In 1775, the day the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Bunker Hill, ground was being broken for the stone church that abuts Greenwich Cemetery. In the early days, when churches were established, provision was also made for suitable burial ground. Legend has it one reason that this land was chosen is that Chingachgook, the Indian chief featured in James Fennimore Cooper’s book, The Last of the Mohicans, had been buried here.
The oldest known grave in our present cemetery, besides Chingachgook’s, is that of John Barber, dated 1777. Since the church was established here in 1775, one would expect many late 18th century graves, but the majority of old markers start around 1830. Colonial America did not have a good mortality rate. Almost half of the children died before the age of five. Young and old alike had to deal with malnutrition, small pox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, consumption, malaria, dysentery, measles, mumps, yellow fever, tetanus, pleurisy and pneumonia, among other things. They had no notion of proper hygiene to prevent the spread of germs. The few doctors they had did not know to wash between patients. Childbirth was extremely risky to both mother and child. Since there were no antibiotics, infections were often fatal.
With so many people dying, especially children, where are all those graves? Wooden crosses were often used to mark graves as were a simple pile of stones. These, along with sandstone markers, did not stand up to the test of time. Some families had their own private cemeteries. Even allowing for these causes and natural deterioration, there are still very few colonial era markers in our cemetery. We know of at least one intentionally unmarked grave. There probably are more. Years ago, the map of our oldest section was loaned to a very reputable institution and eventually lost to us. Without that map, we’ll never know who occupies all those blank spaces in Greenwich Cemetery, but we do know that there are twenty Revolutionary War soldiers buried here. The most famous of these soldiers is Brigadier General William Maxwell, commander of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment known as Maxwell’s Brigade.
For the 131 years preceding 1906, the cemetery was under the haphazard care of the church. In 1902 the Rev. Hugh Walker became pastor of Old Greenwich Church. He was a man of vision who recognized the value of our historic cemetery as a treasure worth preserving and beautifying. It was through his encouragement that the Barber’s erected the Rachel Barber Memorial Gate and the Sinclair’s the Sinclair Gate. He was also instrumental in establishing the Greenwich Cemetery Association in 1906. The Association, whose sole function is the management of the cemetery, is completely separate from the church. Under its guiding hand, the old cemetery was completely restored.
Major changes since then include the Donnelly hemlock hedge donated in 1951. This defines the northern border of the property. In 1958, the old church manse, which was built in 1840, was acquired by the Association and currently serves as its office. A farm adjacent to the eastern edge became available in the 1990s. The Association was able to purchase more than 28 acres, thereby vastly increasing the amount of land available for future burials.