Since its founding by English settlers, Hartford has been one of New England's most populous cities. Over the nearly four centuries of Hartford's existence, millions of people have lived and died here and, in most cases, their earthly remains were buried under six or so feet of dirt. Do the math. Where did all those corpses go? Since crematoria did not appear until the 1870s — and, then, only in Protestant communities — all those bodies had to go somewhere. Burying grounds, graveyards, cemeteries…call them what you will, they now dot Hartford's, and New England's, landscape like silos in Kansas, so much so that we possibly take them for granted and, in some cases, allow them to fall into tragic disrepair.
The oldest of Hartford's places of rest is the aptly named Ancient Burying Ground (established 1640), located diagonally across the street from the Wadsworth Atheneum behind equally ancient Center Church (est. 1632; current building ca. 1807) within a bone's throw of Bushnell Park. Though now squeezed onto a 4-acre parcel, the burying ground once covered a much larger area, across what is now Gold Street to Pearl and Lewis streets (the Gold Building, in fact, sits on former burial ground). It's the oldest historic site in Hartford and the only one that has survived from the 1600s.
The gravestones here are exceptionally well preserved, considering that some date to the 1600s (some are replacement stones); the earliest belongs to Timothy Stanley, who died in 1648. Historians estimate that 6,000 men, women and children were buried here but only 415 markers stand today, which means that thousands of the residents here were simply placed, cheek by jowl, in graves without markers simply because their families could not afford a stone worker's fee. If you died during Hartford's earliest years, chances were good you were buried here.
Few notables are buried here, but those who've helped preserve the site include the redoubtable Daniel Wadsworth (as in Atheneum) whose father is buried here. After Wadsworth led an effort to include a brownstone-covered obelisk listing the names of the first European settlers of Hartford, the Ruth Wyllys Chapter of the DAR took over and continue to keep it in good shape. The Ancient Burying Ground Association Inc. was formed in 1985 to preserve the grounds and gravestones; because of their efforts, visitors are treated to some fine examples of early gravestone carving featuring angel wings, weeping willows and death's heads. Goth alert: The gravestone for Phenias Willson is one of the earliest in the state to feature a skull. Gravestone rubbings are prohibited here, as they should be at all cemeteries.
The gates are open daily from roughly 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The entry gate, off Gold Street, was donated by the descendants of John Haynes (1594-1654), buried here. Haynes, one plaque informs us, was "one of three illustrious Framers of the first written Constitution creating a government upon which were based the principles of American Constitutional liberty." He was an early governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony and the first governor of the Connecticut colony. Just inside the gate you will find an alphabetical listing of inscriptions and markers to be found here. One is advised not to try to scale the imposing wrought-iron fence, designed by McKim, Meade and White, lest you join the residents inside. For more dirt, visit theancientburyingground.org.
The second-oldest graveyard in Hartford is Old South Burying Ground, on Maple Avenue at Benton Street. Essentially, when they ran out of room at the Ancient Burying Ground, bodies were interred here, and the gravestones chart the next phase of the city's history. A former apple orchard, the city bought the land in 1801 and opened it to the dead of "south of the river folks." More than 100 bodies were moved to construct Benton Street. Efforts to restore many of the damaged headstones and clear the overgrowth have met with more success in recent years.
Following on the heels of Old South, the Old North Burying Ground (aka Old North Cemetery), at Main and Mather streets, was established in 1807. The names of Hartford (and New England) founding families leap out at you as you walk among the ruins or drive the rock pathway that circumnavigates the 17-acre site: Seymour, Goodwin, Pease, Wadsworth, Eaton, Morgan, Edwards, Miller, Bradley, Burr, Upson, Bigelow, Winship, Whittlesey, Hubbard, Hamilton, Adams, Perkins, Niles, Mather, Tuttle, Colt, Belden, Moody, Ward, Goodrich, etc.
Nathan Morgan, for example, was the quintessential Yankee. He was "born at Groton, Conn. on October 10, 1786" and "having fulfilled the duties of a worthy and faithful citizen, an active and upright merchant, a most kind and generous relative, a humble and conscientious Christian, closed his mortal course at Hartford January 21, 1837, aged 50." Nearby is Eli Todd, M.D., "First physician to the Connecticut Retreat for the Insane. Deeply sensible of his important services in originating and establishing that institution and, by a successful practice, elevating its character high in public estimation." And so on.
The Old North Burying Ground should be one of Hartford's top attractions, containing the remains of some of the city's most famous residents, but is instead the equivalent of a former drive-in movie theater where the feature film all day, every day, is a post Apocalyptic George Romero flick. A few smudged weeping willow patterns can be seen on some of the earliest sandstone markers, but they only make you feel like weeping when you fully process the horrid condition of the cemetery itself. Gravestones have fallen and are left to further disintegrate and be covered by ferns and poison ivy. Not much can be done to save the stones that have broken apart but so many others could be saved with timely intervention. Right now, groundhogs seem to have the run of the place, popping up and then disappearing into holes beneath obelisks. A wobbly chain-link fence surrounds the entire site, though you can drive in the front gate on Main Street, the only entry and exit point in the cemetery.
The most emblematic gravesite is the raised-earth mausoleum belonging to the Olmsted family. Here lies the great Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), one of our most distinguished citizens, the man who gave us Central Park and all but invented American landscape architecture (his theories echoed by his collaborator Jacob Weidenmann at Cedar Hill Cemetery, a more fitting resting place). Here also lies his son Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957), also a famed landscape architect, and several other Olmsteds (the most recent interred being Charlotte Olmsted, who died in 2006). Near the Olmsteds are the equally venerable Trumbulls, including Joseph Trumbull (1782-1861), Connecticut's third governor. Close by is the gravesite for Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), the great theologian for whom the park and concert hall are named. Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848) resides here, as does William Wolcott Ellsworth (1791-1868), U.S. Congressman and state governor; James Harmon Ward (1806-1861), Civil War hero who helped found the U.S. Naval Academy; Mason Cogswell, advocate for the deaf; and Daniel Oliver, sergeant in the 29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, the all-black unit that was the first to enter Richmond after its fall in the Civil War.
Perhaps most fittingly, John Colt (1810-1842), the demented older brother of Samuel Colt, is buried here. John Colt used a hatchet to murder the printer of his accounting textbook in New York and the ensuing trial brought disgrace upon the family. His brother Samuel was buried here and then, later, reinterred at Cedar Hill Cemetery, perhaps to escape the scandal or the decrepitude of Old North.
The Olmsted and Trumbull plots are found in the northeastern quadrant of the cemetery. From these graves, one can smell the fried rice wafting across Main Street from Main Wah Kitchen. Perhaps this is yet another reminder that our works on earth will always outlive any monuments we erect to our passing. What's to be done to rectify the appalling condition of Old North is for another article, though the City of Hartford (which owns the site) has, according to two signs on the front fence, initiated restoration efforts in recent months.
A bit further north is Spring Grove Cemetery (2035 Main Street), which is in far better shape than its neighbor Old North. It's a private cemetery and is well maintained. Old North, on the other hand, is owned by the City of Hartford and is a bloody mess. Spring Grove, founded in 1845 by Stephen Page on 35 acres of his own land, is well marked, well maintained, signs are legible, plantings are tasteful, grave stones are kept free of vines and debris. Beautiful oak, cedar, pine and birch trees abound. Near the entrance is a shaded memorial garden that creates an immediate calming sensation once you leave Main Street. Among the notables buried here are Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900): Hudson River Valley painter, some of whose work is at the Wadsworth Atheneum; Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865), a poet and teacher; Laurent Clerc (1785-1869), the founder of what is today the American School for the Deaf; Elizabeth Aldrich Pond, for whom Elizabeth Park is named; Henry Champion Deming (1815-1872), mayor of Hartford, U.S. Congressman, Union officer in Civil War; and William Henry Jackson, Hartford's first black firefighter.
Zion Hill Cemetery is located at Ward and Zion streets in the south Hartford neighborhood of Frog Hollow, not far from Trinity College. From here, the dead are blessed with a beautiful promontory view of downtown Hartford. The cemetery is maintained adequately by the Hartford Parks Department, with the gates open during daylight hours only. Within Zion Hill is a sizable Jewish burial area called Agudas Achim. In March, unfortunately, vandals toppled more than 100 gravestones here, including 20 in this section.
Further South of Zion Hill is the crown jewel of Hartford burying grounds, Cedar Hill Cemetery, at 453 Fairfield Avenue, bordering Wethersfield and Newington. Cedar Hill was designed by Jacob Weidenmann, a protégé and collaborator with Frederick Law Olmsted on, among other projects, the U.S. Capitol grounds. Weidenmann was smitten with the "rural cemetery" movement jumpstarted by Mount Auburn Cemetery (est. 1831) in Cambridge, Mass. To that end, 270 acres were secured and the landscape was planned to create a restful sanctuary away from the hustle-bustle of the city and to create a park-like atmosphere where the next of kin and other visitors might harbor, and nurture, the sorts of metaphysical thoughts that accompany most visits to cemeteries. Since opening in 1866 for its first burial, Cedar Hill has received the remains of 31,000 people. It's an astonishingly beautiful place, renowned for both its landscape architecture, its plantings, trees and some of its more elaborate monuments and gravesites. It is also renowned for its residents. This is probably the best-documented and most visited graveyard in Connecticut, with the remains of stellars like Wallace Stevens, Katharine Hepburn, her mother, the activist Katharine Houghton Hepburn, J.P. Morgan, three state governors, Morgan Bulkeley, Joseph Hawley and Thomas Seymour; Thomas Church Brownell, Trinity College founder; Samuel Colt; Gideon Welles, Pres. Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy.
For more dirt, visit cedarhillcemetery.org.