Queens has some of the oldest remaining homes in all of New York City. The borough’s history has a tangible footprint back to the 1600s, when the Dutch began the first settlements here. With that in mind, it’s also fitting that some of the oldest cemeteries are also in Queens.
For historians and descendants alike, one’s final resting place is almost as important as one’s dwelling place. How people lived, and what they were like as individuals and within the society can all be learned in a cemetery.
Cemeteries don’t tend to survive the urbanization of a neighborhood or city. A burial plot, whether it used to be in a churchyard or someone’s field way back when, can end up in the middle of a desirable building site, or even in the middle of the street, depending on how the neighborhood is laid out.
Final resting places are not always final, after all. Through the efforts of many, this one is, and has had quite a history
Jamaica’s Prospect Cemetery was formally established in 1668, and appears on maps and documents as the “burring plas.” Jamaica was settled by a group of Englishmen who had petitioned Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant for permission to settle there in 1656.
Twelve years later, town records show that townsman John Wascot was hired to enclose the “burring plas” with a fence. That means that the actual cemetery is really older than 1668, making this the oldest cemetery in Queens.
The cemetery was generally thought of as the Presbyterian burial ground, as it stood next to the Old Stone Church, built in the 1690s. There was some wrangling between the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians over who owned the church and the cemetery in the early 1700s.
The Crown had taken the church and grounds away from the Presbyterians and given it to the Church of England, i.e. the Episcopalians. It took a number of years for the town to clear that up, with it eventually going back to the Presbyterians.
During the Revolutionary War, the cemetery became the final resting place for brave Jamaicans who embraced the Patriot cause. Elias Bayliss, who died in 1777, is buried here. A tombstone erected in 1843 tells of his cruel treatment during the war by the British.
Another Jamaica man, Captain J. J. Skidmore, is also here. He led a group of Minutemen who fought in the Battle of Brooklyn. Records show that 54 men who fought in the Revolution are buried here. Two researchers belonging to the Daughters of the American Revolution determined this after years of pouring through old records.
Throughout the 18th century and first half of the 19th century, local landowners purchased property that surrounded the cemetery and established their own family burial plots here. The size of the “Presbyterian Cemetery” grew, spreading out in different directions.
One landowner, a local carpenter named Isaac Simonson, owned some of the largest plots of land surrounding the original burial ground. He began selling it off as private plots, enlarging the site.
It wasn’t until 1879 that all of the burial grounds were organized into the entity called Prospect Cemetery. Today, the Prospect Cemetery Association of Jamaica Village has title to all of the grounds.
The largest structure in the cemetery is the Chapel of the Sisters, built in 1857 by Nicholas Ludlum. Ludlum was a prosperous New York City hardware merchant. He had purchased about ten lots on the east side of the burial grounds, most of which he sold.
Ludlum wanted to improve and beautify the cemetery, and at his own expense, had the chapel built. It was dedicated to his three daughters who had all died tragically young in previous years. His first daughter had died at 13, the second at only one year of age, and the third died when she was 21, soon after getting married.
The small Romanesque Revival building is made of ashlar fieldstone, with lighter colored sandstone trim. The gabled-roof structure originally had iron cresting all around. The building has gabled porticoes on the 159th Street side and on the side facing the cemetery.
The north and south sides of the chapel are crowned with large stained glass rose windows. Today, the round arched door on the cemetery side is filled in. Visitors still enter the cemetery on the 159th Street side, that due to the presence of the chapel.
The oldest gravestones in the cemetery date to 1709. There are several classic 18th century markers with angel’s heads surrounded by wings, and several with skulls surrounded by wings. These are all relief carvings, and typical of the style of headstone popular in the mid to late 1700s. The stones in the cemetery run the stylistic gamut of the last 200 years.
Some of Queens’ most familiar names are buried here. There are Van Wycks, Sutphins and others. The cemetery was active through the end of the 19th century, and on into the 20th. Queens’ older families continued to bury family members here well into the last century.
Like many town cemeteries founded in past centuries, African Americans were not allowed to be buried here. There was no equality in life or in death, here.
The only exception is the grave of Jane Lyons. Her grave is listed in the records as that of “a colored woman, who upwards of 65 years was a faithful and devoted domestic in the family of James Hariman, Sr., of this village, died December 19, 1858. Age 75 years.”
Although the cemetery was cared for by the Prospect Cemetery Association during the 20th century, they lacked funds and staff, and by the 1980s, it had become run down and a target for litterers and vandals. Trash was blown into corners and against broken tombstones and poison ivy and weeds grew everywhere.
Several local groups and individuals came together to bring the cemetery back. Clean up days were organized, litter was bagged and weeds and poison ivy were pulled up and collected. Tombstones were righted and repaired.
In 1998, the cleanup involved the National Guard, students and concerned citizens. They cleared acres of land, and restored the cemetery to a decent state. This not only beautified the grounds, respecting the dead within, it also eliminated a drug and crime spot in the neighborhood.
In 2002, the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, the New York Landmarks Committee spearheaded a fund raising drive and raised community support to restore the Chapel of the Sisters. The rose windows were restored, and the chapel cleaned up.
Five years later, in 2007, Borough President Helen Marshall and others celebrated their efforts. The chapel is once again an important focal point in a much improved and very important cemetery. The Prospect Cemetery Association has been in the forefront of the restoration efforts. Their website has all kinds of information and photographs.
The Prospect Cemetery was designated as a New York City Landmark in 1977, and placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 2002. The cemetery is located at 159th Street and Beaver Road, in Jamaica, Queens.