Geneva’s Oldest Burial Grounds
By Karen Osburn, Archvist
One of the oldest burial grounds in Geneva was the Pulteney Street Burial Ground. I say one of the oldest because the first burials appear to have taken place where Trinity Episcopal Church stands today. Apparently the Trinity Church lot was not intended to be a cemetery, but convenience and the fact that in the early settlement days most of the early pioneers were strangers to each other and generally far away from friends and/or relatives turned it into a burial ground. When a person died the people in the area buried him or her in the closest appropriate spot and the lot where Trinity stands today seems to have been the chosen spot.
Trinity’s first building, a wooden church was built without a basement and on a stone foundation placed directly over most of the existing graves and did not disturb them. This followed the practice of many churches in England and Europe where parishioners were often buried in or under churches.
When the stone constructed Trinity Church was built in 1842 a basement was dug and the graveyard had to be disturbed. A careful search was made and as bodies were discovered they were turned over to friends and relatives to be reinterred. Those bodies (the majority) that could not be identified were reburied in one large box under the middle of the church. When the chapel was added more bones were discovered and were reinterred toward the rear of the church.
Why did the village use the land by Trinity instead of the property set aside by Charles Williamson and the Pulteney Estate? Part of the reason could be that the land on the Trinity lot was already cleared and the Pulteney Street plot was heavily wooded. Another reason was probably tied to the first incorrect survey of the Pre-Emption Line. Until New York State acknowledged the correctness of the new Pre-Emption Line in the spring of 1796 it would not have been possible to dedicate a burial plot with a clear title.
While there do not appear to be any records available to tell us exactly when the property was acquired for the Pulteney Street Cemetery we do know that in the latter part of 1797 a child of one of Geneva’s first settlers, Polydore Wisner, was buried in the cemetery. According to a manuscript, by an unknown author, February 16, 1825 was the date Robert Troup, attorney for the Pulteney Estate, conveyed the land for a burial ground on Pulteney Street to George Goundry, John Sweeny, William Watson, William DeZeng and David Cook. These Trustees of the Village of Geneva were entrusted to accept the land and that they and their successors use the land for a burial ground.
As the population grew the Village of Geneva began to close in around the burial ground on Pulteney Street and as early as 1875 an article in the Geneva Gazette noted that “Progress” proposes that the bodies buried in Pulteney Street Cemetery be moved to the new (1873) Glenwood Cemetery. A newspaper article from 1906 takes the Union School/High School to task, because they were piling ashes from the school heating plant on the South East corner of the Cemetery where the remains of freed people of color were buried. It does not appear the graveyard was always treated respectfully or with the care the deceased deserved.
In 1919 a determination was made by the Geneva Board of Education to acquire the Pulteney Street Cemetery as the site for the new Geneva High School. An article in the May 27, 1919 Geneva Daily Times mentions some of the preparations that happened in order for the Common Council to turn the property over to the school district. The New York State Legislature had to pass certain laws allowing the transfer of the property and the removal of interred bodies. In accordance with those statutes the Board President C. Willard Rice and Superintendent A. J. Merrill were authorized “to employ a competent engineer to survey and make a map of the cemetery grounds, showing the location of each burial.”
It is estimated there were about 630 burials on the piece of land bordered by Pulteney and Milton Streets. When burials started around 1797 head stones were not easy to come by and many people were buried with a wooden marker or no marker at all. Although there was a map and some other records of the Pulteney Street Cemetery approximately 130 people were unidentified at the time the graves were moved to Glenwood Cemetery. They are interred under one monument in the Pulteney-in-Glenwood section.
Though the lack of headstones and poor records made it difficult to identify some of the burials, many of the names were known including three children of the Backenstose family, Richard Wisner age 3 months and 4 days, James Green age 27 who may have been the first adult buried in the burial ground and the Williams, Tippets and Loomis families. An 1882 headstone reading showed the names of many prominent Geneva Citizens such as Henry Axtell, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, several members of the Burrall family, Jacob Larzelere, Norman Brizse(e), members of the Bogert family, the Reverend Jedidiah Chapman and many more well-known families. The Geneva Historical Society has a list of names recorded in the 1882 headstone reading.