First Shearith Israel Graveyard
First Shearith Israel Graveyard
|Location||55-57 Saint James Place, Manhattan, New York City, New York|
|Area||Less than 1 acre (0.40 ha)|
|NRHP Reference #||80002689|
|Added to NRHP||April 17, 1980|
First Shearith Israel Graveyard — also known as Chatham Square Cemetery — is a tiny graveyard at 55-57 St James Place in Lower Manhattan, New York City, New York. It is the oldest of three Manhattan graveyards currently maintained by Congregation Shearith Israel (Hebrew, "Remnant of Israel"), which is itself the oldest Jewish congregation in North America. (The Congregation was formed by Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic Jewish immigrants in 1654.) Today, the cemetery is a mere fragment of its original extent. Only about a hundred headstones and above ground tombs can still be seen in what remains of the old burial ground, which rises slightly above street level. It is the only remaining 17th century structure in Manhattan.
What is now called the First Shearith Israel Graveyard, near Chatham Square in Lower Manhattan, was in active use from 1683 to 1833. (There was actually an older cemetery, dating to 1656 — two years after the community arrived — and no longer extant.) The site was originally on a hill overlooking the East River in an open area at the northern periphery of the British-Dutch colonial settlement. The plot was purchased in 1682 by Joseph Bueno de Mesquita and the first interment was that of his relative Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita the following year. The cemetery expanded in the 1700s so that at one point it extended from Chatham Square over what is now the upper part of Oliver Street down to Bancker (now Madison) Street.
In a letter in 1776, a staff officer of General George Washington recommended emplacing an artillery battery "at the foot of the Jews’ burying ground" to help secure Long Island Sound. In 1823, a city ordinance prohibited burials south of Canal Street compelling the Congregation to rely on its second burial ground, already consecrated in 1805 at West 11th Street in Greenwich Village. (Notwithstanding this, a few more burials took place at Chatham Square up to 1833.) Much of this burden was alleviated in 1829, when Shearith Israel’s third cemetery was consecrated at 21st Street just west of 6th Avenue.
Encroaching development and erosion necessitated several instances over the years in which the Congregation was forced reduce the size of the Chatham Square Cemetery and disinter bodies which were moved to the Congregation's three other graveyards. (In 1851, city public health officials prohibited burial south of 86th Street and the Congregation purchased — in partnership with other synagogues — a large plot of land in Ridgewood, Queens as a fourth cemetery.) The most notable of these instances was in 1855, when a large portion of the cemetery was seized by eminent domain. This accommodated expansion of the Bowery — including the cut-through of today’s St. James Place — and some 256 graves were removed.
Today, access to the cemetery is by appointment only.
From 1656 until 1825, all of the practicing Jews of New York City belonged to the Shearith Israel congregation and all were buried here, including 22 who fought in the Revolutionary War. Among the notable interees (which may include those whose bodies were later removed) are...
- The Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745–1816), first American born Jewish spiritual leader.
- Dr. Walter Jonas Judah, second known Jew to attend an American medical school (King's College, now Columbia University) and the first native-born Jew to do so; died at age 20, a victim of the yellow fever epidemic of 1798 that killed more than 2,000 New Yorkers (he perished with other victims because he chose to remain with, and care for, the ill).
- National Park Service (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
- Dolkart, Andrew S. & Postal, Matthew A.; Guide to New York City Landmarks, 3rd Edition; New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission; John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2004. ISBN 0-471-36900-4; p.41.
- White, Norval & Willensky, Elliot; AIA Guide to New York City, 4th Edition; New York Chapter, American Institute of Architects; Crown Publishers/Random House. 2000. ISBN 0-8129-3106-8; ISBN 0-8129-3107-6. p.80.