As Halloween approaches, there’s no better time to write about one of our favorite subjects: old cemeteries.
We love old cemeteries. They are restful places for contemplation and reflection. Nothing scares us about old cemeteries, except that they are vanishing by the hundreds from rural landscapes every year, victims of neglect, abandonment or lack of funds.
Maintaining cemeteries is challenging. America is a mobile country and most families don’t spend generations in the same place, tending to the final resting places of their dearly departed. Even back in the mid-1700s, when Hillsdale was first being settled, the lure of land to the west kept people on the move. But old cemeteries are also vital historical and genealogical resources. Many of Hillsdale’s founding families — Foster, McKinstry, Bixby, Collin, Latting, Mallery, Krum, Hatch, Pixley – are interred in the old cemeteries.
In its earliest days, Hillsdale families buried their dead in private or family burying grounds – there were more than forty by 1878. Most of these are long gone, but some family plots can still be found. One of the oldest (and hardest to find) is the Hatch burying ground in the hamlet of Green River. It has been encroached upon by a change in the course of the stream and the stones are broken and nearly impossible to read. The oldest inscription — “Mrs. Isabel, wife of Mr. Elisha Hatch, died July 23d, 1767, in her 43d year” — gives an approximate date of its dedication as a place of burial. The Hatch family came to the area from Cape Cod in the mid-1700’s and was among the earliest families in Hillsdale. Fun Fact: Town Supervisor Peter Cipkowski’s mother was a Hatch.
Another old family burying ground is the McKinstry Family Plot on Hunt Road. John McKinstry was the son of an Ulster immigrant who had marched in 1757 from the bleak frontier town of Blandford, MA to the failed relief of Fort William Henry, where atrocities committed by the Huron tribes against the surrendered British troops were portrayed in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. By 1767 McKinstry had taken up land in Nobletown (North Hillsdale). In 1775 he raised his own militia of Nobletown men to march to the siege of Boston. He and his brother Charles served long and hard in the Revolution and while John moved to Hudson after the war (and reputedly opened the city’s first saloon), Charles remained in Nobletown with brothers Thomas and David, who are also buried in the plot with their wives and children. At some point in the last 200 years all of the stones were laid flat, which may account for the preservation of these poignant inscriptions: “In memory of Tabithy, wife of Col. Charles McKinstry, and her babe 10 days old who died July 16th, 1787 in the 32nd year of her age.” “Olive, daughter of Charles and Tabitha McKinstry, died Nov. 4 1778.” “Two infant children of Charles McKinstry 17…” “Sacred to the memory of Mrs. Nancy, wife of Col. Charles McKinstry who departed this life May 24 1798 in the 35th year of her age.” By the time Charles McKinstry himself died in 1818, he had attained the rank of General, which is duly inscribed on his elaborate headstone, along with a Masonic symbol.
For a town like Hillsdale, which lost the bulk of its early public records in an 1840s fire, the significance of its old cemeteries is hard to overstate. Hillsdale’s cemeteries are history books, and each headstone tells its own story, often filling in some of the blanks left by the fire. There are 15 cemeteries in Hillsdale, a mixture of family plots, churchyard burying sites and one public cemetery. Consider that the remains of 61 American Revolution (AR) veterans are buried in Hillsdale. In Austerlitz, formed in 1818 from a chunk of Hillsdale and smaller parts of Chatham and Canaan, there are another 52 AR interments, bringing the total to 113. That’s almost 20 percent of all known AR interments in Columbia County, and speaks to a time when this region played a dynamic role in the country’s transition from the colonial era to the Republic.
Visiting the oldest cemeteries reveals their poor condition, with smashed, broken or buried headstones the norm rather than the exception.
Notable examples of neglect include the Methodist (“Foster”) cemetery on Pill Hill. This burial ground contains the remains of four AR veterans. Many of its handsome obelisks are lying on the ground, smashed by falling branches. Its headstones tilt like drunkards, pushed askew by overgrown tree roots. Another example is the Old Community (aka Old Orchard) cemetery on Old Town Road. Many of its headstones have sunk below ground and are barely visible. Its oldest grave is Mercy Chase, 1767, and there are six AR vets buried there. Intriguingly, it also contains stones with hieroglyphs that are reputedly Native American tombstones. The Krum Church cemetery, situated overlooking a beautiful pond on Harlemville Road and perhaps the oldest cemetery in the area, is in extremely poor condition. It holds the remains of 13 AR veterans and its oldest stone dates to 1798.
By the mid-19th century the rural cemetery movement had taken hold in America, and cemeteries were designed outside of urban centers to remove the dead from the immediate realm of the living. Keith Eggener, author of Cemeteries, writes:
“Old church burial grounds were beginning to be seen as inadequate: dangerous, crowded, expensive to maintain, and as carriers of disease. Especially in cities, thousands of burials had taken place on very small plots of ground; these places filled up. You often had burials five or six coffins deep. Sometimes the walls would break down during floods and coffins would break open and bodies would spill out into the street. During times of epidemics—yellow fever, cholera—cemeteries were seen as centers for the gathering of these diseases and their dissemination. By moving the dead out of city centers to places like Cambridge (Mount Auburn Cemetery, 1831) and Brooklyn (Green-Wood Cemetery, 1838), these “rural cemeteries” allowed for much larger burial grounds. Cemeteries increasingly after 1830 were places with winding roads and picturesque vistas … the great rural cemeteries were built at a time when there weren’t public parks, or art museums, or botanical gardens in American cities. You suddenly had large pieces of ground, filled with beautiful sculptures and horticultural art. People flocked to cemeteries for picnics, for hunting and shooting and carriage racing.”
The Hillsdale Rural Cemetery on Route 22, founded 1865, was the first public cemetery in town not associated with a church or family. It conforms, in a modest way, to the ideals of a rural cemetery, with landscaping and winding walkways. Maintained by a cemetery association, it is still in use.
We hope it’s not too late to save the town’s oldest cemeteries. Several years ago Historic Hillsdale created a Cemetery Committee to map and assess the condition of Hillsdale’s cemeteries, and develop proposals for their rehabilitation and maintenance. Here is a link to the condition report. If you have ideas to help save Hillsdale’s historic cemeteries or would like to volunteer for the Cemetery Committee, you can attend to the next Historic Hillsdale meeting on Oct. 22 at 11:00 AM at Town Hall, or leave us a note in the comments section, below..