Pinkney’s family members were laid to rest on the estate—her half-sister Grace Watt, who died at age seven in 1839; her sister Antoinette Pinkney, died 1841, aged 16; her 14-month-old niece Mary Pinkney Watt, who died in 1858; her stepfather Archibald Watt, died 1867, age 77; her half-brother Thomas Watt, died 1876 at age 48; and her 94-year-old mother, Mary Goodwin Pinkney Watt, the final interment, in 1883.

In each case, the coffins were enclosed in brick masonry and sealed at the top but left without a tombstone or any other exterior markings. Although the location of the burial vaults is described as “under the grape arbor” on the property, precisely where this was within the block is not known today. When the vaults were opened in 1910, the coffins were found to be in excellent condition, with the nameplates still readable. They were removed and put in zinc boxes for reburial at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The Watt-Pinkney manor house and grounds were sold in 1925;  the house was subsequently demolished and the land redeveloped.

View of Watt-Pinkney farm, ca. 1900. The mansion can be seen in the background (MCNY)
This 1909 map shows the Watt-Pinkney mansion on north side of 139th street near 7th Ave and the grounds and outbuildings that occupied the remainder of the block.
A 2018 aerial view of the former Watt-Pinkney block in Harlem, where the family burial ground was located (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Sidney’s Map of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; Sanborn’s 1909 Insurance Maps of the City of New York,  Vol 11, Pl 33; New York, U.S., Episcopal Diocese of New York Church Records, 1767-1970 (Ancestry.com); “Died,” Evening Post, Jul 23, 1839; “Died,” Log Cabin, Nov 13, 1841; “Died,” New York Daily Tribune,  Jun 1, 1858; “Died,” New York Herald, Mar 2, 1867; “Died,” New York Herald, Nov 12, 1876; “Died,” New York Herald, Mar 26, 1883; “Estate of Millions, Miss Pinkney’s Care,” New York Times, May 4 1902; “Obituary—Miss Mary G. Pinkney,” New York Tribune, Dec 9, 1908; “Miss Pinkney Buried,” The Sun, Dec 11, 1908; “$50,000,000 Pinkney Estate Goes to a Man and Two Women,” Evening World, Dec 15, 1908; “Pinkney Estate Cut in Four,” The Sun, Dec 16, 1908; “City Overspreads Old Watt Cemetery,” New York Times, Jun 17, 1910; “Historic Estate in Auction Market,” New York Times, May 7 1911; “Harlem to Lose Ancient Landmark,” New York Times, Nov 29 1925; Biographical Register of Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, Vol 2 (Macbean 1925)

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)

Rapelje Cemetery, Astoria

A view of Rapelje Cemetery from 20th Street, July 2021 (Mary French)

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 Rapelje House, northeast corner of Shore Blvd and 21st Ave, 1922 (NYPL)

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.

A 1965 tax map delineates the boundaries of Rapelje Cemetery

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.

This 1927 photo of Rapelje Cemetery shows the tombstones of Sarah Rapelje Brinkerhoff and her mother Catherine Rapelje (NYCMA)

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.

A 1919 survey identified four tombstones at the site

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.

Another view of Rapelje Cemetery in July 2021, facing toward 20th Street (Mary French)
A 2012 aerial view showing location of Rapelje Cemetery within the Astoria Terrace Gardens apartment complex (NYCityMap)

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)

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

St. Ann’s Churchyard, Bronx

Depiction of St. Ann’ Church and Gouverneur Morris tomb by artist August Will, 1885 (MCNY)

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

These words—the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution—were written by Founding Father Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816), who is buried in a nondescript tomb near a gritty main drag in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx. The land where he is interred is a remnant of the vast estate established by brothers Richard Morris (1616-1672) and Lewis Morris (1601-1691), English immigrants who in 1670 acquired property in the Bronx that was expanded to create the 2,000-acre Manor of Morrisania. The Morris family became part of the powerful colonial aristocracy, producing several generations of military, political, and social leaders.

Early Morris family members were interred in burial grounds near their manor house that stood by the Bronx Kill, west of the Mill Brook, at today’s 132nd Street near Brown Place. Gouverneur Morris broke with this tradition, choosing to be buried in a field on his property east of the Mill Brook. Following his 1816 death, his wife Ann Cary Randolph Morris constructed a vault here to receive his remains; she was interred nearby when she died in 1837.

This extract from an 1860 map of the town of Morrisania shows St. Ann’s Church at top and the Gouverneur Morris house at bottom right, below 132nd St. At left, west of the Mill Brook, the old Morris manor house can be seen on the south side of 132nd St, between Morris and Willis Aves. Both homes were demolished around the turn of the 20th c.

Gouverneur Morris, Jr. (1813-1888)—the only child of Gouverneur and Ann Morris—built St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in 1841 as a public memorial to his mother, erecting it on the hallowed ground where his parents were laid to rest. Situated at what is now St. Ann’s Avenue and East 140th Street, the church was constructed of fieldstone, followed a simple Gothic Revival design, and featured burial vaults beneath the building and in the grassy yard along its east side. Morris, Jr. had his mother’s remains moved to one of the vaults beneath the church, leaving his father’s remains in the tomb outside the church.

An 1866 property map shows the layout of burial vaults in the yard on the east side of St. Ann’s Church, including the Gouverneur Morris vault next to the building.

Remains from the earlier Morris family burial ground near the old manor house were moved to vaults under St. Ann’s in 1866. Morris family descendants and other members of the local community purchased the rest of the interior and outdoor vaults, and interments at St. Ann’s were made into the mid-20th century. Individuals of exceptional historical significance are interred here, including Judge Lewis Morris (1671-1746), first Governor of New Jersey, and Major General Lewis Morris (1726-1798), a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Portrait of Gouverneur Morris by Alonzo Chappel, 1862

Today, St. Ann’s Church is the oldest surviving church building in the Bronx. It still serves as a parish church; its current congregation is predominantly Hispanic, as is the surrounding neighborhood. Gouverneur Morris’ half-sunken tomb is located outside the old church, next to the southeast corner of the building and surrounded by an iron fence. The most remarkable figure of his distinguished American family, Gouverneur Morris was revered by his peers—both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison deemed him a “genius”—and he emerged as one of the leading figures of the Constitutional Convention. In addition to writing the Preamble, Morris drafted the final version of the Constitution; the beautiful, powerful prose of that document is almost entirely his work.

Gouverneur Morris tomb at St. Ann’s Churchyard, April 2016 (Mary French)
2018 Aerial View of St. Ann’s Church complex (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of the Town of Morrisania (Beers 1860); St. Ann’s Church Property and Cemetery on St. Ann’s Ave (Greene 1866), Westchester County Clerk Map 538; A History of the County of Westchester (Bolton 1848) Vol 2; The History of the Several Towns, Manors, and Patents of the County of Westchester (Bolton 1881); History of Westchester County (Scharf 1886) Vol 1; The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912); National Portrait Gallery of Eminent Americans (Duyckinck 1862), Vol 1; “Colonial Days: How the Land of North New York was Conveyed,” New Rochelle Pioneer, Apr 26 1884;“Neglect of Gouverneur Morris’s Grave at Last Stirs Public,” The Sun and New York Herald Sunday Magazine, May 2 1920; Some Descendants of Richard Morris and Sarah Pole of Morrisania (Wilkinson 1966); National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form—St. Ann’s Church Complex, Oct 1979; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016); “St. Ann’s Church; A Son’s Homage, Hallowed by Time,” New York Times, Sept 20, 1987; “The Forgotten Founding Father,City Journal, Spring 2002; “The Framer’s Intent: Gouverneur Morris, the Committee of Style and the Creation of the Federalist Constitution,” SCOTUSblog, Aug 5, 2019