Tag Archives: Harlem

German Catholic Cemetery, 124th Street

An 1869 notice in the New York Herald announces the removal of remains from the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street

Even as New York’s Catholic population grew from no more than 200 at the end of the Revolutionary era to 400,000 by the mid-19th century, there was but one official cemetery for Manhattan’s Catholics, each closing in turn as it reached capacity. The first was around St. Peter’s in Barclay street, the second at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, the third on 11th Street, and, in 1848,  Calvary Cemetery in Queens. Parishes throughout Manhattan were expected to bury their dead in the authorized cemetery and were prohibited by the diocese (archdiocese after 1850) from establishing graveyards adjacent to their churches or elsewhere.

But Manhattan’s early German Catholics were eager to have their own burial places, separate from the Irish that dominated the designated cemetery for the diocese/archdiocese. Several German Catholic parishes established cemeteries, or attempted to do so, and were censured for their defiance and their burial grounds closed. One of these was the Church of St. John the Baptist on 30th Street, whose trustees opened a cemetery on property they acquired in 1848.  State Senator Erastus Brooks provides an account of this cemetery in an 1855 editorial letter:

On 123d and 124th streets, there is a burial ground covering eight lots, belonging to the Church of St. John the Baptist, built on 30th street. The owners were Germans. They built a church and selected a suitable place for the burial of their dead. For some time, without restraint from the Archbishop or others, they were permitted to inter the members of their congregation in these grounds, which were sacred both to the memory of the dead and to their friends. The Archbishop interposed, and prohibited the use of the grounds for this purpose.

The congregation, in a spirit of German independence, continued to bury their dead there, notwithstanding the prohibition of the Archbishop. It was then announced by authority from the pulpit, that burial services would not be permitted there any longer. Still the congregation persisted in exercising their rights as men, and in discharging their duty to the dead. For a time the dead were buried without the usual funeral ceremonies or services. The Archbishop in the exercise of his highhanded power, then took the Priest from the congregation, and, as a consequence, the Church had to be closed, and was closed for some time.

The German Catholic Cemetery depicted on an 1851 map of upper Manhattan. Although it appears here that the cemetery extended over entire block, other sources indicate it was confined to the center of the block, in the area denoted by arrow

An 1851 map of upper Manhattan shows this German Catholic Cemetery and implies that it extended the entire block bounded by 123rd and 124th Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues (now Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards). However, other documentary evidence and historical accounts indicate the cemetery was confined to a parcel at the middle of the block (indicated by arrow on the map detail above). No evidence has been found of the number nor names of those interred there.

As noted in Senator Brooks’ letter, the archdiocese interdicted St. John the Baptist for their cemetery, as well as for other disagreements with church authorities, and the parish was consistently troubled until it was reorganized under the control of Capuchin Franciscan friars in 1871. In 1869, the remains from the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street were removed to Calvary Cemetery. The property was subsequently sold to help fund a new church building for the resurrected St. John the Baptist parish; this building still stands at West 30th Street. Apartment buildings are at the former site of the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street.

2018 aerial view of the German Catholic Cemetery site today (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of New-York North of 50th St (Dripps 1851); “Catholic Cemetery and Catholic Burials,” New-York Freemans Journal and Catholic Register, Aug 23, 1851; The Controversy Between Senator Brooks and † John, Archbishop of New York…(Tisdale 1855); “Special Notices,” New York Herald, April 4, 1869; The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Dolan 1975); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); Ennis Francis Houses 1A Documentary Report (Geismar 2010)

Shaaray Tefila Cemetery, 105th Street

This detail from an 1856 plan for Central Park depicts Shaaray Tefila’s cemetery (denoted as “Jews’ Cemetery”) at 105th Street west of Fifth Ave

In 1845, a group of about 50 English and Dutch members of B’nai Jeshurun seceded from the synagogue to form Congregation Shaaray Tefila (Gates of Prayer). Shaaray Tefila built their first synagogue in 1846 on Wooster Street and continues today at their present temple on 79th Street in the Upper East Side.

The first concern of the new organization was the purchase of property for a burial ground and in January of 1846—before Shaaray Tefila was yet legally incorporated—two founding members, Morland Micholl and John I. Hart (both former presidents of B’nai Jeshurun) acquired land for this purpose. Situated on the south side of 46th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, the property purchased by Micholl and Hart was quickly found not to be suitable for burials and was resold. On November 24, 1846, Louis Levy (Shaaray Tefila’s first president) purchased another parcel, on 105th Street near Fifth Avenue, that would go on to serve as Shaaray Tefila’s cemetery for the next decade. Levy transferred ownership of the property to the congregation when they received their charter in 1848.

Diagram from an archaeological survey of Central Park, showing the location of the site of  Shaaray Tefila’s former cemetery within the modern Conservatory Garden

Shaaray Tefila’s cemetery was located on the south side of 105th Street, west of Fifth Avenue, at the north end of today’s Central Park. The burial ground, 100 x 100 feet, was in the area now part of the Conservatory Garden. Just west of the former cemetery site is the Mount, where the Sisters of Charity established the religious community of Mount St. Vincent in 1847. Construction of Central Park forced both the Sisters of Charity and Shaaray Tefila to abandon their properties here. In 1856, Shaaray Tefila purchased a portion of the land held by its parent congregation, B’nai Jeshurun, at Beth Olam Cemetery in the Cypress Hills area of Brooklyn, and the two congregations decided to administer their burial grounds together. Remains from Shaaray Tefila’s 105th Street Cemetery were removed to their new burial ground at Beth Olam in 1857, at “very heavy expense to the Congregation,” according to an auditor’s report from June of that year.

A notice for the dedication of Morland Micholl’s monument at Shaaray Tefila’s 105th Street cemetery in 1854

It is not known how many members of Shaaray Tefila were interred in the 105th Street cemetery before its closure, but among their number was founding member Morland Micholl (mentioned above). A native of Chesham, England, Micholl was interred at the 105th Street cemetery when he died of a “short and severe illness” at age 56 in 1853. He was a prominent member of the city’s Jewish community for 30 years, and his obituary in The Asmonean asserts “his integrity as a merchant, his uprightness as a citizen, his piety as a religionist, and his charity as a man.”  Friends of the late Mr. Micholl assembled at the 105th Street cemetery on October 29, 1854, to dedicate his monument—a 10-foot-tall marble obelisk that faced the cemetery’s entrance. Micholl’s monument would stand for just a few years before the cemetery’s removal to Beth Olam, where he is now laid to rest.

2018 aerial photo of the Conservatory Garden at Central Park; arrow shows approximate location of the Shaaray Tefila cemetery site (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Plan of Buildings at Mount St. Vincent, Fourth Division—Central Park (Bacon 1856); New York County Conveyances, Vol 467, p520-522, Vol 489 p212-214, Vol 485, p207-208, Vol 668, p256-258 “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,”FamilySearch; “Morland Micholl,” The Asmonean⁩⁩, Apr 22, 1853; “Special Notice,” The Asmonean⁩⁩, Oct 27 1854; “Monument to the late Morland Micholl,” The Asmonean, Nov 3, 1854; “The Cemeteries,” The Asmonean⁩⁩, Feb 22, 1856; “Shaaray Tefilla and the Cemetery Question,” The Asmonean⁩⁩, Jul 4, 1856; “The Cemetery Question,” The Asmonean, Aug 29, 1856; “Auditor’s Report: Congregation ‘Gates of Prayer,’” The Jewish Messenger, Jun 5, 1857; A Preliminary Historical and Archaeological Assessment of Central Park to the North of the 97th Street Transverse…(Hunter Research, Inc.1990); Shaaray Tefila: A History of its Hundred Years, 1845-1945 (Cohen 1945); National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form—Beth Olam Cemetery, Jan 2016; Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020)

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)
The Watt-Pinkney plot at Woodlawn Cemetery, Sept 2021 (Mary French)

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)

African Burial Ground, Harlem

The Harlem African Burial Ground, depicted as the “Cemetery” on marshy land next to the Harlem River on this 1820 farm map

Soon after the Dutch village of New Harlem was established in 1658, its settlers organized a Reformed Dutch Church to meet the community’s religious needs. Meeting informally at first, by 1665 they had raised the funds to construct their first house of worship near the Harlem River, at what is now the corner of 125th Street and First Avenue. In 1667, a plot to the north of the church was established as the community’s first official burial ground, where interments of Harlem’s founders and their descendants were made for many years. In 1686, Harlem’s Reformed Dutch Church relocated to a new building on property just south of their original church and later established a new cemetery at that site. The original cemetery, located at 126th Street and First Avenue, would come to be known as the Negro Burying Ground.

A 1904 depiction of the 17th century village of New Harlem shows the original church and graveyard (later known as the Negro Burying Ground)

The first documented African Americans in New Harlem were slaves purchased in 1664 by the village’s settlers, who used slave labor to work their expansive farms and help build and maintain the settlement. By 1790 a census tally of the Harlem district found 115 slaves working upper Manhattan’s farms and estates, roughly one-third of the population. It is not known when African Americans were first interred at Harlem’s original village burial ground at 126th Street, but at some point the eastern end of the graveyard was designated for that purpose. By 1771 it was formally identified as the “Negro Burying Ground” in historical documents.

An 1802 notice of sale for an adjacent property mentions the Negro Burying Ground at Harlem

After emancipation in 1827, freedmen and women, working their own farms or continuing as servants on Harlem’s estates, created a small African American community centered around Little Zion, an uptown mission established on East 117th Street by downtown’s Mother Zion (the African Methodist Episcopal Church). Blacks also were part of the Harlem Reformed Dutch Church and joined other churches that opened in the area. African Americans of all denominations were buried in the Negro Burying Ground at 126th Street.

A view of the former site of the  first Harlem burying ground/African Burial Ground in 1903, viewed from 127th Street near the Willis Avenue Bridge. At that time the site was part of the Sulzer’s Harlem River Park

Harlem’s original black population diminished as new immigrant groups moved into the area during the second half of the 19th century. Though African Americans would return to Harlem in great numbers in the 20th century, transforming it into a black metropolis, the area’s first black community—and their  burial ground—was largely forgotten. The Negro Burying Ground was supplanted in the 1880s by a pleasure and amusement ground known as Sulzer’s Harlem River Park, then by a movie studio, and, in 1947, by a bus depot.

Detail from a 1914 atlas showing Sulzer’s Harlem River Park, which extended onto the African Burial Ground site from 1885 to 1917

Today, the Harlem African Burial Ground site is located under the southeastern corner of the MTA’s decommissioned 126th Street Bus Depot, which covers the entire block bounded by First and Second Avenues and 126th and 127th Streets. Documentary evidence of the quarter-acre burial ground came to light during planned rehabilitation of the depot, and in 2015 archaeological testing uncovered human remains there. Although no intact burials were found, discovery of a skull and over 100 bones confirmed the site’s history. A task force that includes community members and representatives from Harlem’s Elmendorf Reformed Church, the descendant congregation of Harlem’s original church, was formed to work with the city to redevelop the depot appropriately. Designated the 126th  Street Harlem African Burial Ground Memorial and Mixed-Use Project, future redevelopment plans include a memorial and cultural center to acknowledge the site’s significance.

Aerial view of the 127th Street Bus Depot with the  historic boundaries of the Harlem African Burial Ground indicated (HABG Task Force)

While the exact number buried in Harlem’s African Burial Ground is not known, the task force has been combing through church records to piece together details about the site. Their examination has yielded the names of 40 individuals believed to have been interred there. Historical newspapers offer clues of others laid to rest in Harlem’s African Burial Ground. An 1857 obituary for Charlotte Lewis, a domestic worker, notes her remains were interred in the “burying-ground of the colored” at Harlem. In the New York Times’ 1859 coverage of  the sensational death of Harmon Carnon, “a respectable and industrious colored man” killed by his Cuban son-in-law in a murderous rampage, the “Colored Cemetery at Harlem” is mentioned as Carnon’s burial place. Continued research and memoralization of Harlem’s African Burial Ground will offer an opportunity to honor the lives of those interred there and preserve an essential piece of the city’s history.

Excerpt from a 1859 New York Times article about the murder of Harmon Carnon describes his interment at the Harlem African Burial Ground

Sources:  Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps, No. 67; Bromley’s 1914 Atlas of the City of New York, Pl 13; [Notice], Daily Advertiser Jan 23, 1802; New Harlem Past and Present (Pierce 1903); Revised History of Harlem (Riker 1904); Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 (Wallace 2017), 846; Topic Intensive Documentary Study, Willis Avenue Bridge Reconstruction (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2004); Phase 1B Archaeological Investigation  126th Street Bus Depot (AKRF 2016); “Died,” New York Times,  Jan 31, 1857;“The Escaped Murderer, Sanchez,” New York Times, Jan 13, 1859; “Sulzer’s Harlem River Park,” New York Age, Nov 19, 1927; “Rezoning a Block in Harlem, Respecting an African Burial Ground,” New York Times, Sept 26, 2017; 126th African Burial Ground Memorial & Mixed Use Project  (NYCEDC); Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force