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.
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.
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.
“The expectation that cemeteries shall afford a permanent resting place to the bodies interred in them is conclusively discredited by experience,” wrote civic leader Louis Windmüller in 1898, declaring that “of all American cities, New York—where about a hundred graveyards have been destroyed or partially abandoned since it became a city—offers the most striking examples of the changeableness of ‘resting places.’” Burial grounds were scattered throughout lower Manhattan in the early 1800s to such an extent, says Windmüller, “that a splenetic Englishman who came to visit our shores speedily returned when he found every street lined with headstones.”
Graveyards that surrounded many Manhattan churches were removed or covered over as development encroached and congregations relocated. Some churches established new burial grounds further north of the dense downtown area where they thought they would be safe from disturbance. These cemeteries, often common burial grounds used by several congregations of the same denomination, were in turn overtaken by the ever-growing city. Such was the case with a cluster of six church cemeteries used by the Society of Friends (Quakers), Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Dutch Reformed Church, that were created between 1796 and 1822 on or near North Street (today’s East Houston Street) just east of Bowery. After the city banned interments below 86th Street in 1851, these burial grounds were sold and the remains relocated to cemeteries in Brooklyn, Queens, and elsewhere. The cemetery lands were redeveloped during the second half of the 19th century, typically subdivided into lots where multi-story brick tenement buildings and other structures were erected.
In 1796, the Society of Friends purchased land “well out in the country” on the south side of East Houston Street, between Bowery and Chrystie, to serve as its new burial ground. Among the approximately 2,300 persons interred here were members of the earliest Quaker group to worship in Manhattan—the Green Street congregation, who built a meetinghouse in 1696 at today’s Liberty Place. Remains from the graveyard attached to that meetinghouse were transferred to a vault at the new Houston Street cemetery in 1825.
The Friends Burying Ground on Houston Street operated until about 1846, when the Friends Cemetery located within the present-day boundaries of Prospect Park in Brooklyn opened. By 1874, all interments at the Houston Street cemetery had been removed to the Westbury Meeting House grounds in Long Island or to the Quaker Cemetery in Brooklyn. The cemetery property was sold to Trinity Church, who built St. Augustine’s Chapel on the site. In 2004 the area was redeveloped as part of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Project, and the 14-story Avalon Chrystie Place retail/residential building sits atop the Friends Cemetery site today. Archaeological testing conducted prior to the redevelopment project unearthed some small fragments of human bone likely left behind during the process of relocating the graves in the 19th century; these remains were reinterred at the Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park.
Across Chrystie Street from the Friends Cemetery was a burial ground used by three Presbyterian congregations. In 1803 the First Presbyterian Church, Brick Presbyterian Church, and Rutgers Street Church acquired 24 lots on the south side of East Houston Street for use as a cemetery. The three churches, founded in lower Manhattan between 1716 and 1797, removed some bodies from their churchyards to the Houston Street cemetery and used it as their primary burial ground after interments in those graveyards ceased. In 1865, the remains from the Presbyterian Cemetery on Houston Street were removed to Evergreens Cemetery, Woodlawn Cemetery, and Cypress Hills Cemetery, the property was sold, and by 1867 had been subdivided and developed. The city acquired the former Presbyterian Cemetery site in 1929 to form the northern portion of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.
Reformed Dutch Cemetery
Just east of the Presbyterian Cemetery on the south side of Houston was the Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery. What little is known about this cemetery is gleaned from an 1868 article in the Evening Post announcing that the consistory of the Collegiate Reformed Dutch Church intended to remove the bodies interred in their burial ground, bounded by Houston, Forsyth and Eldridge streets, to Cypress Hills Cemetery that March. The 1868 announcement says:
This cemetery was laid out early in the present century and was about two hundred feet square. No attempt was made to ornament it, and the space was not entirely taken up with bodies. A few years ago a part of the front on Houston Street was used for the construction of the German Evangelical Mission Church, and two or three lots on the corner of Forsyth and Houston streets were sold for business purposes. There are a number of vaults on the corner of Eldridge and Houston streets, and several hundred graves in the remaining lots on Forsyth and Eldridge streets.
The cemetery was in operation by 1821, when the Common Council of the City of New York passed an ordinance to fill in sunken lots “fronting on Eldridge Street and Forsyth Street adjoining the Dutch Church Burial Ground.” The Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery likely was used by several congregations of the Collegiate Church, which formed in Manhattan in 1628. By the late 1870s, tenement buildings covered most of the old cemetery site. The German Mission Church that was located in the front part of the cemetery on Houston Street became the site of a Yiddish vaudeville theater in the early 1900s and more recently was home to Sunshine Cinema. In 2017 it was sold to developers who plan to demolish it.
On the north side of Houston, opposite Forsyth Street, between First and Second Avenues was a Baptist Cemetery that opened around 1815. This burial ground belonged to the First Baptist Church, which originated on Gold Street in 1762; other Baptist congregations may have used the cemetery as well. In 1861, the First Baptist Church gave notice of their intention to remove the bodies from the cemetery and sell the ground. The remains were likely removed to Cypress Hills Cemetery, where the First Baptist Church acquired 20 lots ca. 1860. The Baptist Cemetery lands were subdivided and developed by 1867; in the mid-20th century, a subway station was built beneath the site and it was partially covered by the widening of East Houston Street. A small park is now located at what is left of the Baptist Cemetery site.
Methodist Episcopal Cemetery
One block north of Houston, at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue, was a cemetery established by the Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1805. It may have been a general Methodist burial ground during its early years; from 1836 until 1851 it was primarily used by the five churches who formed th the Methodist Episcopal Church East Circuit—the Forsyth Street, Seventh Street, Allen Street, Willett Street, and Second Street Methodist Episcopal Churches founded in Manhattan between 1789 and 1832.
In 1853 the Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church East Circuit received permission from the New York State Supreme Court to remove the bodies from their cemetery and sell the property, a decision that incensed the family and friends of those interred there. The New York Times reported on public meetings held by those opposed to the removal of the dead from the cemetery, events that were “very largely attended.” The Trustees’ actions were regarded as “scandalous,” induced by the desire for financial gain, and done “so secretly that their rascality was not found out until 360 of the corpses had been removed.” In the end, the Trustees proceeded with the cemetery removal, a slow process “on account of the large number of dead buried there” (the number is unknown but was said to be “thousands”). The bodies were reinterred at Cypress Hills Cemetery. Between 1857 and 1862 the former cemetery was subdivided into 13 lots and developed with commercial/residential structures. In 2008 the area was redeveloped as part of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Project; the seven-story Avalon Bowery Place 2 retail/residential building now stands at the Methodist Episcopal Cemetery site.
Methodist Society Cemetery
One block directly east of the Methodist Episcopal Cemetery was a cemetery used by a group that broke off from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1820 and formed the independent Methodist Society of New York. The Methodist Society established their cemetery—sometimes known as “Stillwell’s Cemetery” for the Society’s first pastor William M. Stillwell—in 1822 in the center of the block bounded on the east and west by First and Second avenues and on the north and south by First and Second streets. They subsequently built a church adjacent the cemetery, fronting on First Street. The later history of Methodist Society Cemetery is obscure. It is still recorded as a Methodist Cemetery in 1852, but by the 1870s a public school was at the site of the Methodist church that stood along First Street bordering the cemetery, and a Presbyterian church had been built next to the school on an eastern portion of the original cemetery property. In 1874, the Board of Education received permission to remove “all remains of persons now buried in the grounds or deposited in the vaults of the First Presbyterian Church, located between 1st and 2d sts. and between 1st and 2d avs.” The New York Times, reporting on the removals, said:
The entire cemetery, a part of which only is to be removed, is rather extensive, occupying the interior of the entire block bounded on the east and west by First and Second avenues and on the north and south by First and Second streets and extending under a portion of the school building on First street, and the whole of the City Mission on First Avenue…The bodies to be removed number several hundred, 108 of which are to be taken from the school-yard, a space 60 feet by 70, planked over and used as a playground by the children. Under these planks lie some eighty tombstones, face upward, within eight or ten inches of the surface. Under the school [the former Methodist church] are four large vaults, entirely filled with dead bodies. A more incongruous sight than the hundreds of gleeful children romping and playing immediately over the thickly huddled army of the dead can hardly be imagined.
In 1891, the Board of Education received permission to remove the rest of the “human remains buried in the old burying-ground, between First and Second streets and First and Second avenue”—those that had been left in the western portion of the original cemetery property. It is not known where the remains were reinterred in either of the removals. The large facility—Grammar School No. 79—that the Board of Education built over much of the site in 1886 and expanded in the 1890s is still present, converted into apartments.
Sources: Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps; Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Perris’ 1853 Maps of the City of New York; Perris’ 1859 Maps of the City of New York; Bromley’s 1879 Atlas of the Entire City of New York; “Graveyards as a Menace to the Commonweal,” The North American Review 167:211-222; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries (Inskeep 2000); Cooper Square Community Development:Historical Overview and Assessment (Parsons Engineering 2000); Archaeological Investigations…within the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area (John Milner & Assoc 2003); Second Avenue Subway Phase 1A Archaeological Assessment (Historical Perspectives, Inc. 2003); Phase 1B Archaeological Investigation:Block 457, Lot 28 (Former Methodist Episcopal Cemetery) (John Milner & Assoc 2005); Methodist Episcopal Cemetery Intensive Documentary Study, Second Avenue (Historical Perspectives Inc. 2003); Lower East Side Rezoning…Phase IA Archaeological Assessment (Bergoffen 2008); Friends of the City of New York in the Nineteenth Century (Wood 1904), 22-23; “Remains of Friends Now at Rest in Prospect Park Cemetery,” Spark Jan 2004 35:1; [Removal Notice], New York Herald, March 20 1865, 3; “Gravestone Inscriptions from the Burial Ground of the Brick Presbyterian Church,” NYG&BR, 60:1, Jan. 1929, 8-14; “City Intelligence—The Cemetery of the Reformed Dutch Church,” Evening Post Feb 27, 1868, 4; Minutes of the Common Council of the city of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 12:119, 141; “Supreme Court, City and County of New York,” New York Daily Tribune, Aug 11 1861; The Cypress Hills Cemetery, 1863 [catalog & list of lot holders]; Lost chapters recovered from the early history of American Methodism (Wakeley 1858); Annals of New York Methodism (Seaman 1892); “Legal Notices,” New York Times Jan 2 1854, “The Burial Ground Excitement,” New York Times Jan 26 1854; “To Whom It May Concern [Notice], New York Times Jan 12 1874; “Removal of an Old Cemetery,” New York Times Jan 14, 1874; Laws of the State of New York Passed at the 114th Session of the Legislature (1891) Ch. 137