Mapping Headstones for Curious Historians

Posted on 04 September 2009

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Andrea Meyer’s life was forever changed at the age of 11 when she walked into Sag Harbor’s Old Burying Ground looking for answers and instead found a lifelong passion rooted in archival work and historic preservation.

It was roughly 12 years ago when Meyer walked onto the grounds, looking for information on a long-deceased wife of an original Sag Harbor homeowner, unsatisfied with the answers she found in the history room of the John Jermain Memorial Library (JJML).

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“They had dated the homeowner’s wife at age 11 when she had her first child and being 11 myself I was determined to prove them wrong,” said Meyer on Tuesday. “I was a little stubborn.”

Unwavering in her mission to find the woman’s birth date on her headstone in The Old Burying Ground, Meyer did not find exactly what she was looking for, but instead literally stumbled into a tour organized by members of The Old Burying Ground Committee. Meyer has been involved with the committee, and its numerous projects to preserve and archive the ancient burial site, ever since.

The newest initiative by the committee will be a joint venture with JJML, where Meyer recently worked as an intern, on break from her studies at CW Post and New York University’s archival studies program. According to library director Catherine Creedon, the committee and library will team up to archive the burial ground’s numerous headstones on a website which will be linked to JJML’s homepage in an effort to provide research historians and interested parties worldwide the same information now found in Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski’s book “The Old Burying Ground.”

For over 150 years, The Old Burying Ground has been a central part of Sag Harbor History, located next to the Sag Harbor First Presbyterian (Old Whalers’) Church, although the grounds existed long before that church was erected.

According to “The Old Burying Ground,” the cemetery has been in use since the mid-1700s, a central burial ground for village residents until the mid-1800s when gravesites became hard to come by. Since that time, several committees have formed to preserve the historic resting place with several inventories of the headstones and restoration projects tackled over the years. In 1997, the latest committee was formed completing the last inventory and restoring parts of the 100-year old fence, part of which is still in disrepair as the village looks for funding to restore it.

While the history of the burial ground is well-recorded in Zaykowski’s book, Creedon said she would like to see that information available to a greater number of people as the historic village library embraces a new age of technology.

“The goal would be to make this available beyond the book or the history room,” said Meyer. “To make it available to people who live outside of Sag Harbor, or can’t get to the history room while it is open.”

“It was collaborative,” said Creedon of the decision to take on such a project. Creedon had been in discussions with Susan Rowland, a member of the Old Burying Ground Committee, for several months on a project the library and committee could focus on together.

“I am always interested in the library working with local groups to share information and exchange ideas,” said Creedon. “A couple of weeks ago we shared some rough ideas about programming and decided at this point this would be the best project the library could help facilitate.”

According to Creedon, the committee will focus on taking photographs of each headstone and matching it to a map, originally drawn by Zaykowski as a part of an inventory project conducted by the committee with member Steven Peters. A narrative will be developed to correspond with each headstone, said Creedon, who said she hopes to create a website that enables people to search a virtual database of headstones at The Old Burying Ground using keywords.

“This will have at least two great results,” said Creedon. “One is the headstone’s print is becoming less and less readable, so this will be important documentation for future scholars and those interested in local genealogy. Secondly, it will allow us to disseminate this information worldwide. We get lots of requests for this kind of information and now those people can do a through search for that information on their own.”

Creedon said this is exactly the kind of work JJML should be engaged in, and following a years long focus on the library’s building project, she is pleased to concentrate on this kind of work again.

“It is the best combination of things to me,” said Creedon. “It is the classic commitment of a library to preserve our local heritage and combine that with a new technology. For me, this is a gift and a joy to take on. I am excited about the building project, but it is nice to remember the building is just a receptacle for projects like this.”

Creedon said it is her hope this is one of several new projects connecting the library to its community and embracing new technology as a means of sharing information and resources.

“This project is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing commitment to digitizing local resources, which makes them more widely available, preserves them and lessens the amount of damage done to original historic documents,” said Creedon. “A headstone is not the best example of this, but if I have an archival, physical object in the library, if someone is interested in it purely for its content in this medium no one is touching the page, exposing it to light, water or the grease on someone’s fingers. It is just as good without the potential for damaging the original.”

Creedon said the hope of the committee is to complete the photography of the headstones this fall and over the winter develop the website with the library’s technical director Eric Cohen.

“I think it would be really fun to link the site to a You Tube video with Dot [Zaykowski] or Susan [Rowland] talking about the Burying Ground so someone coming into it from the outside would have a better understanding of what it means, the burial ground’s place in our community.”

“I would really love to have something on a website where people can go and basically take a virtual cemetery tour with information on different gravesites popping up,” said Meyer. “Kind of like Google Streetview, but for the cemetery.”

And for Meyer, working with the committee to continue the preservation of The Old Burying Ground will remain a lifelong priority. Meyer, who is in the midst of earning her masters degree at NYU and is studying public history and archives, credits her involvement with the committee as the impetus for her professional pursuits.

“I was telling my roommate this morning that I started out as an undergrad in historic preservation because of the graveyard, but I was told graveyards were an exception to the National Historic Trust, so I decided I was quitting that major,” said Meyer.

“The goal has always been to come back,” Meyer said later. “You never leave Sag Harbor. I have left and have been miserable about having left, but I will be back and forth and I hope I never really, really leave.”

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2 Responses to “Mapping Headstones for Curious Historians”

  1. Bruce says:

    It would be nice if the Sag Harbor Express could be digitized back to the early 1800′s much like the New York Times is. What a valuable research tool this would be for historians. You would have a week to week historic reference dating back over a 150 years on the Village of Sag Harbor available with a few key word searches. I do not know what such a project would cost. I do know the Sag Harbor Express is available on Microfilm at the East Hampton Library, but to be able to access it’s index with key words would be a huge time saver.

  2. James McBride says:

    I’m 56yrs old and very interested in traceing my family. As a young boy about 4-5yrs old I can rember going to an old cematory in sag harbor wiyh my grandmother. She went on her knees to pull overgrowen grass away from a grave. You see my grate grandfather came from Ireland as whalers in the mid. 1800′s. My grate grandfather cam to Cutchogue and bought are family farm. The other brothers stayed in sag harbor And we have no way of tracing them to Ireland From there.


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