Return to Long Island Genealogy
Return to Long Island Genealogy
The passage of time has changed the face of
Long Island so thoroughly that new residents and young people are astonished
to discover how many Long island communities are old and steeped in history
that begins early in the seventeenth century, not long after the Pilgrims
arrived to carve their brave little settlement from the bleak coldness
of Plymouth. Nearly all traces of the past have been plowed under by the
bulldozer and replaced by thousands of new houses. But as "progress" has
moved across the land it has skirted scores of tiny patches of land dotted
with old and worn headstones - early burying grounds often occupied by
one family or one neighborhood and under law protected even from the ravages
of the greedy bulldozer.
Here in these tiny, often unkempt little spots of green lies much of the history of what preceded the massive growth that has marked the years since World War II. During these few short years the island has been almost destroyed by an extraordinary migration that caused a growth in twenty years that was more than ten times the growth of three hundred years! No wonder nearly all traces of history have vanished. But if you poke around you can find many of the tiny islands of tangled green wherein have slumbered for centuries residents, many of whose descendants still live and work where the family always has been. Here is found the primitive record of another time when life was simpler, slower, but no less exciting than it is today.
One of the most beautiful of all American communities is East Hampton on the south fork of Long Island. Old and a little stuffy, East Hampton has a sense of its own past and a desire to retain as much of the best of that past as it can. At the entrance to East Hampton is the town pond and a wide village green, once a part of the common land, now a fine open space, rare in this age of clutter. Not far away, overlooking the green, is the old South End burying ground nested under the protective presence of the Gardiner mill. In all of the world there probably is not another burying ground like this one.
East Hampton's first church stood in the middle of the cemetery. Built in 1651, its first pastor was Thomas James, who came to East Hampton at the request of Lion Gardiner. The old church is gone but James rests in the Cemetery not far from an ornate, pretentious Victorian tomb that marks the final resting place of his old friend Gardiner. The monument is a small shelter that protects a reclining portrayal of Lion as a knight, which he was not. The tomb was built in 1886, more than two hundred years after Lion died in 1663 and was buried in the Gardiner part of the East Hampton graveyard. After the tomb was completed the bones of the first proprietor of Gardiner's Island were dug up and reburied. There is no likeness of Lion, but when his bones were examined it was found that he was more than six feet tall, which made him a huge man for his time.
Nearly one hundred miles to the west on Long Island's north shore is the grave of one of Lion's earliest American associates, Captain John Underhill. Underhill, who fought the Pequot Indian war in 1643 in spite of Gardiner's protests, made Connecticut safe for the early settlers. Underhill did not come to Long Island as early as Gardiner but he was one of the first to live in Locust Valley, where he is buried in the Village of Lattingtown not far from where he spent the last years of his life and where he died. In a family cemetery hidden from the sight of the traveler is a bronze marker on a large stone that stands next to a gate leading to the little cemetery still used by the large and sprawling Underhill family.
John Underhill was born in England in 1597. In 1630 he came to New England, where he gained a reputation as an Indian fighter. He crossed the sound to Setauket and moved along the north shore until he finally settled in the Locust Valley area. Like much of the rest of Long Island's history, the real story of John Underhill is lost. There are stories that he was a kind of land-based pirate who, from some of the high spots in and around what became Locust Valley, used to watch the sea, looking for ships in distress. Then, so the legend says, he would plunder the ships and sell the rich cargoes.
However he accomplished it, Captain Underhill was a man of means and a great landowner. History says that in 1667 the Matinecock Indians gave him one hundred and fifty acres for helping to settle a dispute between themselves and early settlers. Legend says that he had another, less gentle way of obtaining lands he wanted. Old-timers say that he once had a group of Indians splitting a locust tree. At the right moment he knocked out the wedges, catching the fingers of several Indians in the closed crack. And, says the legend, he refused to free the suffering men until the chief gave him the land he wanted and had been unable to wangle from the Matinecocks.
One of Underhill's most dedicated descendants was Myron Taylor. Taylor, who lived in a huge house in Locust Valley, was a man of enormous wealth and some influence. Though an Episcopalian, he was the U.S. envoy or ambassador to the Vatican in the days when this country thought it necessary to have such representation. Taylor's mother was Elizabeth Underhill, a fact that caused him no end of pride. Until his death he lived in an old Underhill house which he changed so that it bore no resemblance to what it once had been. After the old house was damaged by fire, Taylor did not tear it down. Instead, he encased it in a new facade, a very handsome one designed by the late Harriet Lindeberg, who was the architect of many of the North Shore's grandest mansions. Rich and striking as it was, the "new" Killingworth was as uncolonial as was possible.
Underhill's second wife was Elizabeth Feek, of one of this area's first families. In the early eighteenth century, Robert Feek was one of the nation's most important portrait painters. Feeks Lane is named for the family, which lived nearby. Like many another early settler, Elizabeth Feek was a devout Quaker. As he grew older and some of his youthful fire was banked, Captain John also became a Quaker. He died in 1672, a few months before he turned seventy-five, a fair age today, an old, old age in the captain's time and place.
Early in this century, in the Underhill Cemetery, the Underhill family erected an expensive and impressive monument to the memory of their illustrious ancestor. About five hundred persons, most of them Underhills, attended the dedication ceremony in the cemetery on Factory Pond Road. The monument was erected on May 18, 1907, and dedicated on July 11, 1908, when the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, came from nearby Oyster Bay to dedicate the monument for his friends. The Underhill Society of America, organized in 1892, paid $6000 for the elaborate monument and reburied the "fighting captain" in its foundation. Made of white polished granite, it is topped by a bronze eagle with extended wings and perched upon a bronze ball. On each side of the six-foot.square base are four bronze tablets depicting, in relief, events in the life of John Underhill.
Underhill is not the only name in this cemetery. There are names like Feek, Frost, and Cock, all early settlers and distinguished citizens. The cemetery, no longer surrounded by land owned by the family, is enclosed within a painted fence. The grounds are well kept. Small headstones cluster around the impressive monument, which gives this burying ground a somewhat different look. A steep, winding, unpaved road leads to the cemetery. Not long ago, after it no longer owned the entrance road, the family had to go to court to get permission to leave the gate at the entrance to the road unlocked for part of each day so that members of the family can visit the cemetery.
Not far away, in the same village of Lattingtown, hidden away in brambles and trees, close by the 16th hole of the Creek Club is another colonial family burying ground, the final resting place of many members of the Frost family. Although the stone has vanished, it is believed that William Frost is buried here. He and Underhill were friends in Southold. Long after the captain moved westward, Frost joined him in Matinecock, in the year Underhill died. In 1674, Frost bought from William Simson forty acres that Simson had acquired from the Indians and founded the homestead that remained in the Frost family for more than two centuries. Valentine Frost was the last member of the family to live there. After he died in 1890 his daughters sold the property. In time Paul Cravath acquired this and adjoining properties. In 1922 it was sold to what became the Creek Club. The clubhouse stands not far from the site of the old Frost mansion that was destroyed by fire about sixty years ago.
The Frost family cemetery sprawls across a small knoll deeply covered in weeds and underbrush and sheltered by old and noble trees that keep the little burying ground in deep shadow even when the sun is bright on the adjacent well-kept greens of the rolling golf course. Standing in the little cemetery and looking across to the distant red-brick clubhouse on the top of the bill is like being in two worlds and the past is just as vibrant as the present. Buried in brambles and the tangled, thorned tendrils of berry bushes is the oldest remaining legible stone. Unlike many of the other stones, it is a large, rough rock in its natural shape on which has been carved the now almost illegible name of Mary Dickson and the date of 1720. The centuries have not been kind to the neglected stones, almost half of which have been destroyed. Many of those remaining are age and weather worn, some are broken, some are
lying on the ground, and some now are nameless, the inscriptions in the soft stone washed away by time and weather. According to tradition, family slaves lie in unmarked graves on the north knoll.
The casual student of history always is surprised to learn that many northern families had slaves. In Youngs' Cemetery on East Main Street, Oyster Bay, where Theodore Roosevelt and other members of his family are buried, a series of plain, wooden, white-painted crosses dots the hill that rises sharply from the road. All but hidden under drooping bushes, a bronze plate on a stone says "In memory of the faithful slaves of the Youngs family whose graves are marked by wooden crosses." More than halfway up the hill, surrounded by a tall iron fence, is the grave of Theodore Roosevelt and his second wife, Edith Kermit Carow. This rather simple gravesite is visited by many who stop on the way to Sagamore Hill, the president's beloved residence not far away. Steep stairs lead to the gravesite, which looks as if it has been placed on a man-made terrace. Here in front of the fenced area are rough benches in a small stoned area where visitors may sit and soak up the peaceful setting so fitting for one of the first presidents who understood that if we did not take steps to conserve the assets of the country, soon no country would remain.
The hill steepens behind the president's grave, where are buried other members of his family. Even in this frequently visited and well-kept sanctuary are untended graves, some nearly swallowed by tall bushes growing thickly around simple tombstones. Like nearly every cemetery in this area, Youngs burying ground is small and hard to see as you scurry by in a car or stroll by on foot.
Not far away at Christ Church, where the president worshiped and where some members of his family still worship, there are remnants of old graves. On the front lawn close to the Church are several brown stones of the Doty or Doughty family. These stones date back to 1751 and bear the skull and crossbones often used at that time to symbolize death. To the side of the building are four early-nineteenth- century stones placed there years later for safekeeping because the actual site of the graves is unknown.
This large and beautiful building has a fascinating history, including the fact that for a number of years the Episcopal church of Oyster Bay ceased to exist. The original church, founded in 1705, suffered greatly during the Revolution when services were no longer held. It was used for everything and suffered its worst blow when a group of German recruits, commanded by Colonel Von Janecke, ripped out boards to make barracks and berths and to use as firewood. The building finally blew down and the salvaged materials sold at auction in 1804.
It is believed that many soldiers were buried in the church grounds without coffins or graves because when excavation for the third and present building was taking place, several skulls and bones were found in heaps on the property. At the corner of Piping Rock and Duck Pond Roads in the village of Matinecock is a small, tranquil Quaker cemetery. It is hard to know when the earliest burial took place here because early Quakers used no tombstones. Instead, they marked their graves with locust posts. Seventeen of these remain. The earliest stone is dated 1825. There is one with the inscription "Gideon Frost/died 1880/age 82 years." Gideon Frost was a descendant of William Frost, the man who followed his friend John Underhill to Locust Valley. Gideon Frost also was the founder of Friends Academy, a Quaker school, and a member of the Matinecock Meeting, both opposite the place where he is buried.
Some of the first settlers who came to the central part of Long Island were Quakers. It is believed that Quakerism had its greatest thrust forward when John Taylor, a traveling minister, came to Oyster Bay in 1659. The earliest recorded marriage took place in 1663, when Samuel Andrew and Mary Wright were married in the Anthonie Wright house. In 1671 a Society of Friends was organized in Oyster Bay and Matinecock and the Oyster Bay Meeting House was built a year later, when George Fox visited and preached in Oyster Bay. The first Oyster Bay Meeting House, was taken down in 1693 and was not replaced until half a century later, in 1750. In time that too was taken down because more and more Quakers began to attend the more conveniently located Matinecock Meeting House, where the first meetings were held in 1676. In 1720 meetings also were held in the residence of John Feek. When the present Matinecock Meeting House was built in 1725 John Mott, the builder, was paid $99.39 for doing the job.
Close by Friends, down Duck Pond Road in Matinecock, is a large stone with a bronze plate marking the grave of Messenger. Messenger was a trotting horse foaled in England in 1780 and brought to America eight years later. He ended his life in Locust Valley, where he stood at stud. There is scarcely a trotter or pacer racing in this country today who does not carry Messenger's blood. According to the bronze marker, "none but himself can be paralled." Messenger was a very special breed of horse descended from England's greatest thoroughbreds and bred by the Earl of Grosvenor. The marker was erected in 1935 by "American horse lovers."
In another part of Long Island, at the Bide-a-Wee animal home in Wantagh, is an elaborate dog cemetery filled with the pets of many Long Islanders. Some of the headstones are more ornate and expensive than those in scores of people cemeteries. At Old Westbury Gardens, former residence of the late Mr. and Mrs. J. S. Phipps, is a dog cemetery marked by a handful of simple stones placed in a secluded grassy grove sheltered by large, old trees.
Not far from Messenger, down Piping Rock Road and nearly engulfed from sight in underbrush, is a cemetery founded in 1863 for the use of black people. The land was given for "colored people" in 1875 to the Calvary AME Church. Glen Cove, by William T. Cock, his wife Hannah, and Samuel Cock. For years various attempts have been made to get this cemetery cleaned up. All have failed.
Another cemetery for black people runs up a bill beside the Lizza sandpit on Pine Hollow Road, Oyster Bay. Once it looked very much like the Piping Rock Road cemetery. Today it is beautifully kept by Gordon Maddox, who does the caretaking as a voluntary labor of love. Years ago, when Maddox took a member of his family to the burial ground, he had to clear a path for the procession. Fallen trees had knocked over headstones. Others were lost in a tangle of weeds and overgrowth. Disturbed by what he saw, Maddox began to clean around the graves of his own family. Soon he was clearing the whole cemetery. Now it is neat and green. Maddox even developed a way to make headstones to replace those that were broken or vanished. He made a mold into which he pours cement. Some graves are marked only by stones because Maddox does not know who is buried there. Maddox said he hesitates to bring anyone else into the cemetery because often when a new grave is dug he finds an old one. This little cemetery, about six or seven acres, was given to the AME Zion Church, Oyster Bay, in the middle 1800s by the Beekman family, the same family that gave the beautiful millpond to the town of Oyster Bay. Maddox says the capacity of the burying ground probably could be increased if the heavily wooded acres could be cleared. It is a job too big for Maddox, who sometimes finds it difficult to keep up with his present self-assigned task of keeping the little cemetery well groomed and green.
In the cemetery at Sag Harbor there is a large and ornate monument that pays homage to six young ship's masters who were killed during whaling expeditions in the days when Sag Harbor was one of the nation's most important whaling ports. The base of the massive stone monument bears the names of the men killed along with scenes of the men and boats at sea. Above this is a carved broken hawser and the stone base is topped by a tall, carved, broken mast.
At the Zion Episcopal Church on 25A, Douglaston, two large carved stones mark the final resting place of the "last of the Matinecock" Indians. The stones were moved not so many years ago when 25A was widened. Every old cemetery is subject to the whims of change and the luck of location, historical meaning, and the willingness of one or more persons to Care for these fascinating and important pockets of history.
In Oyster Bay on top of a hill that has a sweeping view of the harbor and the sound is Fort Hill. Here British soldiers, who occupied Oyster Bay for most of the Revolutionary War, established a fort which they used as a lookout for patriot ships that might slip into the harbor. In the cemetery next to Fort Hill many of the British soldiers are buried side by side with soldiers who opposed them. In this same cemetery is the grave of Robert Townsend, one of the most famous and effective of all of George Washington's spies. Next to him is his sister Sally, who helped him gather information from the British officers who were billeted in Raynham Hall, the residence of Samuel Townsend, father of Robert and Sally. Sally, who broke the heart of many a British officer, gave her brother information that led to the capture of Major John Andre' at Tarrytown, N.Y. Andre', was conspiring with Benedict Arnold to capture West Point, a strategic outpost of great importance to the patriots. The handsome Andre' lived a short time in the Townsend house. To this day there remains in the house a pane of glass over two hundred years old bearing the names of Sally and Audrey Townsend which Andre cut there with a diamond. John Townsend acquired the land for the Fort Hill cemetery in 1661. He was the first of his family to be buried there when he died in 1668, a century before the Revolution. The last, more than two hundred years later, was Solomon Townsend, buried in 1880. Sixty-three stones remain in this historic cemetery, which, like the adjoining fort, now is owned and cared for by the town of Oyster Bay.
The British also occupied nearby Huntington during the Revolution. They do not seem to have gotten on as well with the townspeople there as did the British officers in Oyster Bay, where commander John Simcoe was so well liked a street has been named in his honor. Toward the end of the war, the British in Huntington decided to build a fort to watch for patriot ships. They also decided that the best place for the fort would be in a cemetery that was old in 1782. They ripped up the graveyard in spite of the strenuous objections of the occupied residents of Huntington and built the fort. Then the English used some of the tombstones to build a baking oven. It is said that the bottoms of the loaves were imprinted with the inscription from the stone that was used to make the bottom of the oven. After the British left, the good folk of Huntington restored their Cemetery. In recent years vandals have found their mindless way to this same graveyard, as they have to so many other burying places on Long Island, breaking and removing many old stones. But in spite of the sometimes vigorous efforts of vandals, the worst enemies of old Cemeteries have been time and neglect.
All over Long Island small family burying grounds are tucked away in the most unexpected places. It is estimated that there are between eight and ten thousand colonial tombstones in more than one hundred cemeteries in various parts of Long Island. The law protects cemeteries from destruction but nothing protects them from neglect. Many of the old family burying grounds have not been used for years. Sometimes the family line has ended and no one remains to care about the old graveyard. Sometimes all members of the family have moved away.
In 1974 the Southards, an old Long Island family, tried to persuade some part of the government to take over the family burying ground, one valuable acre in Beilmore estimated to be worth $20,000. The headstones all had vanished but the family could not sell the land for any kind of development unless all of the twenty-five Southards were reburied. One headstone from that cemetery is in the Old Bethpage Restored Village. Bearing the name John Southard, and dated 1884, the stone was found by a construction worker not far from the burying ground. He turned it over to the county and now it is with other stones that have been gathered much the same way.
The problem of what to do with so many old cemeteries is vexing but not pressing. No one seems to want to be saddled with the responsibility of taking care of them year after year. In time those that are neglected long enough will cease to be known as burial places and will be sold, as has happened in many places throughout the island. Sometimes all except a small part of the burial ground is sold. What remains is sold as part of the property closest to it with a deed restriction that Compels the owner to Care for the Cemetery and allow reasonable family visiting rights. Many small landowners scattered throughout Long Island are happy to maintain their tiny burying grounds. They say it gives them a link with the past, and if you ask they will tell you that there is a different, rather pleasant feeling about a place where people have been buried.
Nearly all old Churches have burying grounds, not only in many heavily populated parts of Long Island but in Manhattan as well. Cemeteries Create quiet, open spaces of beauty and serenity and many persons like to sit in them or stroll about them as they would a park. Others seek out old Cemeteries not only to trace family histories through headstone inscriptions but to list the forgotten burying places and try to find ways to save them. They know that once these hundreds of small cemeteries have vanished a page of history will have gone with them.
Some of the largest Cemeteries in the world are in Queens and Brooklyn - St. Michaels, Calvary, Greenwood, Cypress Hills, Woodlawn, and Olivet. Here headstones are almost on top of each other. Here are buried many early citizens of Manhattan who were taken to Long Island because land in Manhattan no longer was available for burying purposes because it had grown too valuable. Even so, there are many small burying grounds in Manhattan such as those at Trinity and St. Paul's Churches. St. Mark's in the Bouwerie, and close by the Jewish cemetery established in 1656.
Many who were buried in the first large Queens and Brooklyn cemeteries were the early ethnic immigrants - the Irish, Polish, Italians, and Jews - all buried in their own special parts of the cemeteries. The densely populated sprawling acres of headstones in the huge Queens and Brooklyn cemeteries are among the most extraordinary sights of the metropolitan area. Now that these lands are all but used up, the most modern and extensive cemeteries are in Suffolk County at Pinelawn, where there is a national cemetery, and Jewish, Catholic, and nonsectarian cemeteries in the acres and acres of flat, treeless land covered with white markers stretching as far as the eye can see.
As you move from cemetery to cemetery you take a fascinating journey into the past. Whether large or small, well groomed or engulfed in weeds, there always is a feeling that you are not alone. But if these be ghosts, they are warm and friendly ghosts who seem to welcome the modern intruder. Soon you can guess the age of the headstones simply by appearance. The earliest graves are marked by stones taken from nearby fields. In the beginning of the eighteenth century graves were marked by the same brownstone that years later was used on the fronts of many New York town houses. Within a few years a white stone came into use that was so soft many of the old inscriptions weathered away. The modern stones are made of polished granite. No longer the primitive work of local artisans who used simple tools, the new stones are deeply cut, made to last. Some carry long inscriptions, others carry only initials.
As the years passed and new nationalities arrived to take their places beside the old-time English and Dutch families, the look of the burying grounds began to change. In place of the simple, usually unadorned stones, ornate angels and other figures were cut into the stones; large monuments, obelisks and statues of angels and madonnas appeared along with elaborately carved headstones that sometimes bear a photograph of the deceased. Mausoleums also took their place in some of the small Cemeteries, mingling, as they do in the Brookville Cemetery, Roslyn with the small ancient stones of Indians nearly hidden in the grass among large stones just as old and marking the graves of white men. Part of the cemetery on 25A is as well kept and beautiful as an elegant park. But the old sections have gone to weeds, making a strange contrast that seems strangely inappropriate in a cemetery so small.
Nearly every old Long Island Community has one or more small abandoned family cemeteries. Most are hidden from the view of the Casual traveler. Off the main roads, the little burying grounds usually are deep in the woods, high on hills, engulfed in brambles and heavy underbrush. A few are cared for by members of families buried there or by new owners, cheerfully Carrying out the obligations of their property deeds. For all their differences there is an astonishing sameness about all of the old Cemeteries. Even though miles apart, the stones often are so much alike it sometimes seems as if the same artist did them all. After spending a little time in the old burying grounds it soon becomes easy to date the headstones by their carving and the kind of stone used. Even the epitaphs have a sameness, and one favorite that was used in many different places on Long Island reads this way:
The past is in all of these wonderful quiet
little places where rest the men and women who came here so long ago and
set the tone and style that continues to guide Long Island's future. Many
of the names on the stones are as familiar today as they were centuries
ago. Few have left records as illustrious as those of John Underhill and
Lion Gardiner but each name is important for it stands for a human life,
someone who once breathed the fresh sweet air of this long island, lived
here, left his mark, and moved on.