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Oct 12, 2016 12:04 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

More Than 1,700 Unknown Graves Discovered In Southampton Village

Roger Tollefsen from the Southampton Historic Burying Ground Committee.   JEN NEWMAN
Oct 13, 2016 4:45 PM

The unmarked graves of first and second generation settlers in Southampton have been discovered—finally shedding some light on the mystery of what happened to one of New York’s oldest cemeteries.

Through a ground-penetrating radar survey of the Old Burial Ground in Southampton Village, the remains of 1,700 people were identified at the site. With fewer than 50 stones still in place, it has long been questioned how many remains were actually there and what exactly happened to the rest of the stones.

According to Southampton Town Historical Burying Ground Committee member Roger Tollefsen, burials stopped at the cemetery in the early 1700s because it was full, and records indicate a nearby landowner, Edwin Post, was to blame for the majority of the 1,652 missing grave-markers at the site.

Over the years, after the cemetery had been closed and nearly forgotten, Mr. Post claimed the property and used the burial ground as a farm and pigsty, and for animal grazing. It is thought that most of the stones now missing from the cemetery were thrown in a ditch surrounding the property while other wooden markers might have decomposed over time.

Records indicate that in 1886 Mr. Post was sued by the Town of Southampton for trespassing on the property, and the court decided against Mr. Post. However, officials were not certain where the graves were or where the boundaries of the cemetery used to be, leading to many remains recently being found under the hedges that now surround the property.

Ground-penetrating radar uses radar pulses to view underground. Through electromagnetic radiation, a special machine is used to see the reflected signals from subsurface structures.

Robert Perry, the owner of Topographix, a cemetery mapping and ground penetrating radar company, was able to identify where several rows of remains were in the cemetery. From surveying an area of more than 20,000 square feet, he was able to create the estimate for the number of graves.

According to Mr. Perry’s findings, the cemetery was laid out with the longest side of each burial plot in a north-south orientation. The grave plots appeared to be 10 feet long by 5 feet wide and dated back to 1640. In some cases, the density of the graves within a plot was much greater, indicating possible family plots.

Mr. Perry attempted to locate any gravestones that may have been buried at the site but, according to a report by Mr. Tollefsen, no buried gravestones were found in the 5,000-square-foot area of the search.

Mr. Tollefsen said the Old Burial Ground is the likely location of the majority of the first and second generations of settlers in Southampton, which held a population of 738 Christians and 83 slaves in 1698. He said before this discovery, the 48 stones that remain at the cemetery was the only indicator of where remains were.

“Up to this point in time, I don’t think anyone knew the magnitude before,” Mr. Tollefsen said.

Additionally, he said this new discovery might indicate that the Old Burial Ground in the village is one of the oldest municipally laid-out cemeteries in the country, if not the oldest.

“The entire thing was gridded out,” he said. “The heads were positioned east with the rising sun. It was full. It’s something that was allowed to be ignored and was taken advantage of by an individual who wanted to use the land. There was 300,000 pounds of stone carefully engraved, lovingly placed and removed to who knows where.”

Southampton Town Clerk Sundy Schermeyer, who first initiated the survey, said a kiosk will be placed at the site to raise awareness of the past.

“You can’t tell by looking at it, unfortunately, because the stones are gone,” she said. “We’re trying to establish a better background and history of this location. From what information we have available to us, this very well may be one of the oldest colonial burial grounds that remains in the site.”

Committee members encourage residents with any information, old documents or stones from the past to contact the Southampton Town historian, Zach Studenroth, to help the town continue to unearth the mystery of the 1,700 buried settlers in the Old Burial Ground.

This cemetery was the center of a dispute earlier this year between the town and a neighboring property owner who installed deer fencing and a privet hedge on a portion of the property that belonged to the town. The January dispute resulted in a $10,000 donation from the homeowner to the town to maintain the cemetery.

Mr. Tollefsen said their goal was to identify the general boundaries of where remains were, not to target the specific area where the dispute took place. However, he said the scan did show remains further out on the east and west sides of the cemetery than otherwise indicated by the hedges and bushes.

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This is one of the most precious historical sites in Southampton and probably the whole of the Hamptons. We need to take care of it, carefully and with absolute respect for those who are buried there. These are our ancestors, many of whom braved the trip from Lynn Massachusetts and the years of struggle to survive as the very first settlers here on Long Island.
Think of it:
They braved the storms, the heat of summer and the cold of winter all the while trying to keep food on their makeshift ...more
By Paula Hathaway (2), Southampton on Oct 13, 16 11:59 AM
They weren't the first settlers on Long Island the Dutch were on Long Island first as they settled Manhattan in 1609 and shortly there after Brooklyn. The settlers who came from Lynn, MA had been imprisoned by the Dutch when they landed at Manhasset, which is on Long Island.
By ICE (1214), Southampton on Oct 14, 16 5:16 PM
I completely agree! I was there in October 2018 I am so lucky that one of the 50 remaining headstones is one of my Sayre ancestors. I had the entire place to myself, except when two mule deer showed up. One wanted to say hello and the other wanted me to leave.
I am currently working on my Abraham Pierson tree. He lived in Southampton in the 1640s. He moved to Branford, Connecticut and then Newark, NJ, where he died.
By Sayre Descendant (2), Denver on Dec 24, 18 12:27 AM
This is an amazing discovery. The family house has been across the street for decades. We love that place and are honored to know we've been in such great company. Hopefully we can see who those people are.
By KevinLuss (356), SH on Oct 13, 16 4:29 PM
What's even more amazing is that they were all registered voters.
By Funbeer (257), Southampton on Oct 16, 16 12:45 PM
1 member liked this comment
This is a very exciting discovery. I look forward to more information.
By Quiogue lover (1), Westhampton, New York on Oct 13, 16 5:07 PM
2 members liked this comment
It was always assumed by most old locals that this cemetery was full. Why else would new cemeteries be opened? Now we have the forensic evidence to confirm it -- nothing that new really, or dramatic IMO.
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To Everything There Is A Season . . .
By PBR (4906), Southampton on Oct 13, 16 6:04 PM
2 members liked this comment
When I was there in October 2018, I thought the same thing. The burial ground is full of burials, but the gravestones are all gone for some very mysterious or aggravating reason.
By Sayre Descendant (2), Denver on Dec 24, 18 1:26 AM
The old burying ground wasn't founded until at least 1648 when the second Minister Rev. Robert Fordham came to Southampton. Prior to his arrival the townspeople had been burying their dead in their yards. I could see how one might assume the cemetery was founded in 1640, but that is dead wrong....
The town was relocated from "Old Towne" area by SH Hospital to the village's current location with the guidance of Rev. Fordham. This paper would do will to encourage reporters to do some research ...more
By ICE (1214), Southampton on Oct 14, 16 5:06 PM
How about sharing with the paper rather then toss them under the bus? lol Having Dutch ancestors that settled here I'd like to know more. Thanks for your input : )
By 1640sWhaler (73), Sag Harbor/Easthampton on Oct 14, 16 9:00 PM
I've heard that Mr. Post removed all of the headstones so his cattle could graze. 1700 people in those days is a lot of people. There weren't that many settlers. Did they have slaves?
By even flow (811), East Hampton on Oct 14, 16 5:38 PM
I am not sure they would have been buried in the same cemetery, or perhaps in a section of the cemetery.

It wasn't uncommon for animals to run over cemeteries. He may have removed the stones, or many could have just disintegrated.
By bb (862), Hampton Bays on Oct 19, 16 11:01 AM
Many thanks to the Town Clerk and the Burial Ground Committee for the investment in and stewardship of our Historic Burial Grounds. Preservation and education of these historic treasures is vital. Signage and kiosks will only add value to the sites and hopefully deter vandals, gamers and invasive neighbors. I am certain the kiosk will not be "urban mall type" and forensic evidence is obviously a necessity due to disrespectful neighbors.
By Ref11 (14), hampton bays on Oct 14, 16 10:40 PM
1 member liked this comment
Wow - Landowners were scofflaws back in the 19th Century too - The Court decided against Post and he still removed actual headstones & buried them in a ditch - and then farmed and let animals graze over a sacred burial site? What a guy! Does this remind anyone of the people planting hedges over their boundary line onto another historical gravesite - without any permit? What's old is new again people - eh? Exactly 130 years later and people still suffer from a similar sense of entitlement.
By Vikki K (490), Southampton on Oct 22, 16 11:43 AM
The story does not give the address of the Old Burial Ground. It is 205 Little Plains Road, Southampton.
By JustinSpring (1), on Oct 29, 16 7:19 AM
it's been there for 350 years. We know.
By SlimeAlive (1180), Southampton on Oct 29, 16 8:39 AM
1 member liked this comment