Thursday, September 11, 2014

Schenectady County Cemetery Records

Undated photograph of Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, taken from a glass plate negative. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Schenectady County contains a number of cemeteries and burial grounds, from large cemeteries such as Vale Cemetery to small family burial plots that were once part of local farms.

The earliest known burial ground in the area appears on a 1698 map of Schenectady by Wolfgang Romer. The small plot was situated just east of the intersection of Front Street and Church Street, and ran along the south side of Front Street. This plot may have also been where bodies were buried after the Schenectady Massacre in 1690. Unfortunately, records of the people buried in this earliest cemetery have not survived.

These skeletons were unearthed from the grounds of a Front Street home in 1902, in an area were the earliest known burial ground in Schenectady was once located. Newspapers of the time suggested that the skeletons were the remains of some of the victims of the Schenectady Massacre. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

During the 18th and early 19th century, most burial grounds in American towns and cities were located in churchyards (such as the cemetery of St. George's Church on Ferry Street in the Stockade neighborhood in Schenectady) or near the center of town (such as the Green Street Cemetery in Schenectady, which was situated between Front Street and Green Street in Schenectady). Meanwhile, in rural areas, church burial grounds were common, as were family burial plots on local farms.

The graveyard at First Presbyterian Church in Schenectady can be found on the church's property, next to the church building. Another early Schenectady church, St. George's, is also home to a small graveyard. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.  

Over time, the overcrowding of graves and emerging sanitation laws in cities and towns led to the rural cemetery movement. Instead of graveyards placed in city centers, new cemeteries were established on the outskirts of communities. In contrast to the simple design of graveyards, these "garden cemeteries" often featured meandering paths, creeks, art and statuary, and areas for picnicking. Cemeteries were intended not only as places to bury the dead, but also as a place for recreation. In line with these developments, Vale Cemetery was established in 1857. Burials in the Green Street Cemetery were soon after disinterred and were transferred to Vale, and the former cemetery land between Front and Green Streets was developed as residential property.

Colorful postcards promoting Vale Cemetery as a pleasant, peaceful place for recreation and relaxation were popular in the early years of the twentieth century. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Postcard Collection. 

Cemetery records can be helpful to genealogy researchers in establishing dates of birth, marriage, and death, and in connecting the generations of a family. Epitaphs and designs on a headstone can also give a genealogy researcher information about an ancestor's religious background, military service, membership in fraternal organizations, or even his or her occupation.  By studying the names, epitaphs, and ages of people buried, and by examining the placement, landscape, and architecture of cemeteries and burial grounds, local history researchers can learn about epidemics and disease, lifespans, wealth and status, ethnic groups, cultural practices, and a number of other topics related to a community's history. Analyzing the information found on headstones and monuments can also illuminate a community's beliefs regarding death, religion, family, childhood, and old age.

A tree has grown up close between headstones in a small family cemetery in Duanesburg. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

The Grems-Doolittle Library has several printed collections of cemetery records. These records, usually compiled from information on headstones, focuses on information about individuals. Headstone inscriptions are generally included in these records. A complete list of Schenectady County cemetery records in our holdings can be found by clicking this link. Clipping files, photographs, maps, city directories, and postcard collections in our holdings also provide contextual information about local cemeteries and burial grounds. If you have questions about using cemetery records for your research or are seeking information about local cemeteries, please visit our library or contact our Librarian.

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