First things first, what we call 51st Street at the border of Astoria and Woodside was once known as Bowery Bay Road. Secondly, in 1733 this spot was on the outskirts of the colonial village of Newtown, and it was chosen by the wealthy Moore family as their private burial ground. They intermarried with other prominent Newtown families, such as the Hallets, Rapelyes, and Jacksons. Jackson Avenue in LIC is named for the Jackson family, by the way.
The sire of the Moore family, Rev. John Moore, arrived in Newtown in 1652. He died in 1657, but left behind a wife and several children who stayed in the area, where they enjoyed a large inheritance of real estate and cash.
One notable descendant of the Moore family was Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote “The Night Before Christmas” amongst other things.
The stone pictured above commemorates Augustine Moore, who died at age 17 in the year 1769.
Moore’s descendants were prominent and noteworthy characters in the historic record of colonial Newtown. One of them infamously picked the wrong side during the American Revolution, a British loyalist named Nathaniel Moore whose farmhouse adjoined the cemetery. The Moore house served as the headquarters of the British General Sir Henry Clinton during the American insurrection, and when the rebels took power, things became difficult for the family but they stuck it out.
Nathaniel Moore’s son, Nathaniel Moore Jr., died in 1827, and his will stipulated that the ancestral land and property be sold off to benefit his widow and children, excepting a quarter acre plot which contained the cemetery.
Queens developed around Moore Jackson Cemetery, a colonial era family burying ground which most experts agree on as containing at least 51 interments. Some 15 monuments are still present, and the entire plot is overgrown with trees and other greenery and plagued by litter and garbage.
As mentioned, the lot was defined in 1733 and remained in active use until 1868. It fell into disrepair in the late 19th century and became overgrown, but was surveyed by the Queens Topographical Survey in 1919.
Moore Jackson was forgotten again, and became completely overgrown by 1936 when a Works Progress Administration work crew assigned to clear brush in the area rediscovered the place.
Fill was added to the grounds when the streets outside it were regraded and raised, an effort which rearranged the position of the headstones. A developer attempted to gain control of it in the early 1950s, not realizing that the wooded lot was actually a cemetery. In 1956, a community organization erected fences around Moore Jackson, and other groups in the neighborhood began a schedule of clean ups and brush cleanings which continue to this day.
In 1997, the cemetery was declared a New York City landmark.
The Moore Jackson Cemetery is across the street from the eastern border of the NYCHA Woodside Houses on 51st Street, and the 54th Street side has large apartment buildings and a few two-story homes hemming it in. By all appearances, from the sidewalk, it looks like a community garden or overgrown lot.
How I ended up inside the gates basically boils down to one of those community groups who have historically taken responsibility for the place — Woodside on the Move.
Woodside on the Move is a community group founded in 1976 which proclaims its mission as “making Woodside and its surrounding Queens neighborhoods better places to live, work, and do business.” They facilitate graffiti removal, neighborhood clean ups, after school programs, cultural programs and a variety of other services. When WOTM announced they would be working here on their Twitter feed last week, I made it a point of coming by.
Paid student interns were working on mitigating the presence of two fallen trees in the cemetery and doing a general policing of the grounds. There was wood and branches everywhere, and given the overgrown and quite urban setting, they were working in a deliberate and careful manner. Garbage is often thrown over the fence, and little piles of broken glass were observed all along it.
This fellow’s name was Hector, and he was one of the two fellows supervising the clean up effort. As he described it to me, the Queens Historical Society, based in Flushing, watches over this ancient burying ground and recently sent a request to the office of NY City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer asking for assistance in clearing away the fallen trees. Mr. Van Bramer’s office contacted Woodside on the Move, who agreed to handle the job. And that’s how we all ended up at the Moore Jackson Cemetery.
Overseeing the operation was Adrian Bordoni, Woodside on the Move’s Executive Director. Mr. Bordoni explained that they were going to organize everything they could, but that some of the larger parts of the fallen tree would need to be handled by Parks Department personnel, as chain saws and a truck would be required to break them down and cart the wood away.
That’s the landmarked Moore Jackson Cemetery for you, which is found on 51st Street between 31st and 32nd avenues at the border of Woodside and Astoria.
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.