THE EARLY YEARS

"On April 18, 1838 , by act of New York State's Legislature, "The Green-Wood Cemetery" was incorporated "for the purpose of establishing a public burial ground in the City of Brooklyn ," and was authorized to purchase up to 200 acres. Its name, Green-Wood, was chosen as one "indicating that it should always remain a scene of rural quiet, and beauty, and leafiness, and verdure." Though it was initially established as a joint stock company under the misapprehension that that was the only structure possible, within a year it was converted to a nonprofit corporation "eminently and essentially philanthropic…from which even the appearance of individual profit is excluded."  Its Act of Incorporation dictated that the trustees were to be elected by its lot owners and all of its income was to be applied to the acquisition, preparation, and maintenance of its grounds. Land that had been used primarily as pasture and woodland was purchased from old Brooklyn families: the Wyckoffs, Ibbotsons, Deans, Sacketts, Schermerhorns, Bennetts, and Bergens.

"DAVID BATES DOUGLASS (1790-1848) was chosen as Green-Wood Cemetery's landscape architect and first president.  An experienced civil engineer who had surveyed the area and was intimately familiar with it, Douglass rode on horseback over the heights of Brooklyn with Henry E. Pierrepont until he found "the best locality in the vicinity for a cemetery, and probably the finest in the world." The land they chose had several advantages: its proximity to New York City ("sufficiently remote to be beyond the range of city improvements, yet so near as to be of convenient access"), its panoramic view of New York Harbor, and the variety offered by its hilly surface and ponds.

  

This circa 1860 photograph by Beer & Co., published by Green-Wood Cemetery , is of the west side of Ocean Hill, looking north.  Note the stones at the left side of the road; they are glacial rubble removed from the surface and used to form the road bed.  Such rocks can still be seen on the edges of the cemetery’s paved roads.  Courtesy of Jeffrey Kraus.  

 

 

 

 

"This land had been shaped 17,000 years earlier, when the glacier crept southward, then halted at the moraine which runs east-west through what is now Green-Wood Cemetery .  As the glacier began to recede, it left behind ponds, hills, and rock rubble.  These features made the land unattractive for commercial or residential development, but inexpensive and well-suited for a rural cemetery.

"Douglass had no intention of grossly changing the land; rather, he planned to grade and groom the original 178 acres to meet the cemetery's needs.  Consistent with the attitude of the time, nature was not to be allowed to take its own course, but was to be improved upon, to be made more "natural."  Rock rubble was taken from the hills and used for the beds of carriage roads. Variety was prized as hills, glacial ponds, forests, dells, and valleys were manicured and lawns were planted.  Circular, oblong, and triangular family plots were created; rows of gravestones, such as those found at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington , D.C. , or the later Arlington National Cemetery , were scorned. Curved paths and roads added to the land's mystery, surprising and delighting visitors whose leisurely walk or carriage ride was driven forward by the desire to know what was just around the bend. Picturesque trees, framing the distant scene, were planted. (But Douglass never took the picturesque concept as far as the eighteenth century Englishmen who "planted" a dead tree in London 's Kensington Gardens for its scenic effect.) The names of features, roads and paths at Green-Wood were chosen to enhance this experience of being in the presence of life, not death: Sylvan Water, Grassy Dell, and Sassafras Avenue were typically-uplifting choices. Under Douglass's direction, Green-Wood Cemetery became the finest of the first generation of American landscapes in the English picturesque garden tradition."1

At the request of Green-Wood Cemeterys Board of Trustees, David Bates Douglasss’s remains were brought there and interred beneath this monument.

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1Richman, Jeffrey I. (1998). Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery. Vermont: Stein OurPress (pg. 15-19).