Tag Archives: New Amsterdam

First Shearith Israel Cemetery

This small graveyard, on St. James Place near Chatham Square in present-day Chinatown, is the oldest surviving Jewish burial ground in New York City.  It was used by Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in North America.  Shearith Israel was formed in 1654 in New Amsterdam by Sephardic Jews from Brazil and was the only Jewish congregation in New York City until 1825.  The Chatham Square graveyard is known as Shearith Israel’s “first cemetery,” but was actually the second burial ground used by the congregation. In 1656, city authorities granted the Jewish community “a little hook of land situate outside of this city for a burial place.” The location of this original graveyard is unknown today.  The Chatham Square cemetery was founded in 1682 and was expanded in the 1700s so that it once extended from Chatham Square over what is now the upper part of Oliver Street down to Bancker Street (present-day Madison Street).

The Chatham Square cemetery in 1776, shown here as the “Jews Burying Ground” just north of Bankers Street (present-day Madison Street) (Ratzer 1776)

This 1861 lithograph depicts an 18th century view of the cemetery. The “Jews Burying Ground” is “D” at the rear right (Valentine 1861)

Several hundred individuals, including a number of veterans of the American Revolution, were buried at the Chatham Square cemetery before it closed in the early 19th century; the last recorded burial was in 1833.  Development encroached upon the cemetery so that only a small remnant exists today. In 1823, the congregation sold an unused portion of the cemetery frontage on Chatham Square to the Tradesmen’s Bank; additional unused portions on Oliver and Madison Streets were sold in 1829.  A section of the burial ground was taken by the city in 1855 when the New Bowery (today’s St. James Place) was cut through; 256 burials were removed from the graveyard at that time and reinterred in the congregation’s cemeteries on 21st Street and in Brooklyn.

The Chatham Square cemetery in 1855, before the St James Place was cut through the northern portion of the graveyard (Perris 1855)

About a hundred headstones and aboveground tombs can still be seen in what remains of the old graveyard, which lies above street level on the south side of St. James Place.  Congregation Shearith Israel continues to maintain the cemetery, and it also has an annual Memorial Day ceremony at the site in honor of the Revolutionary War veterans buried there.

A view of the Chatham Square cemetery in 1952 (Library of Congress).

Location of the Chatham Square cemetery today (NYCityMap)

Present-day view of the First Shearith Israel Graveyard (Chatham Square Cemetery) at St. James Place (Mary French)

View more photos of the First Shearith Israel Graveyard.

Sources:  Ratzer’s 1776 Plan of the City of New York; Perris’ 1855 Maps of the city of New York 1:Pl.12; 1861 Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (Valentine 1861):521; The Early History of the Jews in New York 75-76The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 4:510, 514, 663; Portraits Etched in Stone (David de Sola Pool 1952); NYCityMap

The Old Graveyard of New Amsterdam

The Old Graveyard shown on the Castello Plan of New Amsterdam in 1660
The Old Graveyard shown on the Castello Plan of New Amsterdam in 1660 (Stokes 1915)

The earliest known cemetery of colonial Manhattan was located on the west side of Broadway, around present-day Morris Street.  It is unclear when it was first established as a burial ground, but by 1656 it apparently had been in use for many years as it was referred to in Dutch records at that time as “The Old Graveyard, which is wholly in ruins.”  The Castello Plan of New Amsterdam in 1660 (above) shows the cemetery’s location along the west side of the main highway that later became known as Broadway.  The dilapidated condition of the Old Graveyard was cause for concern again in 1665, when city officials described it as “open and unfenced, so that hogs root in the same.”  In 1676, the city ordered that the cemetery be broken into lots and sold at auction.

What happened to the burials in the Old Graveyard after it was disposed of by the city is unknown.  It is possible that the graves were moved to the new burial place that had been established further north along Broadway at what is now the northern end of Trinity churchyard.  A more likely scenario (and one that is seen repeatedly for the city’s later public cemeteries) is that the graves were left in place and the area filled in before the land was reused.  Evidence of the Old Graveyard was discovered in the mid-1800s when workmen uncovered human remains while excavating cellars in the area.  Today, the high-rise office buildings that cover the site have obliterated all signs of this early colonial graveyard.

The Old Graveyard (here called “The Old Churchyard”) shown in relation to present-day Morris street on Stokes’ Map of Dutch Grants (Stokes 1916)

Approximate location of The Old Graveyard site in present day lower Manhattan.
Approximate location of former site of The Old Graveyard in present-day lower Manhattan (NYCityMap)

Sources: Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674 (City of New York 1897) 2:24-25, 5:253Minutes of the Common Council of the city of New York, 1675-1776 (City of New York 1905) 1:47Manual for Corporation of the City of New York for 1856 (Valentine 1856) 444-447; The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1916)1:Pl.10A2:221-222, Pl. 87; NYCityMap.