The European history of our city begins in the 1600s, after Henry Hudson reported back to his Dutch employers that no, he hadn’t found a shortcut to the spice roads of Asia, but he had run into some nice real estate along the journey. The rest, as they say, is history. The Dutch East and West Indies Companies came here to set up businesses and make money, but that takes people. Soon Dutch farmers and tradesmen followed the soldiers, trappers and merchants to what is now the entirety of Long Island, as well as Manhattan, parts of New Jersey, and on up the Hudson.
I mostly write about Brooklyn, and there, the names of the earliest Dutch farmer families are now street and neighborhood names: Lefferts, Schermerhorn, Van Nostrand, Vanderbilt, Lott, Suydam, Bergen, Wyckoff and Remsen, among others. Over the centuries, all of these families, along with many others, intermarried and grew; spreading to all parts of what was once New Amsterdam. The Remsen’s are a good example of that growth, as well as a great example of how these families became important in the history of their communities.
Historians write often about the lives of these early residents of our city, but they don’t often talk about where they are laid to rest, in part because a lot of those places no longer exist. Public cemeteries were a 19th century necessity, as our cities just got too big to accommodate the dead in only in churchyards and small private cemeteries. There was also the matter of public health. We would probably be shocked to learn of all the private cemeteries and abandoned churchyards throughout the city that lie beneath our neighborhoods, buildings and streets.
Queens was rural long after Manhattan and Brooklyn were being urbanized, with farms that lasted until the early 20th century. Many of these farms had been in the same families for generations, and those generations were buried in the family plot, somewhere on the farm. In 1932, a study was conducted in Queens, discovering 22 private cemeteries in that borough alone. The oldest legible tombstone dated to 1719. Many were older, but the inscriptions had eroded away.
One of these family plots belonged to the Remsen family. The patriarch of the family was Rem Jansen Van Der Beek, who came to America in the mid-1600s. His sons took the surname “Remsen,” and settled in various parts of Queens and Brooklyn. One son, named Abraham Remsen, settled in the area then called Hempstead Swamp, which is now Rego Park/Forest Hills. He had a son named Jeromus, who also had a son named Jeromus, born in 1735.
The younger Jeromus grew up to become a soldier fighting in the French and Indian War of 1757. After the war, he was active in Whig politics prior to the Revolutionary War. After the Continental Congress of 1774, the town of New Towne assembled at Jeromus Remsen’s request, to form a committee to insure adherence to the Congress’s new measures, in the boundaries of that town. Remsen was a member of the committee, as well as its clerk.
Even though most of Queens County stayed loyal to the British during the Revolutionary War, Remsen and many others did not. He was appointed Colonel over half of the Queens and Kings County militia, and joined forces with General Greene in the Battle of Brooklyn, the first major battle of the war, fought in the Gowanus/Park Slope area of Brooklyn, in 1776. This battle was hard fought and bloody, resulting in the rout of American troops. George Washington, his generals and troops had to retreat across the river to New Jersey, leaving New York City to the British for the entirety of the war. Colonel Remsen was among the men who made it to safety in New Jersey, where he spent the rest of the war.
Remsen had married Anna Rapelje in 1768. She was a daughter of Cornelius Rapelje, one of Long Island’s oldest Dutch families. The couple had seven children, but only three sons survived infancy. Jeromus Remsen died in 1790, and Anna lived until 1816. Both are buried in this family cemetery. The cemetery was once on Remsen land, and reserved for family use only. Newspapers from the 1880s describe the cemetery as being between the old Remsen house and the Suydam homestead, both of which are long gone.
As far as existing gravestones in this small cemetery show, the oldest grave here belongs to Jeromus Remsen. The cemetery was used by the family from the end of the 18th century, into the 19th century. There are eight Remsen family members identified here. They include Colonel Jeromus Remsen, his wife Anna, son Jeromus Remsen, as well as three more of their children, a Bridget Remsen, and Major Abraham Remsen, who was a brother of the Colonel. The tombstones date from 1790 to 1819.
As Queens entered the second half of the 20th century, most of the small private cemeteries like this one, listed in 1932, disappeared under development, and we can only hope that the caskets were removed to other cemeteries. They held people long dead and forgotten, with no descendants or interested parties to complain. Fortunately for the Remsen’s, this cemetery was adopted by an American Legion post which stood just next door. The small plot was enclosed by a chain fence, not much protection from outside forces.
A memorial to the Colonel, the Major and two other Remsens who were also patriots during the Revolution was established. After World War I, a memorial with two doughboy statues and a flag was also erected in the cemetery. By the end of the 20th century, local preservationists, led by historian Jeff Gottlieb, advocated for the landmarking of the cemetery. In 1981, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the site. In 2003, thanks to the Remsen Park Coalition, the city Parks Department took over the site. In 2008, Parks and Recreation agreed to buy the land abutting the cemetery from the American Legion, in order to establish a larger park.
The Remsen Cemetery lies at Alderton St & Trotting Course Lane, adjoining 69-43 Trotting Course Lane, in Rego Park. It’s a rare and important survivor of 18th and early 19th century Queens, and the resting place of two Revolutionary War veterans who played an important role in the history of our country, as well as the resting place of members one of the area’s oldest families. We shouldn’t let history be further paved over or plowed under. GMAP
(Above photograph: Ziggyhidedust.com)