Part #9 of 12
Their Island, Homes, Cemetery and Early Genealogy in Queens County, NY by permission of its author, an 11th generation Abraham Rijcken vanLent descendant, Edgar Alan Nutt.
Originally what is now the Riker Cemetery was simply an informal space for family burials close to a farm house in an area that was barely two generations removed from pioneer settlement.
Now it is a walled sanctuary in a tiny island remnant of rural land and domesticity surrounded by the streets and buildings and activities of the modern industrial age, further removed than it had been from Bowery Bay and just several hundred yards from LaGuardia Airport.
At first it was close to the Bowery Bay Road, much later it was at the intersection of that road with Riker Road. . . . First it was in Newtown in Queens County, later addresses have been Astoria, Steinway, Long Island City, North Beach, and Elmhurst.
There is no telling when the first burial took place or who the decedent was. In 1919 there were one hundred and thirty-two grave stones or markers, including one that was only a memorial cenotaph, but fourteen of these have no inscriptions whatsoever, twelve have only initials, and four are damaged leaving incomplete or unreadable inscriptions.
In addition to the one hundred and thirty-two, and in addition to the markers for the several burials that have taken place since 1919, there may be markers that over the years have fallen flat and now lie covered and buried beneath accumulated soil, as has happened in many very old . . . graveyards.
It seems reasonable to think that the stones without inscriptions are the earliest and those with simple initials close behind; and if that is a valid assumption, it obviously is then impossible to determine the which and the who of the earliest burials.
There have been two reports that the earliest inscription is 1721, but no stone and no identifiable person fit that date.
One of those reports [Historic American Buildings Survey, HABS No. 4-29, p.32, in a quotation from Long Island Historic Homes, Ancient and Modern by Henry Wbittemore] states that there is a rough slab marked “Jonathan R. 1721,” but what stone is referenced is a mystery and in addition there is no record of a Jonathan Riker at that time.
However, it may be that the #41 stone is the referenced one: “Johannis R. b. 1721 d. 1744,” but this would be possible only if those reading the inscription were not able to read it completely, missed the death year, and jumped to the condusion that the birth year was the death year.
Another possible earliest burial is marked by the #121 grave marker on which the remaining partial inscription is “....1706....ISER...AB’q...OND,” but what the significance of the 1706 is, whether it is the death year or whether, as is more likely from its position in the total inscription, it is the birth year, is not presently possible to determine.
Without question, however, the earliest positively identifiable burials are those of the above- mentioned Johannis, whose year of death is also reported as 1742, and of Abraham Riker whose #125 stone bears the simple inscription “A.R. Dyed August the 20th day 1746;” he is further identified in the #105 memorial monument’s inscription:
“The grave of Abraham Riker, son of Abraham & Margaret Riker; born 1655 , died Aug. 20, 1746 in the 91st year of his age.”
On February 5, 1745/6, Abraham Lent died; he was a nephew of [the second generation] Abraham Riker and the owner of the cemetery area and the surrounding farm. As was discussed in Chapter Two [Part 7 in this web presentation] concerning the Lant-Rapelje House, Abraham Lent inherited the Bowery Bay farm in 1729 from a non-Riker relative whose family surname was variably Siboutsen and Krankheit.
It is possible some of the inscriptionless cemetery stones may have marked the burials of members of that family; but obviously it is now impossible to determine.
It is likewise impossible to discover whether some of the same stones without inscriptions marked Lent burials, but just one of the stones with only initals has a surname letter other that “R” and that stone is #81 with no more of an inscription than simply “A.L.”
It results in there being eight stones identifiable as marking Lent burials, and it is no stretch of the imagination to conclude that it marks the burial of Abraham Lent.
Whether he inherited as part of the farm an already-established cemetery or whether during his lifetime he set aside an area for burials, or whether he simply contemplated doing this by his will which was dated August 18, 1742, and proved on March 17, 1745/6, he formally established the cemetery.
In that will he provided that the farm be sold to the highest bidder among his children, with the provision “except the Burying place, which is to remain entire as it now lies for the use of the relations and friends, with free egress and regress to the same.”
The first burial in the formalized cemetery was that of [second generation] Abraham Riker who, as stated above, died on August 20, 1746.
No record has been located that specified the original dimensions of the cemetery, but when it was surveyed in the summer of 1919 it was found to be seventy-eight feet by eighty-eight feet with each corner about five degrees plus or minus a right angle.
At that time it was enclosed by a wooden fence as no doubt it had been from an early time, but at some time since then and prior to the early 1930s the fence was replaced with a high brick wall and a wrought iron gate labeled “RIKER.”
One ditnension has been enlarged by an unknown amount. James Riker reported1 that “the late worthy owner of the farm, Isaac Rapelye, generously enlarged the ground by the gift of a strip of land adjoining.”
On the north-easterly side of the cemetery #98 with an 1802 burial is about six feet from the edge, on the south- easterly side #128 with an 1812 burial is about the same distance, on the south- westerly side #119 with a 1811 burial is perhaps six feet, and on the north-westerly side #6 dating from 1829 is approximately eight feet from its edge. Except in the last instance there are later burials that are closer to their edges.
All four of these examples are earlier than the 1830 to 1850 period during which a person, in the latter part of life, would be most likely to exercise generosity, and in each case the strip remaining between the earliest burial and the nearest cemetery side line is insignfficant in that it does not provide space for even one addition row of burials.
The inescapable conclusion is that the donated strip is probably adjacent to the present cemetery along the outside line of one of its sides.
During the time that family members owned and lived in the adjoining Lent- Rapelye house, they no doubt cared for the cemetery and its graves.
Following the acquisition of the house and its farm in the 1880s by the Steinway & Sons piano manufacturing company, others gave the cemetery whatever attention that it received.
For some years and until about 1930 that care was supplied by Cy Mitchell, the caretaker of the nearby Riker mansion and earlier its tenant farmer. In the early 1930s Rudolph Durheim, an elderly Swiss pensioner, began to care for the cemetery . He lived in the Lent-Rapelye house for some years before dying of malnutrition and was buried in the cemetery. . . .
In the late 1930s vandals stole several gravestones for use as garden stepping stones; reportedly the inscriptions were no longer legible, but whether the stones were returned and replaced is not evident. I
In the 1950s the house was leased by the John L. Riker Estate to Mrs. Louise Forcey; her lease included a provision of $100 a year for taking care of the cemetery. At an undetermined time an airplane parts plant was built to the west of the cemetery, and in the construction process the cemetery wall was overturned and reportedly the adjacent line of graves and their stones were threatened; supposedly in time the damage was repaired. . . . The condition of the cemetery as reported within the last several years is much improved . . . .
As noted above, in his August 18, 1742, will, Abraham Lent established the “burying place” as separate from the surrounding farm. Although he did not formally set up a trust or otherwise provide for its maintenance and control, he did specify that it was for the use of “relations and friends, with free egress and regress to the same.”
Clearly family members in general were given an interest, undefined as it was other than use and access, in the cemetery; and just as dearly it was reserved from title to the farm such that the farm’s owners did not own it.
Deeds to the farm in succeeding years included the same reservation, and in 1852 John L Riker attested to the fact that “our family burying ground” was reserved in the February 24, 1806, deed of the farm to Isaac Rapelye, Jr., who died on October 20, 1850, and who apparently was succeeded by his son, Jacob Polhemus Rapelye.
John L Riker, in continuing, stated that that deed was acknowledged in 1811 before S. Riker, Jr., Master in Chancery, and “has within a few years been recorded.” The implication is that the cemetery’s reservation from the farm was still in force in 185 2, but whether it now remains in force has not been determined since abstracts of subsequent deeds have not been obtained.
It is possible that at some point in the meantime the reservation was voided such that title to the cemetery merged with that of the tiny remnant of the farm and of the Lent-Rapelye farmhouse.. . .
In the 1960s an attempt was made to have the cemetery designated as a national shrine; this was independent of the Landmarks Preservation Commission identifting the farmouse as an official landmark. . . . .
While it did not constitute a second survey and corresponding inventory of markers and inscriptions, a subsequent independant listing of inscriptions must be noted.
Included under the title of “Long Island Cemetery Inscriptions” a Mrs. W. A. Barber produced a six-page listing for the Riker Cemetery dated October 16, 1928.
Inexplicably she included only eighty-five inscriptions, four of which were not included in the 1919 inventory, in contrast to one hundred and thirty-two in the latter.
A few variations in dates and in the spelling of names are of small importance, but three of the four additions indicate that the 1919 inventory was flawed and that in fact still more grave stones and/or inscriptions, other than those of subsequent dates, may exist.
One of the four is that of Maria H. Guion, daughter of Edward M. and Hannah (Riker) Guion, who died in June, 1919.
Her parents and some of her siblings are buried and memorialized in the cemetery, but no doubt she was omitted from the 1919 inventory because the latter was completed prior to her burial and/or the placing of her grave stone.
Another of the four either is unidentifiable but nevertheless an omission or else is a duplication of an earlier entry: Johannis Riker “d. 1721” may represent a confusion with Johannis Riker who was born in 1721 and died in 1744 at the age of 21.
It is strange indeed that the other two were omitted. Abraham Lent died on 4-13-1816, aged 71, while Rose Patience lawrence, in the family of #18745, died on 10-23-1901: clearly these two should have been included in the 1919 survey and inventory.
Since 1919 there have been several additional burials including, but not limited to, both Rudolph Durheim, an elderly Swiss pensioner and the cemetery caretaker referred to above, and a relative of Marion Smith, wife of the current owner and occupant of the adjoining Lent-Rapelye farmhouse. The location of these six with respect to the 1919 survey is not recorded and hence is omitted in the following sections.
Rikers Island's role in NY correction history warrants our providing material on its "pre-Correction" background that is so bound up with Rikers family history. Bishop Nutt's book serves as an excellent vehicle for doing that. His approach is not exclusively or narrowly genealogical. More than simply tracing lineage, he places his family history in wider chronological and geographic contexts through which his exhaustive research tracked it, thus reflecting much other history -- of the island, county, city and country.
Strictly genealogical citations, notes, and codes in the printed book have been reduced or dropped in these excerpts. This presentation includes a book print copy information page.
NYCHS retains and reserves all rights to images of photos it took during the June 5, 2005 homestead tour and the September 1998 Samuel Perry Center dedication and their captions as well as captions of inserted images not taken from the printed book.