The unmarked graves of an estimated 1,700 first- and second-generation Southampton settlers who were laid to rest in the 17th-century Old Burying Ground have been discovered through the use of ground-penetrating radar.
Members of the Southampton Town Historical Burying Ground Committee had portions of the L-shaped, 2-acre site between Little Plains Road and Post Lane in Southampton Village examined — as part of efforts to help piece together an important chapter of local history — to determine how many settlers had been buried there.
“We believe it was one of the first municipally laid-out cemeteries in the country, and we wanted to find out what was there,” said committee member Roger Tollefsen. “The cemetery was a way of establishing a community for the settlers, having come from England.”
Town historian Zach Studenroth noted that the property resembles an open field, rather than a cemetery, prompting many questions.
“We have a special committee created to develop programs associated with this and other town-owned sites, and the question was if this one filled up and was closed so early, why does it look like it does today?” Studenroth said.
Tollefsen, who said the first interment was between 1640 and 1646, said there were no more plots available after the burial site became full in 1712 and that through the years, markers on most of the graves were removed or deteriorated.
“It doesn’t look like a cemetery now, so there’s no idea of the importance of it; that’s why we wanted to look underground,” Tollefsen said. Only 48 marked graves had remained, he added.
Tollefsen said interments in Old Burying Ground continued for family plots until the 1800s, but that when the cemetery was neglected, Edwin Post claimed the land and used it as a pigsty and farm. Although Tollefsen said no one is sure who did it, many markers ended up being thrown into a ditch.
“By 1864, it was overrun with brambles and St. John’s Wort, and the only point of access was a right of way on Main Street and you’d walk back to it.”
The original markers included wooden crosses and regular stones or boulders, Tollefsen said. “They weren’t ornate like in modern times.”
Robert Perry, owner of New Hampshire-based Topographix, did the two-day, $4,800 radar survey. He said 4,178 square feet was scanned and the site of the graves was determined by finding areas of disturbed soil that were the appropriate size for a burial.
Tollefsen said that perhaps a monument will be erected to commemorate all who are buried there.
Southampton Town Clerk Sundy Schermeyer said the town also plans to place a kiosk at the site with pamphlets detailing its history.
Earlier this year, the historic burial ground was the subject of a dispute between the town and a property owner who officials said installed deer fencing and a privet hedge on a portion of the burial ground. As a settlement, a $10,000 donation was made by the property owner to help maintain the cemetery.