A Colonial Cemetery in a Park, and a Question: Does the City Own It?

Local historians say a half-acre lot inside Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx was a burial ground for slaves and is not owned by New York City.

“This is it,” Peter Ostrander said — the half-acre deep inside one of New York City’s largest parks. The half-acre he says the city does not own. The half-acre near a cemetery where slaves were buried in unmarked graves.

The half-acre was once a cemetery for the family that sold their farm in the Bronx to the Van Cortlandts, who already owned the farm next door. Mr. Ostrander, the president of the Kingsbridge Historical Society, and Nicholas Dembowski, a teacher and amateur historian who has done extensive research on the park, say neither cemetery was conveyed to the city when the Van Cortlandt estate transferred the family’s acreage for a park in the 1880s.

“It is hard to believe that half an acre of land can slip through the cracks,” Mr. Dembowski said, “but it did.”

The Parks Department disputes the claim, saying the city acquired the entire Van Cortlandt estate between 1888 and 1890 by condemning it. “When a parcel is acquired through condemnation,” a spokeswoman for the Parks Department said, “the acquiring party takes title to everything.”

At 1,146 acres, Van Cortlandt Park is the city’s third largest, behind Pelham Bay Park, also in the Bronx, and the Greenbelt on Staten Island. As for cemeteries, as far as the Parks Department knows, more than 50 parks encompass former burial plots, including Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, Union Square and Bryant Park. Others have headstones or remnants of headstones.

But the Parks Department has no burial records for the Kingsbridge burial ground, and there is nothing to indicate that the half-acre was ever a cemetery.

Nor is there documented proof that slaves owned by the Van Cortlandts’ were buried in a separate cemetery nearby. But there is circumstantial evidence. “We know from census figures and other references that the Van Cortlandt family did have slaves,” said Lloyd Ultan, the longtime Bronx historian. “The practice was, when slaves died, they were buried on the farm, but there were no markers. We just know that there were slaves there.”

The Parks Department said a 2003 “cultural landscape survey” found that the ruins might have been a burial ground used first for Native Americans and later for African-American slaves. The construction of a railroad line destroyed what was left of that graveyard.

The other burial ground — the half-acre that belonged to the Van Cortlandts’ predecessors — is surrounded by an iron-pipe fence, but there is no plaque commemorating it. No gravestones rise from the ground and the remnants of several headstones are covered by leaves, weeds and poison ivy.

“As it is, it looks like a corral,” Mr. Ostrander said.

Mary French, the founder of the New York City Cemetery Project, a blog that tracks old burial grounds, said that was typical.

“These old family burial grounds tend to look like vacant lots or green spaces tucked in the surrounding developments,” she said. “They all follow the same story — forgotten, abandoned and neglected as descendants moved away from the area, and often in ownership limbo because they technically belong to the heirs of the families that established them. Many of these ended up under the control of the city during the early 20th century and are often managed by the Parks Department.”

A couple of gravestones lie against an old stone house that was George Washington’s headquarters after his troops lost the Battle of Long Island in 1776. Augustus Van Cortlandt, the city clerk at the time, hid municipal records on the family’s plantation — in the Van Cortlandts’ own burial vault, almost a mile away.

“Parks forgot them, and now you can’t read them” because the inscriptions have disappeared as the gravestones became weathered, Mr. Ostrander said.

Mr. Dembowski said the Kingsbridge burial ground was the final resting place of Samuel Berrian, a farmer who settled in the area in the mid-18th century. The area was called Tippett’s Neck after Berrian’s neighbors, the Tippetts. He married a Tippett daughter, Dorcas.

In the American Revolution, the Tippetts were loyal to the British, but Berrian was on the side of the colonists. The Tippetts fled to Nova Scotia after Washington went from being a general to being a president. Tippett’s Neck, where Spuyten Duyvil met the Hudson River, became known as Berrian’s Neck.

Dorcas Berrian died in 1794, Samuel Berrian in 1795. Their headstones stood side by side in good condition as late as 1971, when Mr. Ostrander snapped a photograph of the old cemetery.

He said someone from the Parks Department took the headstones from the cemetery in the early 1980s and placed them against a gate near the Van Cortlandt house, possibly to protect them from vandalism. Last week, when he and Mr. Dembowski stopped by to check on them, they were lying on the ground next to the house.

Mr. Dembowski’s research convinced him that the cemetery was never the Van Cortlandts’ property. He cited a document that George Tippett, the first of the Tippetts in the area, submitted to the Westchester County government in 1717 — the north Bronx belonged to Westchester in those days.

Tippett’s meaning seems clear despite 18th century phrasing and abbreviations, not to mention capitalization that looks erratic to 20th century eyes. It described “one quart of an acre of land wch. Has been used for a Burying place for a great many years” for the Tippetts and was “to remaine for a Burying place for their use forever.”

Tippett doubled the size of the cemetery when he sold the farm — a “home lott,” he called the property — in 1732. He said everything was included in the purchase except the “half acre of ground part of ye home lott aforementioned which hath heretofore been & still is for the use of a Ceimtery or burying place.”

To Mr. Dembowski, there is no doubt. The cemetery did not belong to the Van Cortlandts, and they could not have legally deeded it to the Parks Department.

He said it was not clear when the slave cemetery was started — he said he had only secondhand sources to go on. But it could have existed in the time of Augustus Van Cortlandt and his younger brother Frederick, who lived nearby.

“Between them, there were 26 slaves,” Mr. Dembowski said. Mr. Ultan, the Bronx historian, agreed, saying the slave population was “nowhere near the hundreds that would be on a southern plantation.”

Mr. Ultan said one of the slaves “manned a boat on the lake which shipped the grain to the mill.” Mr. Dembowski said the miller was also a slave, as was the cooper who made barrels. “There could be a lot of slaves buried there,” he said. “This is not documented. Other than wills and runaway slave ads, there is not a lot of evidence. I could find descendants of Samuel Berrian. For descendants of slaves, nobody knows.”

Mr. Dembowski tracked down a descendant of Samuel Berrian — a great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter, Beverly Puma, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Aurora, Colo. She did not know about her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, although she had grown up hearing about another Berrian, William, the rector of prestigious Trinity Church in Manhattan for more than 30 years in the mid-19th century.

“It would be wonderful if the headstones could be restored and returned to the original graveyard,” she said. “We would have expected the respect due a founding father, practically, but since I didn’t know Samuel Berrian’s grave existed, I can’t say this has to be done. How can I insist on something I didn’t know about.”

But she said she was proud of the family — so much so that when her son was born in 1974, she gave him the first name Berrian.

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