Broadway and Pruyn Street – Broadway and State Street – Beaver Street and South Pearl Street – First Municipal Burial Ground – State Street Burying Grounds – Albany Rural Cemetery
In Albany’s earliest days, the deceased residents of the little Dutch colony on the Hudson were buried in close proximity to Fort Orange. When the Fort’s commander, Daniel Van Kriekenbeek and several of his men were killed in a bloody 1626 conflict between the Mohicans and Mohawks near what is now the northwest corner of Lincoln Park, they were said to have been buried quickly close to where they fell.
Some people were buried near their homes. A list of early Dutch Reformed burials notes that, in 1738, Cornelius Clasen was laid to rest “in his Orchard.” To this day, small, old family burial grounds can be found along roads and on old homesteads in rural Albany county. Later, prominent families like the Van Rensselaers and the Ten Broecks would build private burial vaults on their own estates. The Schuylers established a graveyard at The Flatts, the large family farm just north of Albany.
There are letters referencing the burial of the Patroon, Jeremias Van Rensselaer (died 1674), in the garden of his house where his infant son was already laid to rest. This residence and garden were located just north of the Fort itself.
There was also a small church near Fort Orange actually a converted trading house and not one purpose-built for worship. According to early maps and records, a burying ground existed close to this temporary church. This would have been Albany’s first graveyard, located along what is now Pruyn Street between Liberty Street and Broadway.
A map of this vicinity drawn up in the early 1800s includes the outline of this first Albany cemetery and notes the location of a “Van Schaick’s Tomb.” There is no further information on whose tomb this was, but it may have been built by the descendents of Goosen Gerritse, the first of the Van Schaick to settle at Fort Orange.
Graves would have been marked with either simple wood slabs or bits of common field stone. At most, the stones would have been crudely carved with a name and a date of death. That is, if the graves were marked at all. Burying the dead was a necessity, lavish memorials were not a priority.
No traces of this burial ground remain. The site is just east of the Albany Bus Terminal and covered by the downtown Holiday Inn Express.
When a permanent Dutch Reformed church was built in 1656 (and rebuilt in 1715) at what is now the intersection of State Street and Broadway, it had a burial ground adjacent to it. An 1886 plaque on the Old Post Office on the east side of Broadway recalls the location of the church and the “Burial Ground around it.” This churchyard would have received burials from the time the church was built until it quickly reached capacity. The church itself contained a vault in which a number of families chose to interred their dead. A list covering burials from 1722 to 1757 lists over thirty individuals who were laid to rest within this church.
The graves in this early churchyard were sometimes marked with simple tablet-style markers of slate or brown sandstone, but more commonly, slabs of wood (usually pitch pine which was readily available in the area, cheap, and surprisingly durable) identified the occupants of the graves. Carved headstones and marble markers would later become popular for the wealthy. Some of these would feature soul effigies (winged skulls or angel’s heads) or, later, such popular mourning emblems as willow trees, urns, or even miniature monuments as part of their design. One of the oldest surviving headstones now at the Albany Rural Cemetery is a small slice of weathered marble with the name Catylna Bogert and the date 1721 carved in crude, uneven letters.
This churchyard, however, quickly reached capacity. A second burial ground for the Dutch church was established a few blocks away. This new burial ground, laid out between Beaver Street and Hudson Avenue on the east side of South Pearl Street, also filled quickly. Rather than open a third burial ground, however, officials solved the overcrowding problem by adding layers. Existing headstones were laid flat over their respective graves and several feet of earth were spread over the grounds to allow for a new layer of graves to be dug atop the old. This process was repeated at least one more time meaning that headstones and coffins were now stacked three or even four layers deep. This layering process meant that coffins with steep gabled lids were banned and all new burials had to be in flat-topped coffins to allow for better stacking.
When the Middle or Second Dutch Church was built, it was constructed atop the old burial ground. Most of the old graves were left intact. Again, the headstones were laid flat and yet another layer of earth spread over them. Those graves that lay within the footprint of the new church were exhumed and the remains placed in a vault beneath the new church which was designed by architect Philip Hooker and its corner stone laid in 1806. This building would serve as a church until 1881 when it was replaced by a much larger edifice at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Swan Street.
Before the Middle Dutch Church rose on the old graveyard, a new burial ground was established just above Eagle Street. Located just south of State Street and the modern-day East Capitol Park, this was a municipal burial ground divided into large lots of the various churches (Dutch Reformed, Saint Peter’s Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian). At the western edge, there was a private burial ground for the Bleecker and Lansing families; in 1789, the City leased the land for a burial ground from Barent Bleecker who had already built a burial vault there.
Another burial ground was established in 1764 by the Van Rensselaers for the use of residents of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck in the area known as Arbor Hill. Around the same time, David Vanderheyden established a private burying ground with a vault on land at the northwest corner of Washington Avenue and Swan Street.
In less than twenty years, this first municipal cemetery also proved insufficient. A second, larger municipal cemetery – commonly known as the State Street Burying Grounds – was laid out at the city’s western edge. The graves from the first municipal cemetery were eventually moved there.
The Burying Grounds extended from Washington Square (which ran parallel to Willett Street) on the east to Robin Street on the west and from State Street on the north to Hudson Avenue on the south. It was bisected by several streams which would later prove problematic. Like its predecessor, the State Street Burying Grounds were also divided by congregation. The Dutch Reform, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches were again represented, with the addition of sections for Catholics, Baptists, Quakers, and Seceders. There were private family sections, several with vault. There was also a Negro section and a potters field identified on maps as the “Strangers” burial ground. Several sections had public vaults to receive and store bodies when the ground was too frozen to dig new graves.
The Dutch Reformed burials were divided among two large lots. The one on the south side of the Burying Grounds extended along the Hudson Avenue between the present Knox Street pedestrian mall and New Scotland Avenue. The other, on the north side, occupied land along State Street between Sprague Street and Robin Street. The latter is now covered by the Washington Park playground and it’s said that the domines (ministers) of the Dutch churches were once buried on a small hill in this area.
The first burial in the new municipal burial ground was that of twenty-five year old Henry Roseboom who died on April 21, 1790. He was buried in the Dutch Reformed section.
This municipal cemetery served Albany for the first half of the 19th-century, but it was not without problems. The streams which passed through the grounds, including the Dutch Reformed section, would often flood the graves. There are firsthand accounts of new graves being in the Dutch Reformed section in 1835 when the earth was so soggy that straw was dumped into the bottom of the graves to hide the flooding before the coffins were lowered in. There were occasions when the standing water in graves was so deep as to actually submerge the coffins. Run-off from the graves and vaults was also contaminating nearby ponds (including water used by breweries).
When the new Rural Cemetery was opened north of the city in 1844, new burials in the State Street Burying Grounds slowed drastically. Families who could afford to often removed their dead from the old cemetery to inter them in new plots at the Rural Cemetery. Blandina Bleecker Dudley was among those making such a change; she purchased a lot on the new Cemetery’s scenic Middle Ridge, erected a spectacular Gothic brownstone spire, and had the remains of multiple generations of Bleeckers removed from their private vault at the State Street Burying Grounds for reburial in this new plot. The old Bleecker vault was torn down and its materials – bricks, stone trim, ironwork, etc. – were sold for reuse.
With fewer new burials and the removal of many prominent old family graves, the State Street Burying Grounds fell into further disrepair. The fence separating the graveyard from the street was dilapidated. Neighbors often let cows and other livestock wander and graze among the tombstones. Crimes were committed in and around the neglected cemetery. Travelers passing by were robbed, a woman was arrested for being there with a young man “in suspicious circumstances.” A dead baby, either stillborn or the victim of infanticide, was found abandoned in an old public vault. Thieves attempted to steal jewelry from a family vault but were frightened away from a sudden store and a massive fire at a nearby factory. Local gangs of immigrant Irish and German youths would use the graveyard as a place to fight and other young men used it as a place for target practice.
By the end of the Civil War, burials had all but ceased and there were public calls to remove the State Street Burying Grounds completely. In 1868, an inventory was made of the remaining graves there. It is a long, but incomplete list; the names and dates were collected from the surviving headstones, but many graves were unmarked. The Strangers and Negro section, for example, yield very few names compared to estimated number of burials in each. In the Dutch Reformed section, many older headstones were missing, broken, or simply unreadable.
As plans moved forward to clear the Burying Grounds, thousands of graves were exhumed so the land could be cleared to Washington Park. About 4,000 remains were removed (not, as is commonly reported, 40,000). The Dutch Reformed section alone cost the City of Albany $3,369.00 to exhume, not including the cost of new coffins and transportation to their new resting place. The remains were placed in new pine boxes and carried by wagons to Albany Rural Cemetery where a section had been set aside specifically to receive these transferred burials. This section, Number 49 on the Rural Cemetery map, is known as the Church Grounds. As with the old State Street Burying Grounds, it was divided into lots by church with the Dutch Reformed section being designated Lot 1, Section 49. The Dutch Reformed lot is the largest in the Church Grounds and includes some of its oldest stones and remains.
While they were now safe from desecration and development, the graves in the Church Ground would suffer from neglect. While arrangements were made for reburial, there were no real plans made for upkeep of these graves in a cemetery where maintenance of individual plots was generally the responsibility of the families which owned them. Early historians of the Cemetery such as Edward Fitzgerald and Henry P. Phelps gave little attention to the Church Grounds in their books. By World War II, the Church Grounds were in disarray. Headstones which had originally been laid flat in rows were stacked in haphazard piles and deep weeds covered the field. A small crew of laborers were brought in by the Cemetery superintendent to clear the section of overgrowth and arrange the headstones in rows in their respective sections. At this time, masonry blocks were placed under the upper edges of the stones to create an incline and allow rain to run off. This has, unfortunately, down little to prevent serious erosion of the carved inscriptions and decorative elements. The tall marble shaft of General Peter Gansevoort, the defender of Fort Stanwix and grandfather of Herman Melville, was discovered among the jumble of old stones. He was originally buried in the Dutch Reformed section of the State Street Burying Grounds; now his headstone stands in the Gansevoort family plot on the Cemetery’s Middle Ridge.
During the mid-to-late 19th century, as new buildings replaced older ones in downtown Albany and the infrastructure expanded to meet the increasing demands of the population, the sites of its former churchyards sometimes yielded up the forgotten dead. In 1851, as workers dug a trench near State and Broadway, they broke through the long buried foundation of the 1715 church. On the north side, two ancient coffins containing bones were found. Below a house standing on what had been the northeast corner of the Beaver Street burial ground, more old coffins were discovered. In November 1882, construction work at the Beaver Street site revealed coffins of long-dead members of the Vanderheyden and Quackenbush familes. Two headstones dated from the 1770s were also revealed, along with a small iron canon. Still more bones, coffin pieces, and tombstones were found below Beaver Street by Italian immigrant laborers in August 1888. These included the headstone of Jeremiah Field and the now-lost headstone of Albany’s second mayor, Johannes Abeel. Some of the coffins originally held the remains of Albany’s elite; they were made of expensive imported cedar wood as opposed to the cheaper, common local pine. These were removed from the site in a barrel. A newspaper report at the time noted that the four skeletons discovered “had sound teeth.”
When such remains were discovered, it was the general practice to place them in the vault beneath the Middle Dutch Church on Beaver Street. When that church was replaced by the Madison Avenue Reformed Church in 1881, that newer church also included a vault beneath its bell tower in which the historic remains and tombstones were placed.
Among the dozen or so headstones known to have been kept at the Madison Avenue Reformed Church were the 1721 Catylna Bogert stone with its primitive carved inscription, the headstone of Jeremiah Field, the ornate sandstone marker of Elyse Gansevoort Winne with its winged skull and carved vines, and the large stone of Captain Peter Winne. The Winne stone is a large rectangular slab which may have stood on a set of stone legs like a table, similar to the original marker of Colonel Philip Schuyler (1687-1741).
The Madison Avenue Reformed Church was devastated by a fire in 1931. Parts of the structure survived with a Central Market grocery store being built atop the sturdy stone foundations by 1943. In the aftermath of the fire, the old Dutch headstones and remains were removed from the tower crypt and placed in the Church Grounds at Albany Rural Cemetery alongside the graves and headstones from the State Street Burying Grounds.
The discovery of graves at the Beaver Street burial ground site continued into the late 20th century. When the KeyCorp parking garage was built between Hudson Avenue and Beaver Street in 1986, the excavation dug deep into earth where old graves were still stacked three deep. Archaeologist uncovered human bones and coffins, including gabled lids. Only those graves in areas where the garage supports were erected were exhumed. It is not known just how many graves remain at the site, but they were left in place and construction of the parking facility proceeded above the resting place of some of Albany’s earliest residents. Those exhumed were examined and documented by archaeologists and other professionals from the New York State Museum. These remains then joined those of their friends and relatives in the Church Grounds.