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.
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.
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.
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