Tag Archives: Flushing

Friends Cemetery, Flushing

Pen-and-ink drawing depicting the Friends Meeting House and Graveyard in Flushing, ca. 1880 (MCNY)

When English Quakers arrived in New Netherland in 1657, they were unwelcome among the Dutch but found acceptance in some of the English settlements on Long Island, especially at Flushing in present-day Queens. Soon many were holding Quaker meetings in their homes, attracting the attention of Dutch civil authorities. When Governor Peter Stuyvesant issued an order forbidding colonists to allow Quakers into their houses, Flushing town leaders delivered the Flushing Remonstrance, one of the earliest documents proclaiming religious freedom in America. In 1662, Stuyvesant arrested John Bowne, a prominent figure in Flushing’s Quaker community, for holding services in his home. Bowne successfully appealed to the Dutch West India Company and Stuyvesant was ordered to permit all faiths to worship freely. With religious toleration now the law of the colony, Flushing’s Quakers could hold their services without fear of disturbance and continued to meet at Bowne’s house twice a week for thirty years.

An 1852 map of Flushing, showing the Friends Meeting House on the south side of Broadway (today’s Northern Blvd), east of Main Street

In 1676 Bowne provided land for a burial ground for Flushing’s Quaker community, and in 1694 a meetinghouse was built on land adjacent to the Quaker cemetery. For more than 300 years, the Flushing Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends has worshipped at this old meetinghouse, situated at 137-16 Northern Boulevard in what is now a bustling commercial area in downtown Flushing. The cemetery, located behind the wood-shingled meetinghouse, is the oldest Quaker burial ground in New York City and is the final resting place for many early Quakers and prominent local families, including the Bownes, Hicks, Farringtons, and Lawrences.

Tombstones in the Quaker cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)

No one knows how many are buried in the one-acre graveyard since there are no burial records and the early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones—their unmarked graves in keeping with the faith’s principle of humility. When markers began to be used in the 19th century, they were designed to be simple and modest—typically small, plain stones with little more than a name or initials. About 130 tombstones are visible in the graveyard today, recording individuals who died between the 1820s and the 1890s, when the cemetery closed to new interments. After a period of neglect, the graveyard is now nicely maintained and blooms with indigenous flowers and bushes. Old elm trees and oaks shade the perimeter and help set the place apart from the teeming urbanism that surrounds it. This peaceful oasis is a reminder of a time when Flushing was a leading center of American Quakerism and the nation’s struggle for religious freedom.

A 1922 photo of the Friends cemetery and meetinghouse (NYHS)
A view of the Friends cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)
An aerial view of Friends Meeting House and Graveyard in 2016 (nyc.gov)

View more photos of the Flushing Friends Cemetery

Sources: Dripps 1852 Map of Kings and Part of Queens Counties, Long Island N.Y.; The Graveyard at Flushing Meeting House (Flushing Meeting); Friends Meeting House Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1970); The Bownes (Bowne House Historical Society); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010), 461, 1062; History of Queens County, New York (Munsell 1882), 113-114; Cemetery Inscriptions from Quaker Burying Ground at Flushing, Long Island (Frost n.d.); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens: A Supplement (Queens Topographical Bureau 1975), 30-35; “Quakers Say Contractors Desecrated a Historic Queens Graveyard,” New York Times, April 2, 2012

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Rantus Family Cemetery

A listing for the Rantus Family Cemetery, or Troytown Cemetery, in a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries

In 2014 the gravestone of Wilson Rantus, a prominent African American figure in pre-Civil War Queens, mysteriously turned up in the backyard of a Queens College professor’s home. How or why the 153-year-old marble tombstone ended up in the professor’s yard near the college’s Flushing campus was never ascertained, but it is known that it originally stood in the Rantus Family Cemetery that was nearby. In 1853, Troy Rantus established a burial ground on the family farm that was located in a community called “Head of Vleigh,” just south of today’s Queens College. The cemetery was actively used by the descendants of Troy Rantus into the early 20th century, and was referred to by a number of names including “The Burying Ground of the Family of Troy Rantus the First,” “Troytown Cemetery,” and “The Colored Burying Ground of South Flushing.” The last known burial in the cemetery was in 1911, when James A. Brooks, a 37-year old Queens mail carrier and son of Sarah Rantus, was interred there.

The headstone of Wilson Rantus discovered in 2014 (NY Daily News)

Although records show the family burial ground was the final resting place of at least a dozen members of the Rantus family, when the Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the cemetery in 1919 only two headstones were present—those of Wilson Rantus (d. 1861) and James Rantus (d. 1903). Wilson Rantus was an educated African American farmer and activist who had large landholdings in both Flushing and Jamaica, Queens, in the mid-1800s. He took part in the struggle for equal voting rights in New York State, fought for educational rights for black children, and was a financial backer of Thomas Hamilton’s Anglo-African magazine and newspaper. The inscription on his gravestone was partially transcribed in 1919:

WILSON RANTUS
Died May 13, 1861
Aged 55 years
Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom
Fly, while the raging billows roll…
O, receive my soul at last

In 1952, a home building company obtained permission from the Rantus heirs to remove the bodies from the family cemetery so the company could have clear title to develop the land. At that time, no gravestones remained in the 52-by-84-foot plot, which was described as a “a long-forgotten Negro burial ground” at the southwest corner of 149th street and Gravett Road. The company reportedly removed the human remains “with care and respect” and transferred them to a plot in the Terrace Hill section at Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. The Mainstay Cooperative Apartments now stand on the former site of the Rantus Family Cemetery.

An 1873 map of Flushing showing the approximate location of the Rantus Family Cemetery
The present day area of the Rantus Family Cemetery site

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 57; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 164; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 60-61; “New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, James A. Brooks, 10 Jun 1911; “Builders Seek to Remove Bodies from Burial Ground in Flushing,” Long Island Star-Journal, Oct 24, 1952, 26; “Wilson Rantus, Negro Leader,” Long Island Forum 25(7) July 1962, 143-144; African-American Leaders in Pre-Civil War Queens (Queens Public Library 2008), 12-15; “Queens College Professor Discovers Tombstone of Abolitionist,” New York Daily News, Jun 9, 2014; “Tombstone of 19th century Queens Abolitionist Will Be Placed at His Burial Site, New York Daily News, Jun 11, 2014; “Historic Headstone of 19th Century Abolitionist Will Be Reviewed by Conservationist at Evergreens Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Jun 12, 2014; NYCityMap

Cedar Grove Cemetery & Mount Hebron Cemetery

In 1893, Cedar Grove Cemetery Association acquired the 250-acre Durkee farm in South Flushing, Queens, to establish a nonsectarian burial ground.  A portion of the property had formerly been the Spring Hill estate of colonial politician Cadwallader Colden, whose 1763 home was used as the cemetery’s offices until it was demolished in 1930.  Colden is believed to have been buried in the 18th century Willett Family Burial Ground that was near Colden’s home on the Spring Hill estate.

Cedar Grove Cemetery in 1913 (Hyde 1913)
A view of Cedar Grove Cemetery, ca. 1905 (Library of Congress).
A 1925 view of the Spring Hill home of Cadwallader Colden. Built in 1763, Colden’s home served as an office building for Cedar Grove Cemetery until it was demolished in 1930 (NYPL)

When Union Cemetery in Brooklyn was sold in 1897, the remains of approximately 30,000 individuals were reinterred in a 10-acre plot at Cedar Grove Cemetery.  In 1909, some of Cedar Grove’s property was used to establish a separate cemetery for the Jewish community, Mount Hebron, which grew to occupy much of Cedar Grove’s original grounds. Now comprising 50 acres, Cedar Grove is a multi-ethnic cemetery that is the final resting place for over 65,000 individuals of diverse nationalities and religions.  Mount Hebron, with over 217,000 interments and 200 acres, has become one of New York City’s largest Jewish cemeteries.  It is home to a number of famous figures, including photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt, comedian Alan King, and mob boss Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, and the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance is among the hundreds of Jewish societies who have burial grounds there.  Mount Hebron is also the intended resting place of entertainer Barbra Streisand, who built a family mausoleum there in the 1990s.

The grounds of Cedar Grove and Mount Hebron cemeteries, located on the south side of the Horace Harding Expressway in Flushing (OpenStreetMap)
A view of Cedar Grove Cemetery, April 2011. The Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park can be seen in the background (Mary French)
Cedar Grove is the final resting place of individuals of many different nationalities and religions (Mary French)
Mount Hebron Cemetery is noted for its Yiddish theater section (Mary French)
A view of Mount Hebron Cemetery, April 2011 (Mary French)

View more photos from Cedar Grove Cemetery.

View more photos of Mount Hebron Cemetery.

Sources:  Cedar Grove Cemetery; Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s (NYPL); Genealogical Notes of the Colden Family in America (Purple 1873), 8-10; “City Road Tracks to Flushing,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 4, 1894; “Twenty Thousand Bodies,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Jan 18, 1898; Wolverton’s 1891 Atlas of Queens County, Long Island, Pl. 29;  Hyde’s 1913 Atlas of the Borough of Queens 3:Pl 19; “Colonial Governor Lies in Unmarked Grave,” Long Island Daily Press Aug. 29, 1935; Mount Hebron Cemetery; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 30, 92; The Jewish Communal Register of New York 1917-1918, 336; The Story of Yiddish (Karlen 2008), 112-113; “Yiddish Theater Bids Farewell to Shifra Lerer,” New York Times, Mar 15, 2011; OpenStreetMap.

Willett Family Burial Ground

Location of the Willett Family Burial Ground within the grounds of Mount Hebron Cemetery (NYCityMap)

In 1762, John and Thomas Willett and their wives sold a 120-acre farm in South Flushing, Queens, to the then Lieutenant Governor of the Province of New York, Cadwallader Colden. The Willetts were a family of English ancestry who became prominent in the Flushing area during the late 17th century. Upon conveyance of the Willett farm to Colden, a reservation was made in the deed of “a certain antient burying place, fenced in with a stone fence or stone ditch (wherein the Family of the Willets have hitherto been interred) to and for the use of the Family of the said Willets to bury and deposit their dead from henceforth forever.” Lt. Governor Colden named his new estate Spring Hill and built a large home near the public highway at the northern line of the farm, just a hundred yards or so west of the Willett burying ground.  When Colden died in 1776, he was buried at Spring Hill, presumably in the old Willet graveyard.

After Colden’s son David forfeited the Spring Hill estate in 1783 because of his loyalty to the British during the Revolution, the property passed through several owners, finally becoming part of the 250-acre Durkee family estate that was acquired by Cedar Grove Cemetery Association in 1893.  A large portion of the nonsectarian Cedar Grove Cemetery, including much of the area that had formerly been the Spring Hill estate, later was used to create a separate cemetery for the Jewish community, Mount Hebron. Today the Willett graveyard is located at the northwest corner of Mount Hebron Cemetery.

When local historians visited the Willett graveyard in the late 19th century, boulders and a thick cluster of trees marked the site.  Present were a half a dozen headstones, most broken and covered with moss and weeds. All of the gravestones, which dated from 1722 to 1797, were for members of the Willett family.  No trace of Cadwallader Colden’s gravesite was found.  Some later sources stated that the Willett graveyard had been graded over and had completely vanished, but a 1935 article in the Long Island Daily Press reported that it was still present within a hedge just inside the gates of Mount Hebron. This small hedged plot, containing the tombstones of Elizabeth Willett (d. 1773) and S. Willett (d. 1722), can be found today about 200 feet east of Mount Hebron’s main entrance.

he Willett family burial ground, April 2011 (Mary French)
The Willett family burial ground, April 2011 (Mary French)
he Willett family burial ground, April 2011 (Mary French)

Sources: Genealogical Notes of the Colden Family in America (Purple 1873), 8-10; Abstracts of Wills on File in the Surrogate’s Office, City of New York: Vol. 5 , 416-417; Historical Guide to the City of New York (Kelley 1909), 308; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 74; “Colonial Governor Lies in Unmarked Grave,” Long Island Daily Press Aug. 29, 1935; “The Willett Family of Flushing, Long Island,” New York Genealogical & Biographical Record 80(1):1-9, 80(2):83-96; NYCityMap.