Tag Archives: Westchester Square

St. Peter’s Church Cemetery & Friends Cemetery, Westchester Square

St. Peter’s Church Cemetery in January 2021; the markers in the foreground are part of the Friends Cemetery (Mary French)

The vibrant East Bronx neighborhood known as Westchester Square is one of the borough’s oldest settlements, founded in 1654 by a group of English colonists. Called Oostdorp (east village) by the Dutch, it was renamed West Chester after it transferred to the British in 1664. When the county of Westchester was formed in 1683, Westchester Village became the county seat and grew into a center of activity at the head of Westchester Creek.

At the outset of the village’s founding, a large tract of land was set aside at the heart of the settlement for common use by the community. It was on a portion of this common land, or village green, that the settlers established a community burial ground. The first Episcopal church structure was erected on the village green in 1700, on the same site as the present St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The Society of Friends built a meetinghouse in 1723 immediately south of St. Peter’s Church. Both the Friends meetinghouse and the Episcopal church were situated adjacent to the community burying ground.

An 1868 map of the Town of Westchester shows St. Peter’s Church and the Friends meetinghouse, and their adjoining cemeteries, situated on Westchester Ave

That section of the historical village green that included the community burial ground, the Episcopalian church, and the Friends meeting house—an area now situated on the east side of Westchester Avenue between Seabury Avenue, Herschell Street, and Butler Place—is owned today by St. Peter’s Church. The cemetery adjoining the church includes the community burial ground that originated with the founding of Westchester Village, as well as plots used by St. Peter’s Church and the Friends meeting house. As such, it is the burial place of some of the earliest European settlers of the Bronx and is the borough’s oldest active cemetery.

St. Peter’s Church Cemetery

A 1927 view of St. Peter’s Church and Cemetery (NYPL)

In 1795 the trustees of the town of Westchester released to the Church of St. Peter’s the parcel of ground on which the church was erected “and also the Burying Ground adjoining the said church, as it is now enclosed and fenced, and which has heretofore been used for a Burial Place by the inhabitants of the Township, containing about one acre.” This burial ground had been used by the community since the founding of the village in the 17th century. Though belonging to the town, the burial ground overlapped with St. Peter’s churchyard and had been utilized by the church throughout the 18th century for its deceased members. The 1795 release of the property contained a stipulation that the Town of Westchester would be permitted to continue to bury its inhabitants, without any fee, in vacant parts of the burial ground, so that the community would “always be permitted to bury their dead near to and adjoining their families who have heretofore been buried in the said Burial Ground.”

James Minor Lincoln’s 1909 sketch of the St. Peter’s and Friends properties

In 1909, James Minor Lincoln collected inscriptions from 1,024 monuments in St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, the earliest dating to 1702. In his manuscript, Lincoln noted: “It is estimated that this cemetery has been filled two or three times, no grave can be dug anywhere without turning up bones and old gravestones that have been buried.” St. Peter’s interred 30-40 bodies a year in their overcrowded cemetery in the early 1900s; to expand the burial ground, in 1925 the church acquired the adjoining lot where the Friends meetinghouse had stood. Some of this property, which included a Friends burial ground (see below), was incorporated into St. Peter’s Church Cemetery and subsequently used for new burials. Interments are still made in St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, though they’ve been infrequent since the mid-20th century.

St. Peter’s Church and Cemetery complex was designated a city landmark in 1976 and was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1983. The cemetery wraps around the Gothic Revival church building (erected in 1855) with the largest section of the burial ground extending on the building’s south side. A smaller, 19th-century Gothic-style building, formerly used as a mortuary chapel and Sunday school, is located in the southwest corner of the cemetery. Tree-lined paths wind through an assortment of ancient and modern tombstones, family plots, vaults, and mausoleums memorializing three centuries of Westchester Square’s inhabitants.

Friends Cemetery

A view of the Friends Cemetery in August 1908; the fence separating the property from St. Peter’s Church Cemetery can be seen on the left side of the image (WCHS)

The Society of Friends, a dominant presence in the early years of Westchester Village, had a graveyard behind the meetinghouse they erected in 1723 neighboring St. Peter’s Church on Westchester Avenue. When James Minor Lincoln collected inscriptions from St. Peter’s Church Cemetery in 1909 he also inventoried the adjoining Quaker burial ground, which was separated from the St. Peter’s property by a fence. Lincoln found 88 crude fieldstones and modest marble tombstones marking the Quaker graves, the earliest dated 1754. 

After the meetinghouse was destroyed by fire in 1892, the Quaker property was vacant except for the Friends Cemetery that abutted St. Peter’s Church Cemetery.  As part of the 1925 acquisition of the Friends lot by St. Peter’s, the church agreed that the Quaker burial ground would remain exclusively for interment of members of the Society of Friends and descendants of those interred there, and that it would be maintained with the same “reverent care” as the church’s cemetery. The last known interment in the Friends Cemetery was in 1927.

A plaque mounted on a stone marker identifies the Friends Cemetery at St. Peter’s Church Cemetery (Mary French)

Today the Friends Cemetery is located at the southern end of St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, where the Quaker graves are found in two concentrations. The larger of the two is clearly defined by four stone markers, one containing a “Friends Burial Place” plaque. The second, smaller concentration is situated at the southeast corner of St. Peter’s Cemetery, bordering Butler Place, and its boundaries are not clearly designated. Further south of the Friends Cemetery is an open field that was part of the land St. Peter’s acquired with the Friends meetinghouse property. This vacant lot, never utilized by St. Peter’s for burials, is currently slated for development into an affordable housing complex. Community members familiar with the history of the site have raised concerns that the field might contain unmarked Quaker burials, but archaeological test excavations conducted in 2019 and 2020 found no evidence of graves and/or human remains in this parcel of land.

Modest headstones in the Friends Cemetery at the southern end of St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, Jan 2021 (Mary French)
2012 aerial view of Peter’s Church Cemetery and the Friends Cemetery (NYCityMap)

View more photos of St. Peter’s Church Cemetery and the Friends Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 16; The History of the Several Towns, Manors and Patents of the County of Westchester: From Its First Settlement to the Present Time (Bolton 1881); Cemetery Inscriptions, St. Peter’s P.E. Church of Westchester (Lincoln 1910, NYHS manuscript); Annual reports of the Board of Health of the City of New York, 1900-1925; The Story of St. Peter’s, Westchester in the City of New York 1693-1976 (Lang 1976); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016); “Grave Concerns Continue Over Proposed Housing Site,” Bronx Times, Jul 7, 2019; Phase IA Historical Documentary and Archaeological Assessment Report for the St. Peter’s Church Property, Bronx (Chrysalis 2019); Phase IB Archaeological Field Testing for Saint Peter’s Church-Proposed Westchester Square Development Project, Bronx (Chrysalis 2020)

Ferris Family Burial Ground

Bronx historian John McNamara stands at the fence of the Ferris family burial ground in 1932 (BCHS)

In his 1848 history of Westchester county, Robert Bolton describes the village of Westchester, the town seat of the old Westchester township that included much of the present-day East Bronx:

The village of Westchester is situated at the head of navigation, on Westchester creek, twelve miles from the city of New York; it contains about four hundred inhabitants, fifty dwellings, an Episcopal, a Roman Catholic, a Methodist church and two Friends’ meeting houses, three taverns, a post office and four stores . . . [It] is by several years the oldest village in the county, its first settlement (by the Puritans), being coeval with Throckmorton’s purchase, in 1642.

Bolton also mentions the “Ferris burying ground,” that was located in the village near St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The Ferris family presence in the area goes back to the 17th century, as does their old family cemetery that can be found today on the south side of Commerce Avenue, east of Westchester Avenue, in the modern Bronx neighborhood of Westchester Square. John Ferris, an Englishman who was one of the five patentees of Westchester township in 1667, reserves the burial ground by his last will in 1715: “Provided always there shall be a rod square free for all friends and friendly people to bury their dead in the place where they formerly buried without any let, hindrance, or molestation whatsoever.” Benjamin Ferris likewise reserves the family cemetery in his 1777 will, excluding “a place four rods square, where the burying place is” from the Westchester lands to be sold by his executors.

The Ferris family burial ground was located near the southern boundary line of the Ferris property shown on this 1881 map of Westchester Village (Bromley 1881)

In August 1905, members of the Underhill Society of America visited the Ferris burial ground, where they found about 30 gravestones (most dating to the 19th century) and two family vaults—the James Ferris family vault on the north side of the graveyard and that used by the Benjamin Ferris line on the east side. Remains from the James Ferris vault were removed around 1890 and transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery and Trinity Churchyard. Among those moved to Woodlawn were James Ferris (1734-1780) and his wife Charity Thomas Ferris (1734-1809), Revolutionary War patriots whose Throgg’s Neck home was occupied by British Admiral Richard Howe in October 1776. James Ferris was kept in the notorious British prison ships, and died in 1780 as a result of the hardships he endured. Legend has it that Charity Ferris, who stayed in the homestead during the British occupancy, directed one of her servants to memorize the conversations he overheard when waiting on Lord Howe and his officers, and transmitted this information to General Washington, who was with his army at White Plains.

This view across Commerce Ave shows the Ferris cemetery overgrown with weeds and tall grass in July 1928. The spire of St. Peters Episcopal Church on Westchester Ave can be seen in the background (NYPL).
The monument to Cornell Ferris, who died June 13, 1864, is one of the few gravestones left in the Ferris burial ground today (Mary French)

Various Ferris branches maintained the family burial plot for two centuries, but it was increasingly neglected after Charles Ferris, who lived near the burial ground when the Underhill Society had visited in 1905, died in 1908. The site became overgrown, gravemarkers were destroyed or taken by vandals, and even the fencing was stolen. In 1928, vandals broke into the Benjamin Ferris vault, cut open the lead caskets and desecrated the remains; subsequently, the bodies of 15 family members were removed and reinterred at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester, leaving about 16 bodies and gravestones in the Ferris burial ground. The site experienced periods of neglect and restoration throughout the 20th century (Parkchester Kiwanis Club removed 198 tons of debris from the site in 1973), but has been kept in good condition in recent years through the efforts of local Boy Scouts and other civic groups. Only a handful of gravestones still stand in the old burial ground, and its once bucolic surroundings are now a gritty industrial area.

An aerial view of the Ferris burial ground and surroundings in 1924 (NYCityMap)
An aerial view of the Ferris burial ground and surroundings in 2012 (NYCityMap)
A view of the Ferris Family Burial Ground, July 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of the Ferris Family Burial Ground

Sources: A History of the County of Westchester (R. Bolton 1848), Vol. 2, 178-179, 227; Bromley’s 1881 Atlas of Weschester County Pl 41; Early Wills of Westchester County (W.S. Pelletreau 1898), 34-35, 360-361; Partial Geneaology of the Ferris Family (C.E. Crowell 1899); “Ferris Burying Ground 1700,” The Underhill Society of America, Sixteenth Annual Report, 1908, 24-25; May Ferris Doherty notes, 1928 & n.d., Ferris Cemetery file, Bronx County Historical Society; “To Be Exhumed from Debris Itself,” Bronx Press Review, Aug 9, 1973; History in Asphalt (J. McNamara 1978), 47, 83, 290-291; “New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, Charles Coleman Ferris, 09 Apr 1908; “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; NYCityMap