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The forgotten story of hidden Colonial Cemeteries of Oyster Bay

4 min read

The pictoresque town of Oyster Bay, located on the north shore of Long Island, is steeped in history.
For example, there is the home of Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, that played a vital part in George Washington’s spy ring during the Revolutionary War.
However a large part of its history remains hidden from view, dotted around the town, where lies numerous colonial era cemeteries.
As the town’s population has grown they have found themselves hidden away, at the end of small alleys running alongside private homes, or nestled behind driveways and surrounded by back gardens.
For historians, genealogists and even enthusiasts, cemeteries are filled with information about the past, and these old burial grounds are some of the oldest to be found in New York State.

The earliest cemeteries were small family plots such as the Townsend or Mill Hill cemetery located just to the west of the Mill Pond in Oyster Bay.
This was a family burial plot for Henry Townsend, who built the first mill in Oyster Bay in 1661 and was buried on his own property.
Also in nearby Oyster Bay Cove, the Youngs family set aside a plot of their own land for a family burying place in 1658. Today, it also contains the grave of Theodore Roosevelt himself.

Several church groups began cemeteries in the later part of the 17th century, while interest in the documentation of the early burials within the Town goes back to the 1800s when some historians began recording the inscriptions on the stones in some of the very oldest cemeteries. Samuel Youngs wrote about the difficulty finding the gravestones of the earliest settlers of Oyster Bay, as many had disappeared even by the early 1800s.
If he made any transcriptions is unknown, but he was feeling some frustration as revealed in a short verse he wrote in the early 1800s:

Where are the stones that mark the bones
Of those who die in Oyster Bay?
There are no stones to mark the bones
Of those who die in Oyster Bay.

Another example of one such graveyards is Old Baptist Cemetery.
Running parallel to West Main Street, is Orchard Street. The idyllic small town charm of the wooden houses holds the graveyard. Surrounded by white picket fences and overlooked by bedrooms windows, it dates back to at least 1749, which is the earliest readable stone. Here the headstones often lie askew, some completely fallen over. One remarkable head stone, belonging to Mary, the wife of the town Reverend, Marmaduke Earl has been half consumed by a tree. Other residents of the forgotten cemetery include early members of the Townsend and Underhill families who dominated early colonial life in Oyster Bay.

Another, hidden away at the end of Simcoe Street is the Fort Hill burying ground, perhaps the most important cemetery of all.
Almost impossible to find, access is gained by approaching the last house on the right. Then, walking down a narrow unpaved trail running alongside a fine wooden home, is a chained, rusted gate, closed by an easily openable bolt.
One of the earliest graves here dates to 1668, belonging to John Townsend, a local wealthy merchant. Most remarkably, here also lies Robert Townsend, who operated under the code name “Culper Junior” in General Washington’s spy service. Historical, he was a key figure in uncovering the Benedict Arnold and Major John André plot to surrender West Point to the British army.
Sadly, this deteriorating ancient graveyard is surrounded on all sides by more back gardens, filled with several objects, flower beds and swimming pools, and It is also home to a daughter of the Townsend household, Sarah, also known as Sally, sister to Robert. Sarah Townsend is popular due the fact she received what is said to be the first Valentine’s Card given in America!

The hidden cemeteries of Oyster Bay, that received little by way of maintenance over the years, have now become a forgotten part of the town with many headstones disappeared.
Some were used in building foundations, door stoops, and for walkways while others, during the Revolutionary War, Hessian and British soldiers reportedly desecrated many local graves and took headstones to use for different purposes.
Many family cemeteries simply disappeared, while some were removed to larger public cemeteries and many remaining gravestones have deteriorated so much that they are now completely unreadable….

Images from web – Google Research