Tag Archives: Flatlands

Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery

This 1922 photo of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Cemetery features the tombstones of Anne Wyckoff Schenck (d. 1766) and her husband, Steven Schenck (d. 1767) (NYPL)

On the same day in 1654 that Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered a church be built at Flatbush, he authorized the same for the neighboring settlement at Flatlands (then known as New Amersfort), another of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The first church edifice at Flatlands, erected in 1663, stood on a gently elevated spot at the head of a little stream that ran into Jamaica Bay. This site is occupied by the present Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church, at East 40th Street and Kings Highway. Constructed in 1848, it is the third church building on the site.

1873 map of Flatlands depicting the church and cemetery at what is now East 40th Street, Flatbush Ave, and Kings Highway. A public school, since demolished, is shown at the northwest corner of the grounds; the Sunday school/lecture building at the southern boundary of the grounds was rebuilt at the same location in 1904

West and southwest of the church building is the roughly two-acre cemetery where generations of Flatlanders are laid to rest; names include Lott, Voorhees, Wyckoff, Stothoff, Schenck, Kouwenhoven, and Funck, among others. Though only a few hundred gravestones remain today, over 2,000 people are believed to have been interred in the cemetery between the late 17th century and the mid-20th century. The oldest surviving tombstones date to the 1760s; the most poignant of these marks a grave shared by three young brothers—children of Peter and Willempie Amirman—who died on consecutive days in September 1767.

Tombstone of William Paupau at Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

Members of Flatlands’ historic African American community are also interred here. An 1882 inventory of tombstones in the cemetery identifies eight graves of “colored people,” including several members of the Paupau family that died between the 1830s and 1850s. According to research by the Friends of the Lott House in Marine Park (part of the historic town of Flatlands), the Paupaus were of African and Native American ancestry and resided in Flatlands as early as 1830. Descendants of this family were interred in the cemetery into the 20th century.

Flatlands was established in 1636 when a group of Dutch settlers bought 15,000 acres of land from local Canarsee tribal chiefs, and there was a tradition among the old families of Flatlands that the site of the church and cemetery was a former Native American burial ground. This story ostensibly was confirmed in 1904, when construction of a new Sunday school/lecture building at the southern end of the cemetery grounds uncovered what were believed to be Native American human remains. While excavating for the foundation of the new building, workers dug up 12 skeletons “of massive proportions,” according to newspaper reports, with nothing indicating they had ever been in coffins. “There is little doubt that the dozen skeletons exhumed are the remains of Indians,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle proclaimed, and residents of the neighborhood concluded this was proof of their “Indian burial ground” folklore. The bones were placed in a box and reinterred in another section of the cemetery.

A view of the Flatlands Reformed Dutch church and cemetery, ca. 1910 (MCNY)

In the early 1900s, several distinct sections made up what is now the Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery. These included the churchyard proper, immediately west of the church building and owned by the congregation, the “Indian burial plot” at the north end of the property, where the Native American remains uncovered in 1904 were reburied; the privately-owned DeBaun and Terhune family burial plots, forming a narrow strip below the churchyard; and the public burial ground along the southern boundary of the property, owned by the town of Flatlands. All of these sections are now owned and managed by the church. In the 1920s, the cemetery grounds were graded to street level, beautified with plantings, and enclosed by a fine wrought-iron fence. The present Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church continues to serve the ever-changing population of the local community, and the pretty, spacious grounds of the church cemetery offer a quiet place to recall the site’s long history.

This undated survey of Flatbush Avenue between Alton Place and Overbaugh Place shows parts of the various sections that historically comprised Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery
A view of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery in May 2016 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Church complex (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Flatlands Reformed Dutch Cemetery

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 32; [Map of Flatbush Ave. at Alton Pl. and Overbaugh Pl.], undated; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901); The Ferry Road on Long Island (Armbruster 1919); Tercentenary Anniversary, 1654-1954 (Protestant Dutch Reformed Church of Flatlands 1954); “Inscriptions on the Tombstones in and around the Churchyard in the Village of Flatlands, Kings County, N.Y.” Kings County Genealogical Club Collections, 1(2), Jul 1882; Cemetery Inscriptions from Flatlands, Brooklyn, New York (Frost 1914); “Flatlands’ Church-Yard,” Kings County Rural Gazette, Apr 25, 1874; “Flatlands—The Duty of Sexton,” Kings County Rural Gazette, Apr 22, 1876; “Gravestones,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 21, 1882; “Old Burial Grounds,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 29, 1886; “Find Dead Men’s Bones in Excavation” Brooklyn Standard Union, Aug 12, 1904; “Bones of Aborigines in Flatlands Churchyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 12, 1904; “Urge City to Purchase Flatlands Property,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 2, 1911; Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020); “Meet Julia Paupau Teare,” Hendrick I. Lott House Facebook post, May 6, 2020

Canarsie Cemetery

An 1890 map showing the current Canarsie Cemetery, and the original town cemetery indicated as “GRAVE YARD” adjacent to the church on East 92nd St

In 1843 the Town of Flatlands, located in today’s southeastern Brooklyn, acquired an acre of land in the township’s village of Canarsie that served as the community’s cemetery during the 19th century. The burial ground—on land purchased from John Remsen for $75—was situated next to the Methodist Protestant Church of Canarsie on what is now East 92nd Street. At the time the town established the burial ground in 1843 the area was a farming and fishing community of about 700 people, but it grew rapidly in the late 19th century, and new suburban houses attracted a more diverse population. In 1888 the town purchased another tract of land, nearby the original burial ground, to be used as a new cemetery for the growing community. Some 6,500 people have been interred in Canarsie Cemetery, which has retained its local ambiance, serving the people of Canarsie as well as the wider community.

The Methodist Protestant Church of Canarsie—then named Grace Church—and a portion of original town cemetery in 1928, overgrown with dense vegetation (NYPL)

Both of the Canarsie cemeteries have been imperiled at various times since the City of New York inherited these municipal properties when the five boroughs merged in 1898. The original burial ground, which was rarely used after the new cemetery opened in the 1890s, was essentially abandoned and forgotten by the early 20th century. William A. Eardeley visited the graveyard in 1915 and recorded inscriptions from the 89 gravestones he found at the site. “This cemetery is not kept up at all,” Eardeley writes in his description of the cemetery. “Fence is almost all gone; about one-third of the stones are fallen down,” he continues. “The yard is full of ill-kept shrubbery. Grass is high. Tins and paper rubbish are all about the yard. People use it as a thoroughfare and children play about the yard.” In 1932 skeletons and coffins in the neglected cemetery were destroyed when a sewer was run through the site in anticipation of the opening of East 91st Street. Soon after, East 91st Street was graded right through the graveyard, cutting the original property into two parts. In 1977, the city sold the segment of the property that was west of 91st Street to a developer and residential buildings now stand on that part of the site. The half-acre that remains on the eastern side of 91st Street has been preserved and is owned by the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Many remains were moved to the new cemetery over the years, but approximately 80 burials may still be interred at the original cemetery site. No headstones are visible today in this vestige of the old town burial ground.

A chain-link fence surrounds the remnant of the original town cemetery, located on the east side of 91st St, adjacent to what is now the Church at the Rock (Google)
A view of Canarsie Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

For many years, things were equally uncertain for the town’s successor cemetery. When ownership of the 12-acre Canarsie Cemetery, bounded by Remsen Avenue, Avenue K, Church Lane, and East 86th Street, was first transferred to the city, its operation was handed over to a board of trustees designated by the mayor. However, by 1924 there was only one trustee, George A. Schriefer, managing the cemetery—all the others had passed away and requests to appoint new trustees had repeatedly been ignored by the mayor’s office. The cemetery was unable to sell plots for three years because legally they could be conveyed only by direction of a majority of the board of trustees. The Brooklyn Standard Union reported that while Mr. Schriefer “does not desire to appear to be in any way disgruntled, he states that he is rather disturbed by the existing situation. However, he has retained the job from a sense of public duty and of loyalty to the community of which has been a resident for over forty years.”

Canarsie Cemetery was subsequently managed by a series of public agencies, including the Brooklyn borough president’s office and the city’s Department of General Services. By the 1970s, the city was determined to sell the cemetery to a private operator with the stipulation that it “continue as a burial ground for people of all races, faiths, and ethnic origins.” It took over 30 years for the city to find a buyer for the cemetery, which cost the city of $350,000 a year to maintain, and during which time there were long periods when no grave sites were sold because of its uncertain future. Finally, in 2010 Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn acquired Canarsie Cemetery for $50,000, with another $1 million dedicated to a trust fund to maintain the graves once the cemetery fills and can no longer generate money.

When it was sold in 2010, there was space for 6,000 more graves in Canarsie Cemetery, which, except for a few small family mausoleums, is modest, like the residential neighborhood that surrounds it. Entire families have bought plots here for future generations who will share the space with the community’s early Dutch and German settlers, the Italian and Jewish immigrants who came in the 1920s, and, more recently, those from Caribbean nations who have been attracted to the neighborhood. For over 100 years, the cemetery has been the end point of the annual Canarsie Memorial Day parade, where contingents of the Knights of Columbus, American Legion, and Boy Scouts march in full regalia for ceremonies in front of a plot where more than a dozen Civil War veterans are buried. The cemetery continues as a symbol of community pride and cultural heritage for the people of Canarsie, an ever-present reminder of what they were, who they are, and where they are going.

The family plot of William Warner, who was awarded the title “Father of Canarsie” at a community celebration of his 75th birthday in 1910 (Mary French)
A 2016 aerial view of Canarsie Cemetery and the remnant of the original town cemetery (arrow) (nyc.gov)

View more photos of Canarsie Cemetery

Sources: Robinson’s 1890 Atlas of Kings County, Pl 30; Cemeteries in Kings and Queens Counties, Vol 2 (Eardeley 1916), 3-14; “W. Warner, 85 Dies, Father of Canarsie, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 28, 1920; “Finds Human Skull,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 2 1932; Documentation of Block 8218, Lot 26, Brooklyn, NY (Geismar 1987); “Correcting A Grace Church Misconception,” Canarsie Courier, July 1, 2010; “Craig Discovers that City Owns Canarsie Cemetery,”Brooklyn Standard Union, Sept 2, 1924; “Fight Canarsie Cemetery Vandals,”Brooklyn World-Telegram, Jan 8, 1965; “City to Undertake Sale Of Canarsie Cemetery, New York Times, Dec 13, 1975; “For Sale in Canarsie: A Beloved Century-Old Cemetery,” New York Times, Dec 2, 1988; “On Going Private: Mayor Wants to Sell Canarsie Cemetery, New York Times, Mar 8, 1995; “For Sale by Owner: 13 Acres. All 6,500 Tenants to Remain, New York Times, May 20, 2009; “A Place of Final Rest in Canarsie Is Changing Hands, New York Times, Aug 4, 2010; Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010), 178, 417; Canarsie Cemetery