Walking down West 11th Street near 6th Avenue, one may notice a small triangular cemetery which seems out of place surrounded by apartment buildings. How did this little cemetery come to be here?
As a sign on the wall of the cemetery explains this is the Second Cemetery of Shearith Israel, which was and still is the first Jewish congregation in New York City. Most people imagine Jewish immigrants to New York coming from Eastern Europe and going through Ellis Island in the 1800s, but the first congregation were all Spanish and Portuguese. They were living in what is now Brazil in a colony of The Netherlands called New Holland, where they enjoyed relative religious freedom. But when the Portuguese took over in 1654, they began to face persecution and decided to leave. No one knows exactly how they ended up in New York, or at that time, New Amsterdam. A leading theory is that they were captured by pirates, then rescued and brought to the city, where they decided to stay. There were only 23 of them, but the population of the city was less than 4000 then, occupying just the southern tip of Manhattan.
Their first cemetery still exists in Chinatown on Saint James Place. By 1805, the city was growing as well as the congregation and a second cemetery was needed. It was built in what was then a rural area to the north of the city on a road called Milligan Street that ran along the left side of what remains of the cemetery.
In 1811, a commission appointed by the city legislature issued a sweeping development plan which envisioned Manhattan covered in the orderly grid of streets that people know today. When the plan was issued, most of Manhattan was still very rural, composed of farms and small villages. The grid started being built, laying out the streets in the middle of farms and fields, with anything in the way being razed.
By 1829, the construction reached the location of the cemetery. Milligan Street was erased and most of the cemetery was covered by West 11th Street after the remains were disinterred and moved to a third cemetery on 21st Street.
Learn more about remnants of New York History in the Secrets of Greenwich Village Tour.