Dutch history spans the world. From Spitsbergen to Brazil, and from America to India, Dutch trade left its mark, which includes many burial grounds. One area in particular was the territory of New Netherland in the present-day US, which was established around the same time that the English settled New England. Dutch settlements were concentrated in the Hudson River Valley and scattered throughout the states of New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Connecticut. Interestingly, the oldest gravestones in the area date to the beginning of the 18th century, although the first settlements were established a century earlier. In comparison, New England’s oldest gravestones date to the mid 17th century, some 60 to 70 years earlier than than the Hudson Valley. This article will discuss what had become of the earliest Dutch gravestones, as well as provide a background on the earliest burial grounds.
Two-thousand nine was the year of the Hudson. It was 400 years earlier that Henry Hudson sailed the Halve Maan up the river which bears his name. This sounded the beginning of the colony, which would last until 1664 under Dutch authority. The territory claimed by the Dutch covered an area roughly the size of Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg), with major settlements in the savage, new land along the Hudson Valley. Much has been written congracerning Dutch influence in the region with regard to culture and policy, however there has been little concerning how and where those first colonists buried their dead.
Although we speak of the “Dutch,” the group is discussed in a heterogeneous context. Language and belief bound the people in the low countries before arriving in the colony. Some had spent only a few years in the Netherlands after leaving Germany, Wallonia or Scandinavia for religious reasons. In the new world, some Dutch colonists intermarried with the English, Scots, Walloons or others. It was the Dutch background of the core group of colonists, a common language and common laws that bound the colonists until 1664. Under the English, this distinction continued at least a century longer before the group became part of America.
Not long after 1609, more ships began travelling to the Hudson, which was originally called the North River. They sailed on behalf of the United East India Company (VOC), or on the basis of obtaining a patent from the States-General. These early pioneers established numerous small trading posts along the Hudson, with a focus on furs and skins. In 1614, Fort Nassau was founded near present-day Albany. This was, however, not the earliest European inhabitance of the area as French trappers and traders had earlier set up a short-lived post at the site. In 1618, Fort Nassau was abandoned due to flooding and Fort Orange was established to the south. The United West India Company (WIC) received exclusive trade rights to New Netherland in 1621. It was not the WIC’s intention to colonize New Netherland, but instead use it as a source for raw materials. Not long afterwards, in 1624, the first colonists were sent to Noten Island (now Governors Island). This island, favorably set in a bay at the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers, was used as the first operating base. From there, one could travel to Fort Orange, other trading posts along the Hudson, or elsewhere. As for where those first colonists, not just Dutch, but French Hugenots and Walloons, buried their dead, little has been written. Churches came later, but cemeteries had more of an immediate need. Research and the history books covering New Netherland fail to address this issue. Because there were only a few hundred people spread out over a large territory in the first years, places of burial were likely numerous and spread out as well. It is only with the founding of churches that more is known concerning burial grounds.
With respect to the first gravemarkers in the Hudson Valley and around New Amsterdam, the following assumptions have been made:
- graves were not marked so as to not attract attention of surrounding Native Americans. However, given the primarily good relations that the Dutch had with the Native Americans, this seems unlikely;
- graves were not marked because there was no family, or because it was deemed unimportant;
- wooden monuments were erected, which decomposed over the years;
- graves were marked with simple, rough hewn field stones such as those which have been identified. It is quite possible that older stones were removed and used in construction;
- graves were covered with piles of fieldstones, a tradition not known in the homeland. If stones were originally piled, it is possibly that the use of subsequent methods eventually led to the old custom no longer being remembered or associated with burials;
- the oldest burial grounds disappeared over the years and the monuments were never preserved.
At this point, the burial grounds themselves will be discussed. Thanks to sources such as old maps and church records, we are able to reconstruct a picture of the first burial grounds in what is now New York City.
New Amsterdam and its first burial ground
Not much time passed before it was realized that Noten Island was too small to serve as an operating base for the other outpost of New Netherlands. Cattle, which were viewed as a necessity, had been brought to the small island and had little room to graze. More space was needed. Therefore, in the spring of 1625, the decision was made by the WIC to build a fort on the land next to the island. That area turned out to be an island as well (called Manhattan), but larger than little Noten Island. Willem Verhulst, the second governor of New Netherland, received many instructions from the Netherlands concerning how the fort was to be set up. The fort’s name was to be Amsterdam, but the site quickly became known as New Amsterdam. In July of 1625, construction began and Verhulst followed this with directives from the Netherlands to construct roads and partition the land around the fort. In the directives were the specifications that he was to put into practice, which were formed not so long ago under the Romans.
There were no orders regarding burial grounds. Such a matter was probably left by the WIC up to the church, the Reformed Church of Amsterdam. However, it was not until 1628 that a church with its own parson was organized. Prior to that time, worshipers used a space in the mill as a meeting house and the services were looked after by a lay preacher. The first actual church was built in 1633 on Herenstraat, now Broadway. It was not a large building, but sufficient for the population of the time. However by 1642, the church had become too small and a new church was built in the fort. These early churches were possibly made of stone, and people could have been buried inside them. The first actual burial ground was placed to the north of the fort (at the current intersection of Morris Street and Broadway) and is referred to on later maps as “old church yard.” Burials likely took place there from 1628, but the exact date is unknown. With growth in New Amsterdam, more information comes available. This burial ground comes into archival documents because a fence was not provided around the plot. Because there was no fence, foraging pigs could root in the burial ground, an act that was considered unpleasant. From the records, we also know that the plot was approximately 25 x 25 meters.
On January 24, 1656, the church leaders decided to clear the old cemetery and build houses on the land. The burial ground was in very bad condition and was given a new home south of the fort. There, a number of homes would have to be destroyed so the civic leaders thought otherwise. They decided on a spot to the west of the fort in the vicinity of the windmill, but that ended up not happening either. It is likely that the status of burials in the colony was similar to that in old Amsterdam. The church took care of the funeral, the burial and everything else that was needed, but the municipality looked after the burial ground and oversaw its maintenance. Who specifically was responsible for what work was sometimes very vague, as was financial support.
The second cemetery of New Amsterdam
The second cemetery esablished in New Amsterdam was not for the Reformed church, but for the small Jewish community. Sefardic Jews who had fled Brazil sought out the Dutch colony, which was known for tolerance. In 1654, they established the Shearith Israel congregation. Despite initial opposition by Governor Stuyvesant, the congregation was assigned a small bit of land outside the city for burial purposes. The first burial took place in 1656. In 1681, the cemetery was expanded, and once more in 1729. By that time, new villages had developed on `t long Eylandt (Long Island) and in the north of Manhattan, as did new small burial grounds, which will be discussed later.
Construction of New Amsterdam’s new community cemetery
By 1662, the first cemetery of New Amsterdam was no longer in use. Just outside the wall (now Wall Street), along the road to the north of Manhattan, a new public cemetery was established. On some maps of New Amsterdam this cemetery is not identified, despite being clear from the written records that it was there. The burial ground stretched along the road (now Broadway) for approximately 25 meters, with approximately the same dimension as the first cemetery.
At the time the English seized governing control of the city (renamed New York) in 1664, records indicate that the cemetery was in poor condition. In June of 1666, the city paid 500 guilders to erect a fence around the burial ground when the church could not afford to do so. The church, however, had to repay the money. In 1676, the old cemetery was cleared and homes were built. Currently, a skyscraper stands on the spot. From 1676, the new public cemetery outside the rampart was in use.
As mentioned earlier, the Jewish community established their own cemetery in 1656. It still exists today, but what remains is only a fraction of what it once was. Interments took place up to 1831, but by around 1800 the cemetery was hardly in use. The cemetery is on Saint James Street. Now a busy neighborhood, it was once situated in a rural recess just outside the city. The cemetery is known as the first cemetery. It has endured lively times and now lies somewhat lurking in busy surroundings. Many of the gravestones and remains were taken to what is now called the third cemetery on 21st Street. This cemetery was opened in 1829, and was only in use until 1851. Some of it was relocated to a large Jewish cemetery in Queens.
In 1693, the Dutch Reformed Church set up a second church on Garden Street (now Exchange Place). The church services were in Dutch, just like in all other Dutch Reformed churches. Burials took place around the church beginning in 1701. That lasted until 1766 when the local government prohibited further burials in this growing section of the city. The church and burial ground remained there until 1835. In that year, a fire heavily damaged the church and it was never rebuilt. The graves were relocated to a pair of vaults beneath New York’s Marble Cemetery . What happened to the gravestones is not known. The destroyed area was completely redeveloped and built over with new structures over time. Of the locations where the first Dutch burial grounds in New Amsterdam / New York were, hardly anything remains. Only parts of the second cemetery can be found. In 1697, the congregation of the Trinity Anglican Church erected a church structure south of the burial ground, where its churchyard bordered the public cemetery. In 1703, the public cemetery was annexed by Trinity Church under the condition that the city could continue to use the cemetery. Eventually burials were discontinued in 1822, by which time some 160,000 corpses had been interred. The present Trinity Church structure dates back to 1846 and there are no extant Dutch markers in the churchyard.
Outside New York City
Outside the growing city, many more burial grounds were established throughout the 18th century. Most burial grounds were set up on the edge of town, but such locations were often rapidly consumed by urban expansion. As New York’s Dutch Reformed denomination grew, more churches were needed. In 1729, the Middle Dutch Church and its associated churchyard were put into use. The church was located about 200 meters north of the former church on Garden Street. Its churchyard was used for less than a century. In 1823, burials ceased. Due to a later street widening, entire sections of the churchyard disappeared until eventually, in 1844, everything were cleared. Now standing on the site is a large bank building. In 1768, the North Dutch Church and churchyard were founded. It was also closed in 1823, and in 1866 the land was leased out. In 1875, the congregation was disbanded. The congregation went on to other denominations and other locations for burials as well. Of the first burial gounds in the city of New York there are still some, among which is the Jewish cemetery, that exist. However, there is virtually nothing left of Dutch origin. Many Dutch families were already leaving in the 17th century for the rural parts of Manhattan and Long Island, which will be covered later.
Noteworthy, is the burial site on Manhattan of Peter Stuyvesant (1611-1672), the last Governor of New Netherlands. In 1660, he had a burial vault constructed on his bouwerij  inside which he was buried in 1672. In 1793, a great-grandchild donated the vault to the Episcopal Church under the condition that a church would be built at the site. The church was built in 1795 and dedicated to Saint Mark. Today, there is not much more to see of the site than the entrance to the vault inside which Stuyvesant was buried. The burial ground has unfortunately been “tidied up” and little is left of the original location.
While under the directorship of the WIC, many new settlements with primarily Dutch residents were founded on Manhattan, Staaten Eylandt (Staten Island), `t long Eylandt (Long Island) and in the Hudson Valley. These villages arose as the colonial population greatly increased. Around 1630, there were approximately 300 Dutch settlers in the area. Fifteen years later, that number had increased to approximately 3,000. With the increase came new settlements. The number of foreign inhabitants in the colony increased as well, particularly via the English newcomers. Under Dutch rule, they founded places such as Vlissingen, Heemstede and Middelburgh. These villages had Dutch names, but the majority of the population spoke not a word of Dutch. At the end of the 17th century, villages had on average of between 100 and 200 inhabitants. New Amsterdam and Beverwijck remained the largest settlements in the colony. There were approximately 10,000 people living in the entire colony at the time of the English takeover,.
There were a few villages founded on the island of Manhattan outside New Amsterdam. The island measeured a little over 20 kilometres long and four kilometers wide at its broadest point, totaling 59 square kilometers. New Amsterdam covered only a small portion of the island in the extreme south. In the north of the island, New Haarlem was founded in 1658. In 1667, a church and burial ground were established. During the American War of Independence (1776-1783), the church was destroyed. It was later rebuilt on the same site to include burial vaults. In 1881, a new church was built elsewhere and sections of the grounds were sold. What remained of the churchyard and vaults were removed to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
On the west side of Manhattan, directly north of New Amsterdam, Noortwijck, or Greenwijck, was founded. This small hamlet did not get a church and churchyard until the beginning of the 19th century. It disappeared a century later with the construction of 7th Avenue. Still further north, to the west of Central Park, was the Harsenville District and the village of Bloemendaal. Harsenville took its name from a Dutch farmer who had owned the land. In 1805, the Bloomingdale Reformed Dutch Church was founded. From 1809 until 1851, burials took place on the grounds. They eventually ceased not because the churchyard was full, but because the city started prohibiting burials south of 86th Street. In 1913, the congregation disbanded. The church, the third in the community, was demolished.
During this time, church burial grounds were not the only type established. Family burial grounds were frequently set up on private farms. There were a few on Manhattan, such as the Kip family cemetery and the Dyckman-Nagle family cemetery. The Kip grounds were cleared in the middle of the 19th century, whereas that of the Dyckman family endured a little longer. This cemetery was established on their own land together with the Nagle family. In the 17th century, both families had occupied land north of present 190th Street and established farms. The land amounted to approximately 150 hectares, but much of it was rocky and unsuitable for agriculture. The Dyckman farm was destroyed during the American Revolution, and along the Kings Highway (now Broadway) a new home was built. The cemetery lay to the north, between 212th and 213th Streets where grounds were supposedly already in long time use by the family. Later families were also buried there. By the last quarter of the 19th century, it became clear that this area would become developed as well. At the turn of the century, the Dyckman family remains were moved to Oakland Cemetery in Yonkers. In 1926, the city took the last of the remains to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. An apartment building was built over part of the site. From early photographs, it is known that many bodies were present. A total of 417 were removed. Little has been written about the gravemarkers, particularly those erected in the 18th century. Of the family burial grounds established on Manhattan, only the burial vault of Peter Stuyvesant remains today.
To the east of Manhattan lies an elongated island that was called by the Dutch `t long Eylandt. The land was undulating, but very fertile. In the west near New Amsterdam, several villages were founded during the middle of the 17th century under the authorisation of Governor Stuyvesant. Those villages were:
- Gravesende (Gravesend), founded in 1645
- Vlissingen (Flushing), founded in 1645
- Breukelen (Brooklyn), founded in 1646
- New Amersfoort (Flatlands), founded in 1647
- Midwout or Vlackebos (Flatbush), founded in 1652
- Middelburgh (Elmhurst), founded in 1652
- Rustdorp (Jamaica), founded in 1656
- Nieuw Utrecht (New Utrecht), founded in 1657
- Boswijck (Bushwick), founded in 1661
Not all of the villages were founded by Dutch colonists. Gravesende was established by Lady Moody, an English woman with unorthodox beliefs who made her way to New Netherland by way of the English colonies. In addition, there were few Dutch involved in the founding of Boswijck.
One could hardly visualize the nine individual villages as once being distinct within the current city. New York City now exists as five boroughs , of which Queens and Brooklyn lie on the most western part of Long Island. Flushing, Jamaica and Elmhurst are in Queens, and offer little to remind us of their founding under the Dutch. Brooklyn is one of the original Dutch settlements, however, all that has been preserved is the seal of the city of Brooklyn with the motto “Eendracht maackt macht.” Currrently, there are approximately 2.5 million inhabitants that reside in this tight, geometric pattern of roads and buildings.
In spite of the enormous growth in Brooklyn, four of the six original village burial grounds have been preserved. The old burial ground of Breukelen (Brooklyn) stopped being used in 1849 because it had run out of space. In 1865, the remains and gravestones were removed to Green-Wood Cemetery. Not long afterwards, an establishment of the Abraham & Strauss clothing store was built on the site, which is now a Macy’s. This section of Brooklyn is considered Downtown, and is presently a busy center with shops, government buildings and hotels.
The burial ground at the church of Boswijck (now Bushwick) has also long since vanished. Burials took place up to 1870, and the church was abandoned in 1919. The oldest stone dated back to 1655. In 1872, all remains and stones were relocated to Cypress Hill Cemetery on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Witnesses, however, claimed that some stones were still seen in the burial ground in 1935. In any event, the entire area has since been developed.
Of the four extant burial grounds, two still have churches standing at their original locations. These are at Flatlands and Flatbush. The church of New Utrecht has been relocated, and the Dutch church at Gravesend stood elsewhere in the village.
The churchyards of Flatlands and Flatbush are most interesting. This is not to take away from the other two extant burial gounds. Burials took place in Gravesend from about 1650, and the Dutch Reformed Church chose the location of its burial ground in 1654. The congregation used the site for burials until 1810 when it was handed over to the city. Over time, fewer people were buried there until the grounds ultimately came into the possession of the City of New York, department of Parks & Recreation. Unfortunately, the burial grounds are closed to the public. Next to the burial ground are the private family grounds of the Van Sicklens. There are number of older stones present, among which some are inscribed in Dutch. They date to the second half of the 18th century and were crafted from the typical brownstone obtained in New Jersey. Further details on this type stone will be provided later.
Burials took place in New Utrecht from 1654, although the church was not organized until 1677. There was also a separate burial ground for slaves. The church stood on the grounds until 1826 when it was moved to a location where it could better serve community. From then on, the burial ground remained on site and in use on its own. To this day, the grounds are in use, but only for adding urns. The oldest gravestones in the burial grounds are all inscribed in English. However, many of the names are unmistakably Dutch, such as Cortelyou, Van Brunt, Van Pelt and Cowenhoven. The grounds are maintained by volunteers, but are largely overgrown despite of the assistance. Compared to other burial grounds in Brooklyn, this is a rather large difference.
The church of Flatbush, located in the middle of the earlier mentioned villages, was founded in 1654 and began receiving burials in its churchyard not long afterwards. There were probably interments inside the church, but that is unclear. Older markers were exposed from under the church during a later expansion. However, it is not known if the church was built over the graves or if the burials were inside the church to begin with. The churchyard was in use until 1913. A striking amount of Dutch text comes from this area, likely due in large part to the fact that all church services were in Dutch until 1783 and it was possibly still spoken even longer. The oldest stones date to the middle of the 18th century, many inscribed in Dutch. The oldest English inscription on a gravestone for someone with a Dutch name dates to 1781. The gravestones of the elderly are more often inscribed in Dutch than those of younger generations. The latest Dutch inscription dates to 1807, and after that time everything is in English.
The above description of Flatbush is similar to that of Flatlands. The churchyard has been in use since 1663 and contains numberous monuments inscribed in Dutch as well. Many of the older stones have been restored and placed in cement “corsets”. The stones are, for the most part, in worse condition than in Flatbush.
In any event, the old churchyards are thought of as being small green oases within the busy city.
Along the Hudson
Just like on Manhattan and Long Island, all sorts of small settlements were founded in the Hudson Valley as well. From New Amsterdam to Fort Orange (Albany), and even still further north, new villages were established during the 17th century. So-called “patroonships” were set up, where large sections of land became the property of rich Dutchmen who allowed farmers to cultivate it. Rensselaerswijck was such a patroonship, complete with its own villages and farms. Patroonships frequently followed their own set of rules.
Whereas the forts were built along the river, villages and farms were frequently established further inland. This was a security measure against the Native Americans, who travelled easier via the waterways. Being located a few kilometers inland gave the villagers enough time to prepare for attacks. In spite of this precautionary step, these settlements were regularly the target of plundering and arson.
One of the larger settlements was Wiltwyck, or Kingston as it is now called. It was settled around 1655, some 140 kilometers north of New York City. The earliest existence of a settlement at Wiltwyck was likely the consequence of insurrections. Occupants of the scattered area farms would retreat into the reinforced village for protection. Although their was a preference for farming, Wiltwyck was a safe locationfrom the threat posed by the Native Americans. In 1663, many settlers were killed during the last insurrection. A year later, the name Wiltwyck was changed to Kingston by the English. This changed little, however, for the local Dutch. They continued to attend their church (founded in 1659) and bury their dead in its churchyard. In 1777, the church and churchyard were ravaged by plundering during the Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, there are still quite a number of extant, old Dutch gravestone in the churchyard, among which some are inscribed in Dutch.
In the north where Albany sits, the story is, however, completely different. Albany began around 1618 under the name of Fort Orange to replace an earlier fort on the Hudson. Under the WIC, Fort Orange became an important transit post for the fur trade. The small settlement to the north of the fort received its official name “Beverwyck” in 1652. The church had a small churchyard, but those who died before its founding were buried in a small plot near the fort. There were also burials in the church, but it quickly ran out of space. In the current downtown there was a small Dutch Reformed Church burial ground, but it was closed in 1780. On the edge of the borough a municipal cemetery was established, but it was not in use for very long. In 1801, an even larger cemetery was opened west of Albany. It was in use until 1868. This cemetery was also caught up in development. In 1844, the Albany Rural Cemetery was opened, where the remains from the old cemetery were brought. Those of the other smaller cemeteries were removed to here as well. This means that any search today in downtown Albany for Dutch gravestones would be done in vain. They all lie to the north of the city, in the nearly 300-hectare cemetery. In monument field number 49 is where the gravestones of the Dutch Church Churchyard were placed. Now they no longer stand alone on the so-called “Church Ground” because they have been joined by hundreds of stones from the other cemeteries. Because the stones had fallen over, they had become overgrown by vegetation and are hardly legible. Elsewhere in the cemetery lies the family plot of the Schuylers. These were brought from Watervliet in 1920, where the family had a farm since 1672. Such family plots were the most common places for burials as we saw on Manhattan. Much of the small plots had either become overgrown with vegetation, cleared, or removed to large community cemeteries like what happened to the Schuylers. Fortunately, some burial grounds have been continuously cared for, such as that of the Staats family. Barent Staats purchased the island along the Hudson near present-day Castleton at the end of the 17th century that became known as Staats Island. The farm was referred to as Hooghe Bergh because of the prominent hillock behind it. On the south flank of the hillock is where the family had its burial ground. Both the farm and the plot are still there, and the Staats family is still the proud owner. The burial ground is still being used. The history of burials in the Hudson Valley can be examined here in a nutshell. From the old, rough hewn stones to granite, there are examples of all types of gravestones. It is unfortunate that many of these types of plots have disappeared.
A number of other smaller settlements along the Hudson established their own churches and churchyards throughout the course of the 18th century, but no peculiar gravestones are found at them.
Staten Island and New Jersey
Compared to Manhattan, Long Island and the Hudson Valley, the Dutch established themselves relatively late on Staten Island. This was not due to a disinterest on the side of the colonists. They attempted to get their feet on the ground from 1639, but each time ran into issues. Hostile Native Americans made sure that the colonists were driven off or, even worse, killed. It was not until 1661 that peace was declared and the first village was established. It received the name Oude Dorp, now Old Town. Under the English, the island became a county under the name of Richmond, after one of the sons of Charles II. At Port Richmond in the north of the island, the first church was built in 1665. Here, burials in the church and churchyard exist today. In the churchyard, typical sandstone markers are present, but Dutch inscriptions are no longer found. However, there are names like Van Pelt, Haughwout and De Hart. Throughout the 18th century, more and more land was developed to the east where small communities were founded by a mixture of English and Dutch colonists. In some villages, Reformed churches were founded although the Dutch were not in the majority. As a result, Dutch gravestones and names have been difficult to trace, but some family buirial plots remain. A beautiful example is found in New Brunswick. There, a small plot with the stones of the Leydt family date to around 1760. The inscriptions are in Dutch and the stones are of a conspicupus gray stone. The design of the stones are reminiscent of the brown sandstones from around New York, but the carving reveals other forms, indicative of a more English style being followed.
Fieldstone use and stonecarving traditions
In the burial grounds discussed up to this point, the oldest artisanal gravestones were all cut from the brown sandstone which primarily originated in the Newark, New Jersey area. This contrasts to the use of slate, which was common in New England. Only a single surviving slate gravestone is found among the Dutch in the Hudson Valley. The oldest sandstone examples date to the beginning of the 18th century. These sandstone markers follow the slate example of a tall, thin marker with a rounded top and shoulders. There are still a number of places where examples of precursors to the sandstone markers can be seen. In Tappan, Kingston and Rhinebeck, there are gravestones found carved from local schist . They are often rough-hewn, rectangular pieces of stone, clearly not professionally carved. It is possible that families carved the markers by themselves because there were no stonecarvers available. The crude appearance and clumsy inscriptions clearly distinguish them from later, 18th century sandstone markers. The inscriptions were often no more than a few initials with a year. On some, the text is in Dutch. This distinguishes them from the so-called footstones which families placed in later centuries to mark gravesites. These footstones were usually no more than thirty centimeters high and only contained initials. They are still widely found, but primarily date to the late 18th century. They were frequently professionally carved, in contrast to the roughly carved markers which are the oldest gravestones in the Hudson Valley.
The reason why professional gravestone carving in the Hudson Valley came into being just midway through the 18th century certainly has to do with the fact that the WIC prohibited guilds from operating in New Netherland. Skilled craftsmanship and traditions in the Netherlands were passed on by means of guilds, who also held a lot of power. That was something that the WIC did not want in their upstart colony. That also meant that there were hardly any stonemason traditions that developed in the colony. Moreover, there was likely insufficient work in the 17th century for a stonemason in the area of gravestone carving. It is thus not surprising that the first stonemasons to be known for their gravestone carving work hailed from the English colonies. Although they were accustomed to carving slate monuments, they easily adopted sandstone in the New York region. From their English background, they also brought along the traditional funerary iconography that are present on the 18th century markers. Winged death’s heads and cherubs were most prevalent. From 1720, stonecarvers from New Jersey spread the carving craft into the Hudson Valley. Around 1750, a gravestone tradition also arose in New York that evolved further. This development differed from what took place in New England and claims its own place in the history of burial customs in America.
After skilled craftsmen became more available, gravestones were often produced with lengthier inscriptions, better designs and splendid images, particularly of winged angel heads. One well-known and popular stonecarver in the Hudson Valley was John Zuricher. Zuricher was from the Dutch community and a member of the Dutch Church in New York. His clientele was primarily of Dutch descent. He had a shop in New York and provided stones throughout the Hudson Valley. He was in operation from about 1740 until the time of the American Revolution. About the time war initially broke out, he left the city for the Haverstraw Precinct just to the north. From there, he worked until 1778 until he was no longer able. Zuricher died in 1784; the place of his gravestone is unknown. His work was distributed over a wide area around New York City, as is clear from the many examples which survive to this day.
During this same time frame, other stonecarvers were stepping forward. They were frequently from England or from the Boston area of New England. Just as the revolution signified a slowing in production for Zuricher, the same was true for these carvers. Many affected by the war concluded their work. Some who were caught in the middle packed up when the British left. Stones dated between 1776 and 1783 are frequently found to be backdated.
Until this period, brown sandstone was primarily used. Not long afterwards, sandstone gave way to a new type of stone and carving style. More and more tall, narrow markers, with straight, flat tops appeared, sometimes decorated with willow trees or other 19th century motiefs. The change is material, however, is the most striking: in place of the brown sandstone, there was a move toward a white limestone which is generally referred to as marble. This material is often addressed more than the darker-surfaced sandstone. Unfortunately, marble is strongly influenced by the elements. Many inscriptions on the 19th century stones are no longer legible, in contrast to those on many of the sandstone markers. Sandstone was not immune to exposure, it just reacted differently. Sandstone has the tendacy to split, resulting sometimes in complete sections peeling off. This doesn’t always affect the inscriptions, but serious damage occurs nevertheless. The surface of the marble stones, on the other hand, wears down slowly until the inscriptions are no more.
The use of sandstone and marble was succeeded at the end of the 19th century by granite and other more durable stones. Zinc was applied as well, however not as much as in cast iron. Wood was rarely used, which is logical being that stones were plentiful in the general vicinity.
As earlier mentioned, there are quite a number of surviving gravestones inscribed in Dutch. The oldest stones are of a style made by ordinary people and not skilled craftsmen. Simple words such as `Anno' or `Familie' indicate a Dutch background of the deceased. Although many later gravestones were produced by carvers of Dutch descent, the inscriptions were often misspelled. On some stones, it seems the carver had little knowledge of what he was writing and made many mistakes, both in justifying the wording and in the text itself. Regardless, the poetic inscriptions found on some stones are delightful. Such inscriptions give a splendid picture of the world in which these people lived. The inscriptions are particularly special because 18th century gravestones in the Netherlands with similar text are a scarcity.
In contrast to the English gravestones in New England, the Hudson Valley has been the focus of little research. It is difficult to obtain a good picture of burial customs from the beginnings of the colony because of urban expansion. Burial grounds were already being moved and built over in the 17th century. The remains were sometimes moved to new burial grounds, but the stones were often used for other purposes. There is also a lot not known regarding burials inside the churches. For a long time, it was assumed that the Dutch had no tradition and that they did not mark their graves. And when they wanted to do so, they simply adopted the English traditions. Recent research has shown that this is certainly not the case.
With thanks to Marieke Leverink
- New York Marble Cemetery was itself closed in 1937. It is located between East 2nd and East 3rd Street and 2nd Avenue in the Bowery on Manhattan.
- Bouwerij was the name for a farm in New Netherland. The word was corrupted in American English to Bowery. The lane near Stuyvesant’s bouwerij in New York has survived and is also called Bowery.
- A borough is a political subdivision of English origin. The word stems from the Old English burh, which means enlarged city (compromised to burcht). New York City has five boroughs: Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island, The Bronx and Queens.
- Schist is a metamorphic rock that easily splits and is not difficult to carve. A great deal of New York’s sub-surface geology is comprised of schist.
- Haacker, Fred C.; Burials in the Dyckman-Nagel Burial Ground, 1954.
- Inskeep, Carolee, The graveyard shift: a family historian's guide to New York City cemeteries, Orem Utah 2000.
- Richards, Brandon Karl; Comparing and Interpreting the Early Dutch and Englisch Gravemarkers of New York’s Lower Hudson Region; 2005.
- Sypher, F.J. (translation and revising); Liber A. 1628-1700 of the collegiate churches of New York, Grand Rapids (MI) 2009
- Welch, Richard F.; The New York and New Jersey Gravestone Carving Tradition, in Markers IV, 1987 (Publication of the Association for Gravestone Studies)
- Wieder, F.C. (introduction and publishing); De stichting van New York, Zutphen 2009.
A portion of this article was given as part of a lecture at New York’s Columbia University on October 29, 2009. The research for this lecture was made possible by the Netherlands America Foundation (NFA) and support by Professor Norman Weiss of Columbia University.