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Early American Gravestones Volume 36 Number 5, September/October 1983
by Sherene Baugher and Frederick A. Winter

Archaeological Perspectives on Three Cemeteries of Old New York

Even without excavation, cemeteries and especially the gravestones they contain provide an unusual laboratory for the archaeologist. Along with the predictable information found on them--a name, a date, and possibly an epitaph--archaeologists have been able to reach beyond the stones themselves. Grave markers are essentially "documents in stone," and for the archaeologist these relics of Early America have proven fertile ground for an analysis of how artifacts may have changed over time.

Archaeology's reliance on artifacts and the material manifestations of culture give it a unique and long-term perspective not available to other disciplines that rely solely on living informants or written historical sources. The same reliance on "the material" that provides archaeology with its strength, however, also accounts for archaeology's greatest weakness. The generally accepted goal of archaeology is a better understanding of human cultures. But cultures are defined in terms of languages and shared systems of belief--elements not available for direct archaeological observation. Archaeology's inevitable focus on artifacts and other physical remains thus places it one step away from the actual subject of its concern, and forces it to bridge somehow the gap between the material manifestations and their cultural source.

There is a general archaeological assumption that different systems of belief will generate different artifact forms. It is also assumed that these forms will change through time. The popularity of a particular form of artifact will normally follow a pattern that begins with the appearance of a limited number of examples of a new type, and progresses until the new type has achieved broad and widespread distribution. Eventually, the popularity of the type will fade and only a few representatives--heirlooms, perhaps--will linger in use. When the old type goes out of style, new ones are developed to replace it. These patterns of popularity that go from periods of limited distribution to widespread distribution and finally to a second phase of limited distribution can be graphed as a "lenticular" (lens shaped) or battleship-shaped curve. This patterned sequence of artifact change can be used to provide relative chronologies through a process known as "seriation dating," in which the percentage presence of different artifact forms is compared from individual sites or subsections within sites.

Archaeologists also tend to assume that certain variations in artifact forms will be associated with the different subgroups within each culture. Particular artifact types can be used to identify individual membership in subgroups defined on the basis of sex, age, religion, and so on.

In attempts to test these archaeological assumptions, to study the ways in which artifacts may vary through time, and to place these variations in a cultural perspective, historical archaeologists James Deetz and Edwin Dethlefsen pioneered the archaeological study of Early American gravestones during the 1960s. They rightly considered gravestones ideal for establishing this kind of perspective because the stones permit control of the varying archaeological dimensions of space (it was assumed that they would not be moved far from their initial place of erection); time (since they are inscribed with dates); and form (since the patterns used to decorate them are sufficiently complex that variations can be easily recognized).

Deetz and Dethlefsen focused their study on gravestones in New England, paying particular attention to changes in the gravestones' decorations, shapes and inscriptions. Their study seemed to confirm traditional archaeological assumptions. Decorations on the tombstones--and the transition from the motif of the death's-head to the cherub to urn-and-willow designs--followed the lenticular pattern previously assumed for seriation dating.

According to Deetz and Dethlefsen, the death's-head motif accompanied the harsh beliefs of orthodox Puritanism. Its replacement by the cherub reflected eighteenth century religious liberalization during the "Great Awakening," a period when some scholars believe orthodox Puritan views were being replaced by a more liberal perspective. Finally, the shift to the urn-and-willow motif was thought to accompany the rise of less emotional and more secular religions such as Unitarianism and Methodism. The transition from death's-head to cherub to urn-and-willow did not take place at the same time in every site. Deetz and Dethlefsen computed the diffusion rate for the spread of the cherub throughout Colonial New England, calculating its dissemination at a rate of approximately one mile per year out of the Cambridge area into rural New England.

Despite universal recognition of the importance of their research for archaeological understanding of material culture, Deetz and Dethlef sen's gravestone studies have not been without critics. In 1976 David Hall, a historian from Boston University, attacked their religious interpretations of the death's-head, cherub and urn-and-willow motifs. He noted that Puritanism was not necessarily a grim religion, that the ideas associated with the "Great Awakening" included some very conservative elements and that Unitarianism and Methodism were hardly monolithic in outlook and, certainly in the case of Methodism, neither secular in orientation nor diminished in religious fervor. Other scholars have pointed out that the death's-head was unlikely to have been a purely Puritan image since it also appears in non-Puritan areas, such as New York.

Frederick German and Michael DiBlasi, anthropologists from Boston University, working in 1976 with data from cemeteries in the southeastern United States, discovered that the predicted lenticular pattern of popularity can also be affected by non-chronological factors such as local variations in style, local preferences by craftsmen, limitations in the geographical range of craftsmen and their products, and the isolation of some rural communities from the mainstream styles. All of these variables may introduce skews into the pristine pattern of artifact variation found by Deetz and Dethlefsen in their New England studies.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, funded by a grant from the New York Council on the Humanities, recently conducted an investigation of the historic cemeteries of New York City. As part of this project, detailed recordings were made from three of the largest Early American cemeteries in the city: Trinity in Manhattan, St. Andrew's on Staten Island and Gravesend in Brooklyn. This study provided data similar to that produced by Deetz and Dethlefsen and other archaeological studies of gravestones. The New York cemeteries, however, include one additional and important class of information. Whereas the New England cemeteries were used by an ethnically uniform population, the cemeteries of New York served a population that was ethnically diverse.

An important goal of this aspect of the Landmarks Commission's study was to determine if the Early American cemeteries of the city reflected this ethnic diversity. In addition, the earlier gravestone studies raised a number of questions that could be tested on the New York data. Is the New England sequential pattern of tombstone motifs repeated in New York? Does the use of images on gravestones reflect changes in religious ideology, as Deetz and Dethlefsen suggested, or differences between religions? Do different ethnic groups choose different motifs for their burial markers? Lastly, does the choice of a motif reflect preferences based on the deceased person's age or sex? Because of its cultural complexity New York provided an ideal laboratory for answering these questions.

The first permanent European settlers arrived in Manhattan in 1626. During Dutch rule trading posts and temporary settlements were founded on Staten Island and farming communities were established in Brooklyn. The Dutch settlement in lower Manhattan was called New Amsterdam. Although New Amsterdam was controlled by the Dutch, roughly half of the colony's population consisted of other nationalities. These non-Dutch residents included English and French Protestants and Portuguese Jewish settlers, all of whom were tolerated because the colony suffered chronic underpopulation. The city retained its polyethnic character when the British took control of New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York.

The Landmarks Commission's study of Early American cemeteries focused on stones from the period from before 1815. This was done for two reasons. First, the year 1815 marks the end of the Colonial and Federal years in the United States and the beginning of a new age associated with the development of American industry and the growth of modem transportation networks. The second reason for limiting the period of the study to the years before 1815 is more practical. In earlier times, New Yorkers used sedimentary brown sandstone for grave markers. This particular stone tends to weather well, so details of inscriptions and iconography are reasonably well preserved. During the nineteenth century, white marble became the predominant material used for gravestones. Marble tends to disintegrate in the corrosive atmosphere of New York, and today the majority of these marble gravestones are unreadable.

The three cemeteries studied include one from the city's core (Trinity in Manhattan); one from an outlying trade center (St. Andrew's on Staten Island); and one from an outlying farming community (Gravesend in Brooklyn). This deliberate selection was designed to give a sampling of material from a variety of localities and economic groups as well as from an ethnically diverse population. It also made it possible to determine if communities farther from the urban core would be more likely to demonstrate conservatism in their choice of tombstone design elements or show differences in their selection of grave markers.

The urban core cemetery is associated with Trinity Church, located on lower Broadway near the head of Wall Street within the original borders of seventeenth century English New York. The church was founded by Royal Charter in 1697, but the cemetery had already been in use for at least 16 years. There are two sections of Trinity Cemetery--one to the north and the other to the south of the church--which in fact form discrete burial grounds. Together, the northern and southern cemeteries at Trinity provide not only the earliest preserved gravestones in New York, but also, according to the official publication of Trinity Church, the most extensive series of stones--a total of 1,186. The northern section is the earlier of the two and contains the majority of the stones from the pre-1815 period. It alone was used for this study.

St. Andrew's Cemetery is located in Richmondtown, the county seat of Staten Island from 1710 to 1898, which lies in the center of the island. Throughout its history, Staten Island has been the most rural of the five boroughs of New York and has, until recently, had access to the mainland only by ferries and sloops. The first bridges linking the island to New Jersey were built in 1928. Because of its isolation, the island has long maintained a small-town, rural quality.

Richmondtown, from its earliest settlement in the late 1660s, was a community of people with diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds--Dutch, English and French settled there. The village is located at the crossroads of routes leading to all areas of the island, and during the eighteenth century Richmondtown served as both a production and a distribution center. Products and produce passed through Richmondtown, moving between markets in New York and neighboring Perth Amboy and Elizabeth, which lie across the Arthur Kill opposite Staten Island. Artifacts unearthed from excavations in Richmondtown confirm this New Jersey-Staten Island and Richmondtown-New York trade network. And more to the point, this trade network is reflected in the gravestones that appear in cemeteries of Richmondtown and Manhattan. Both communities had access to the stone carving workshops of Manhattan and New Jersey.

St. Andrew's Cemetery, surrounding an Anglican church built in 1709, is located at the northwestern corner of the village on a gently sloping rise. The earliest surveyed stone, a brownstone with a death's-head motif, dates to 1742. Of the 229 family surnames found on both Colonial and Victorian stones, about one-third belong to old Staten Island families. Many Dutch and French surnamed individuals were buried along with the English, although all of the gravestones were written in English. Only 74 readable brownstones survive from the Colonial and Federal periods (up to 1815).

The third cemetery is in Gravesend in the southwestern section of the borough of Brooklyn. The original seventeenth century settlement at Gravesend was unique among the early European villages within Brooklyn because it was founded by English rather than Dutch colonists. The patent establishing the village of Gravesend was issued to the English settlers by the Dutch governor, Willem Kiefft, on December 19, 1645. This patent is noteworthy for the emphasis it places on religious freedom and for the fact that it names a woman as the primary grantee--a widow named Deborah Moody.

The population of Gravesend consisted of two distinct groups. One segment was led by Lady Moody and her son Henry, and included religious dissidents from New England variously identified as Anabaptists and Quakers. The other major population segment among the original English settlers was led by Nicholas Stillwell, and consisted of Anglican tobacco growers who had previously lived in Manhattan. These original settlers were soon joined by additional English and Dutch colonists. English settlers were no doubt attracted to Gravesend in part because of the Dutch administration's implied promises of non-interference in the community's internal affairs, permitting in all probability a lucrative smuggling business in addition to efforts in tobacco farming and cattle raising.

Gravesend village was laid out as a quadranted square with an open ground or "common" in the center of the quadrant. The cemetery is located in the approximately 60-meter square common of the southwestern quadrant. No gravestones are preserved from the earliest period of settlement, and only 27 gravestones and one fieldstone grave marker bearing dates remain from before 1815. This barely legible fieldstone marker, dated 1724, provides the earliest indication of a burial within the cemetery; it precedes by 43 years the earliest standing brownstone grave marker of 1767. A map of the cemetery prepared in 1923 includes one additional early grave marked 1760, but the stone from that burial is no longer present.

Of the three cemeteries, Trinity Cemetery contains the largest number of stones, with more than 350 pre-1815 stones on the north side of the church. Conspicuously absent are any brownstones with urn-and-willow motifs from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the urn-and-willow was most popular in New England. The first brownstone with this motif is dated 1816. Stones bearing only inscriptions, without any decoration, are the most common form at Trinity. Cherubs and death's-heads precede the undecorated stones chronologically as the most popular types. The earliest stone from Trinity, which dates to 1681, is decorated on its face with an inscription and a monogram, and the death's-head is relegated to the reverse side of the stone. This unusual gravestone was probably imported from England.

The 1681 stone highlights a problem in the study of New York's early cemeteries: only three tombstones are preserved from the seventeenth century, the first 75 years of Manhattan's European occupation. Obviously, many tombstones and, indeed, whole cemeteries have been destroyed as the city developed. In addition, the preserved tombstones from the eighteenth century include only the grave markers of the middle and upper class inhabitants, while the burials of the lower working class and poor have been lost.

The stones from Trinity reflect the normal eighteenth-century stylistic transition from death's-heads to cherubs; during the decade 1740-50 the two forms enjoy equal popularity. There was a wide variety of death's-head and cherub designs in the cemetery, with no apparent correlation between the motif and the sex or age of the deceased. The stones of Anne Grigg and her 14-year-old daughter Mary, both from 1742 and situated adjacent to each other, suggest that age was not a determinant in the use of the cherub design--the mother was given the cherub and the presumably more innocent daughter received the death's-head. Other tombstones were decorated with floral and Masonic symbols.

St. Andrew's Cemetery has 74 stones from the pre-1815 period. The urn-and-willow motif appears in this cemetery, although as in Trinity the predominant form in the later period was the undecorated stone. Initials and flower motifs were popular at the same time as the undecorated stones. Cherubs and death's-heads precede the undecorated stones in popularity, although very few death's-heads are found. The diverse designs of the cherubs reflect the work of the variety of carvers who produced stones for the Staten Island families. As in Trinity, the age and sex of the deceased did not seem to affect the choice of motif. In St. Andrew's, in terms of iconography, the flower motifs are the only designs that reflect any purposeful ethnic choice. These designs are found only on the gravestones of French and Dutch surnamed individuals.

In addition, documentary research on St. Andrew's Cemetery has shown that individuals buried in the churchyard were not necessarily members of the congregation. Some graves were the result of re-interments within historic churchyards of burials from endangered private family plots and homestead graves. Religious affiliation obviously cannot be assigned simply on the basis of an individual's presence within a cemetery.

More detailed recording was carried out in Gravesend Cemetery. Of the 27 legible brownstone gravestones dated 1815 or earlier, 15 are from male and 12 are from female burials. Five stones bear inscriptions in Dutch, 13 are inscribed in English but memorialize individuals with Dutch surnames, and the remaining nine gravestone inscriptions are in English for English surnamed individuals. There is no apparent correlation between sex and choice of language among the Dutch ethnics.

Most of the inscriptions begin "In Memory Of"--a phrase which appears on 17 of the stones. As with choice of language, ethnic affiliation and sex do not seem to have affected the choice of this particular inscription. It appears on the stones of three English surnamed males, two English surnamed females, nine Dutch surnamed males, and three Dutch sumamed females. The earliest "In Memory Of" stone is dated 1779, although the Dutch translation ("Tot Gedaghten") appears on a male's stone from 1771. Prior to the use of the "In Memory Of " inscription, Gravesend's stones were inscribed "Here Lies The Body Of," written either with archaic English spelling or in Dutch translation.

An 1811 stone with a Dutch "Here Lies" inscription marks an unusually late appearance for this early phrasing. It is perhaps in part explained by the fact that the woman on whose gravestone it appears was 67 years old when she died, although individuals of even greater age who died in approximately the same year used the more up-to-date "In Memory Of" inscription. The shape of this 1811 stone with its archaic Dutch inscription is not traditional. Its outline is that of a "shouldered cradle," an exclusively nineteenth century form that combines an earlier gravestone shape--resembling a cradle's headboard--and adds to it a pair of flanking, half-rounded moldings or "shoulders." This tombstone serves as a warning that archaeologists must anticipate the survival of occasional out-of-date elements.

The only other phrasing appearing at Gravesend is "Sacred To The Memory Of," which appears on the stones of two females, one English and one Dutch surnamed, dated 1806 and 1807. There is no reason to assume, based on the style of the inscriptions, the letter forms and the letter placement, that these two stones were carved by the same individual.

Gravesend Cemetery contains no stones with death's-heads. Eight stones are decorated with cherubs, and the style of these carved cherubs reveals the only possible distinction that may be drawn between Gravesend's Dutch and English populations. Naturalistic, portrait-like cherubs appear on three of the Dutch-language stones. No naturalistic cherubs appear on English stones in Gravesend, but the same carver who produced the naturalistic cherubs on the Dutch stones of Femette (1768) and Bernard Vorhes (1769) in Gravesend also carved tombstones in Trinity Cemetery for Rebeccah Ashton in 1769 and for Jane, Mary and Elizabeth Slidel in 1770.

Among the "stylized" cherub stones, the gravestone of Helena Prest (1768) was carved in the distinctive style of John Zuricher, a Manhattan carver whose work also appears in St. Andrew's and Trinity and in a number of other cemeteries in the eastern United States. The anonymous carver of the Gravesend tombstones of Idah (1784) and Nicholas Williamson (1779) was also active in the Manhattan market. His cherubs appear on three stones dated 1785,1788 and 1790 in Trinity Cemetery. There are no stones with urn-and-willow patterns in Gravesend Cemetery.

Six gravestone shapes appear among the pre-1815 stones in Gravesend Cemetery. Stones with the simple "bedboard" shape, which consisted in outline of two half- round moldings flanking a larger central half-round, and two variants on the cradle form are the earliest to appear, while more elaborate variants of the cradle form are not preserved from before the early nineteenth century. The most elaborate of these cradle variants is used only for male burials in the period before 1815; out of a total of six occurrences it is used only once to mark a female burial in Gravesend. With this one exception, there are no other sexual, ethnic, age-based or other trends apparent in the shape of grave markers at Gravesend.

This study of three Early American New York cemeteries suggests that the changes in artifact style and form do not adhere to a simple linear progression or pattern. This is particularly true in a cemetery like Gravesend where the number of stones in the study is severely limited. Trinity Cemetery, with the greatest number of stones of the three cemeteries studied, comes closest to producing the expected lenticular curve of popularity that archaeological studies have assumed to be the "normal" cultural pattern. But even Trinity does not provide an exact uniform sequence that would fit the traditional assumptions of archaeological seriation dating.

Trinity and St. Andrew's were Anglican cemeteries, while Gravesend was nonsectarian. Despite the differences in religious affiliation, however, there are no elements that distinguish the non-affiliated cemetery at Gravesend from the Anglican churchyards. Perhaps this simply reflects a limited access to raw materials or skilled craftsmen.

One must be cautious in trying to offer religious explanations of the uniformity in decorative motifs that appear on the gravestones of early New York. The New York gravestones were primarily from people of the Dutch Reformed and Anglican faiths. These religions both grew out of the European enlightenment and basic themes in the Protestant Reformation and they had many elements in common. David Hall feels that the images on eighteenth century American grave markers may reflect nothing more than a shared western moral tradition, rather than a tie to any one particular faith. The New York cemeteries seem to confirm this idea.

As with religious affiliation, ethnicity does not seem to be reflected in choices of decorative motif on the gravestones in these three cemeteries. Cherubs and stones bearing only inscriptions appear in all three cemeteries, and the absence of the death's-head in Gravesend is likely to be the result of the absence of pre-1765 stones. Cherub motifs, similarly, were chosen by English and Dutch alike. And although inscriptions appear in the Dutch language at Gravesend, the content of these inscriptions when translated is identical to the inscriptions on English-language stones used by the English and Dutch surnamed individuals.

We know from historical sources that there was conflict between the Dutch and English in early New York. This conflict was manifest in economical and political competition--but even here both groups were striving for the same ends and were judging success by the same material standards. Archaeologically, this kind of competition tends to reduce the ethnic differences in material remains and complicates the archaeological attempts to bridge the gap between artifacts and ideas.

In early New York City the Dutch and English, while living, demonstrated their status in the erection of similar Georgian and Federal style homes. When dead, their common western European heritage was demonstrated in their selection of similar markers for eternity. Gravestones then demonstrated more cultural unity than diversity among the Dutch and English elite and middle class in Early American New York.

Sherene Baugher and Frederick A. Winter wrote this article.

© 1983 by the Archaeological Institute of America