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Cold Spring Harbor site believed to be cemetery for slaves, freed people

A small cemetery near St. John's Episcopal Church has been recently rediscovered and cleared to reveal grave markers from the 1800s.

Denice Sheppard, seen Monday at the Oyster Bay

Denice Sheppard, seen Monday at the Oyster Bay Historical Society in Oyster Bay, is trying to determine whether her great-great-great-grandfather is buried in a newly rediscovered cemetery for slaves and freed people in Cold Spring Harbor. Photo Credit: Michael Owens

 As a child, Denice Sheppard loved hearing stories about her family history, including tales of her great-great-great-grandfather Lewis Carll, who worked as a chauffeur for the wealthy Jones family of Cold Spring Harbor in the late 1700s.

But the stories always contained a mystery — her family had no idea where Carll and his wife Catherine were buried. The rest of the Carll family eventually moved to Oyster Bay and subsequent generations were buried in Pine Hollow Cemetery there. Sheppard said she searched for years for any clues about where Carll ended up. He died in the late 1860s; Pine Hollow was established in 1884. 

Sheppard said research and oral histories have led her to believe Carll's final resting spot is on a quiet wooded hilltop near St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cold Spring Harbor where a long-neglected cemetery for slaves and freed black people who worked for the Jones family in the 1700s and 1800s has been rediscovered.

"I was going around Cold Spring Harbor looking for the actual site” of Carll's grave for years, said Sheppard, who is the executive director of the Oyster Bay Historical Society. She pored over the records at St. John’s as part of her research, but “the people who ran the church back then, they knew there was an African-American cemetery but they never knew where it was. They couldn't point me in the right direction,” she said. 

When Rector Gideon Pollach  joined St. John’s in 2016 and learned more about the church’s history, he heard rumors about a African-American cemetery somewhere on church grounds. St. John’s is built on land donated by the Jones family in 1835.

“We have to sort out where this cemetery is and make sure it's being actively cared for,” Pollach recalled thinking at the time, drawing on his previous experience with a cemetery project in Alexandria, Virginia.

"There are people who are related to us, historically, one way or another,” he said of the graves at the Cold Spring Harbor cemetery. “And so it just seemed like a really important project to try and find out who is here and how we can honor them.”

The Jones family owned much of the land in Cold Spring Harbor, headed an industry organization of mills and brickyards, and established the village's  iconicwhaling industry. 

Through Pollach’s searching the wooded area, the cemetery was located,covered in weeds and trash after years of neglect. Church volunteers, along with Huntington director of minority affairs Kevin Thorbourne and town workers, cleared the cemetery last year to reveal two engraved headstones and about 40 unidentified stone markers.

The headstones identify the graves of Patience Thorn and Alfred Thorn, presumed to be her son and likely among the last to be buried there. Alfred Thorn worked as a coachman for the Jones family and died in 1900, Huntington Town Historian Robert Hughes said. There is less information about Patience Thorn, but her tombstone appears to read that she died in 1872.

“When I found out that the cemetery was actually there, and that Robert Hughes and Gideon Pollach were trying to find out the people that may be associated with this cemetery that worked for the Jones estate, I was so excited,” Sheppard said "If my grandfather didn't mention to me that our family lived there, how would I know, because there's really nothing that represents people of color in these areas.”

The bulk of the cemetery is scattered with eroded pieces of fieldstone, some arranged in what seem to be deliberate patterns.Those buried at the site are not identified, but Sheppard said she believes Lewis Carll is among them.

Identifying the burials may be difficult, Sheppard said, as many Colonial-era black families didn’t leave written family records. “Most people of color, we base our history on oral history...because a lot of people couldn't read or write back then,” she said.

The  0.3-acre cemetery is about a mile from the maintained Memorial Cemetery of St. John's, which houses the graves of former New York City Mayor John Lindsay and CBS founder William Paley.

Sheppard, Pollach and Huntington town officials said they hope anyone with Cold Spring Harbor roots whose family may have connections to the Jones estate will contact the town with information about the cemetery. The goal is to identify the people buried there, restore the cemetery, and honor its historic importance.

Hughes said he envisions a sign identifying the cemetery and, if possible, those buried in it or the families represented.

Town Supervisor Chad Lupinacci offered continued assistance. “I think it really shows the rich history of African American culture and contributions to the Huntington area and the Long Island area, and whichever way we can assist with this project, to really make sure that we honor those who are buried here, we will do,” he said.

Francine Seaman of Amityville said she believes her grandfather John Smith Seaman is among those buried at Jones Cemetery. He was a butler for the Weeks family estate in Oyster Bay, but grew up in Cold Spring Harbor. 

Seaman is still researching her family history for more details about her grandfather, and said the Jones Cemetery could provide information and a measure of solace.

“Just for historical context, it’s important for people to be able to come and pay their respects and say, ‘here lies my people, my family, who loved this area and who are a part of its history,’ ” Seaman said.

She recently visited the hilltop location overlooking St. John’s Pond.

 “I was moved. There were swans swimming and you could see the church in the background. It looks so idyllic,” she said. “Where else would you want to be laid to rest?”

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