King’s Chapel Burying Ground

Established in 1630, King’s Chapel Burying Ground is the oldest cemetery in Boston.

The burial ground is 0.44 acres and 19,200 square feet in size and contains over 1,800 grave markers mostly dating back to the 17th and 18th century.

Even though the burying ground is currently named after the chapel that is located on the same plot of land, it is not owned by the chapel and has always been owned and operated by the city of Boston.

It is believed, according to Thomas Prince in his book 1736 book A Chronological History of New England in the Form of Annals, that the land the cemetery is located on was originally owned by an early settler named Isaac Johnson.

King's Chapel and the burying ground, Boston, Mass, circa 1870
King’s Chapel and the burying ground, Boston, Mass, circa 1870

After Johnson died in September of 1630 and was buried in the south-west end of the lot, the other colonists also began using the land as a cemetery, according to Thomas Prince:

“And the late chief justice Samuel Sewall, Esq; informed me; That this Mr. Johnson was the principal cause of settling the town of Boston, and so of its becoming the metropolis and had removed hither; had chose for his lot the great square’ lying between Cornhill on the S. E, Tree-mount-Street on the N. W., Queen-Street on the N.E. and School-Street on the S.W; and on his death-bed desiring to be buried at the upper end of his lot, in faith of his rising in it, he was accordingly buried there; which gave occasion for the first burying place of this town to be laid out round about his grave” (Prince 319.)

The burial ground at the time lacked any formal paths and the early graves were scattered throughout haphazardly.

In 1686, Royal Governor Edmund Andros seized a section of the burying ground to construct the town’s first Anglican church, King’s Chapel, which was a small wooden church that took two years to complete.

It is not clear if any graves existed on the plot of land that Andros seized but 19th century historian and Harvard professor Henry Wilder Foote states in his book, Annals of King’s Chapel, that the spot “probably was then but thinly tenanted” so it possible it had a few graves that may have been relocated to make way for the church (Foote 81.)

After about 30 years, the church outgrew its congregation and had to be enlarged. At a town meeting on August 14, 1710, the town granted a 74-foot parcel of the burying ground to King’s Chapel in order to enlarge the building.

Town clerk, Joseph Prout, spoke out against the expansion at the meeting because he said it would obscure the graves of his ancestors in the burial ground (Foote 198.)

In 1748, the town awarded some more small parcels of the burial ground to King’s Chapel to enlarge the chapel again, this time with a new stone chapel, on the condition that the graves on those parcels of land be dug up and either reburied or removed altogether if no next of kin claimed them, according to the 1748 deed:

“…provided also that the bodies of those who shall be known to lye in the said strips of land or within the said half oval piece, shall be decently taken up and buried in some other part of the burying ground with the consent of their friends, & in such manner as they with the selectmen shall agree to and direct, or where no friends appear, they shall be removed as the said selectmen shall direct…and that no monuments or grave stones either within or or without the building be destroyed, and if accidentally broken in carrying on the work, be repaired at the charge of the Pet, unless they shall agree with the friends of those who may lye buried in said piece of ground, or where no friends appear, with the selectmen, to remove the bodies in manner as is herein provided for the other dead bodies before mentioned…” (Records Relating to the Early History of Boston 17-18.)

On August 11, 1749, the cornerstone for the new chapel was set and the church was completed later that year.

Sometime around 1810, the superintendent of the city burial grounds ordered that the headstones in the burying ground be rearranged to form straight rows but he didn’t order the workers to move the bodies with the headstones, according to an 1855 article in the Boston Daily Transcript by Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch:

“According to the usual practice of reserving the most important matters for insertion in the postscript, I would mention that I, myself, witnessed on this spot a truly sacrilegious official act, perpetrated by the direction of a superintendent of the City Burial Grounds, now deceased. Under the very windows of the Historical Society he caused many gravestones to be removed from their original position, and rearranged them as edgestones by certain paths which he there laid out. The result is, that the tear of affection and friendship may hereafter be shed, or the sigh of sentiment breathed, in a wrong locality; and perhaps the bones of a stranger, instead of an ancestor may be piously gathered and entombed anew by a descendant, unsuspicious of so strange and inexcusable an outrage.” (Records Relating to the Early History of Boston 17 – 19)

The headstones are still arranged in rows and the bodies have never been moved to match up with their original headstone. It would probably be impossible to do so now because it would be difficult to identify the person in each grave.

In 2011, the burying ground was renovated by the Walker-Kluesing Design Group who pruned trees, replaced signs, reset headstones and built a cobblestone walking path.

People Buried in King’s Chapel Burying Ground:

The following is a list of people are buried in the King’s Chapel Burying Ground:

John Winthrop, First Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, died 1649, buried in the Winthrop family tomb adjacent to Tremont Street

Reverend John Cotton, Puritan minister and mentor to Anne Hutchinson, died 1652

Jacob Sheafe, died 1658

John Davenport, Puritan minister, died 1670

John Oxenbridge, Puritan minister, died 1674

John Winslow, died 1674

Hezekiah Usher, the first printer and publisher in the colonies, died 1676

Mary Chilton, believed to have been the first women to step off the Mayflower, died 1679

John Leverett, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, died 1679

Major Thomas Savage, died 1682

Major Thomas Brattle, died 1683

Lady Andros, wife of royal governor Edmund Andros, died 1688

Captain Roger Clap, died 1690

Fitz-John Winthrop, grandson to John Winthrop and governor of Connecticut, died in 1707, buried in the Winthrop family tomb

Thomas Brattle, died 1713

Thomas Bridge, Puritan minister, died in 1715

Major General Wait Still Winthrop, grandson of John Winthrop, died 1717, buried in the Winthrop family tomb

Adam Winthrop, judge, died 1743

William Shirley, governor of Massachusetts, died in 1771

William Dawes, Patriot who rode alongside Paul Revere during their midnight ride in 1775

Professor John Winthrop, died 1776

Oliver Wendell, judge, died 1818

Thomas Dawes III, judge, died 1825

William Philips, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, died 1827

James Lloyd, U.S. Senator, died 1831

Thomas Lindall Winthrop, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, died 1841

Charles Bullfinch, architect, died 1844

Sources:
Prince, Thomas. A Chronological History of New England in the Form of Annals. Kneeland & Green, for S. Gerrish, 1736.
Foote, Henry Wilder. Annals of King’s Chapel. Vol I, Little, Brown and Company, 1900.
Lacock, John Kennedy. Boston and Vicinity. Chapple Publishing Company, 1913.
Boston Registry Department. Records Relating to the Early History of Boston. Rockwell and Churchill, Vol. 5, 1884.
Merriam, John M. “Historic Burial Places of Boston and Vicinity.” American Antiquarian, americanantiquarian.org/proceedings/44769368.pdf
“King’s Chapel Burying Ground.” The Landscape Architects Guide to Boston, asla.org/Guide/site.aspx?id=40144
“King’s Chapel Burying Ground.” King’s Chapel, kings-chapel.org/buryingground.html
“King’s Chapel Burying Ground.” City of Boston, boston.gov/cemeteries/kings-chapel-burying-ground

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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