30 April 2010

Finding old Boston burials in the HBGI database

In the 1980s, staff and volunteers from the Historic Burying Grounds Initiative (HBGI)a public/private program within the Boston’s Parks & Recreation departmentwalked the city’s graveyards and recorded all legible markers. Now you can search the HBGI database online to find Boston’s dead.

The database consists of:
  • Bennington Street Cemetery, East Boston (founded 1838)
  • Bunker Hill Burying Ground, Charlestown (1816)
  • Central Burying Ground (a.k.a. Common), Downtown Boston (1756)
  • Copp's Hill Burying Ground, North End/Boston (1659)
  • Dorchester North Burying Ground (1634)
  • Dorchester South Burying Ground (1814)
  • Eliot Burying Ground (a.k.a. Old Roxbury or Eustis Street), Roxbury (1630)
  • Granary Burying Ground, Downtown Boston (1660)
  • Hawes/Union Burying Ground, South Boston (1816/1841)
  • King's Chapel Burying Ground, Downtown Boston (1630)
  • Market Street Burying Ground, Brighton (1764)
  • Phipps Street Burying Ground, Charlestown (1630)
  • Walter Street Burying Ground, Roslindale (1711)
  • Westerly Burying Ground, West Roxbury (1683)
Searching the HBGI Database Online
You can search the HBGI database by surname or by cemetery. Instead of typing in the surname, you choose names from a drop-down list, which is helpful for finding variant spellings (and transcription errors). If, for example, you’re looking for Alden, make sure you scroll down to find the variant Allden. If you already know the location of the graves, you can choose to narrow your surname search by cemetery as well. The Alden/Allden burials are all listed at King’s Chapel Burying Ground on Tremont Street between School and Park streets.
 
The database has minimal information, and sometimes does not include a date of death. For example:

Alden, William
Date: 1729
Cemetery: King's Chapel
Location: KC/ 4A109


However, it may be enough for you to determinethrough other sources—whether this grave is the one you’re looking for. Lucky for us, Robert J. Dunkle and Ann S. Lainhart compiled Inscriptions and Records of the Old Cemeteries of Boston (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2000), now an online database available to NEHGS members. It includes Central, Copp’s Hill, Granary, Hawes, and King’s Chapel burying grounds. From the NEHGS database, we find the original inscription reads: “Here Lyes Interred/ Ye Body Of William/ Alden Esqr Dec’d/ Febry Ye 9th 1728/9/ In Ye 60th Year/Of His Age.”

Finding the grave in person is a little trickier. The location includes “KC” for King’s Chapel, but once you get there, you won’t find neat rows or a map that corresponds to that location. That’s why you need Charles Chauncey Wells’ cemetery books with map inserts that correspond to the HGBI locations. For the Alden example, you’ll need Preachers, Patriots & Plain Folks: Boston's burying ground guide to King's Chapel, Granary, Central (Oak Park, IL: Chauncey Park Press, 2004). Then grab your map and head to the cemetery.

Finding Relatives Row by Row
If you want to know who your ancestor is buried next to (just in case they’re relatives with different surnames) in the HBGI database, here’s a trick. Say you want to know who is buried near:

Ballard, Mary
Date: 1758
Cemetery: Granary
Location: G/C 311


Choose your burial ground from the HBGI cemetery drop-down list and submit query. You’ll get an alphabetical list of everyone in that cemetery with legible gravestones. From the location description, G stands for Granary; C is one of the four sections that divides the burial ground on the Granary HBGI map. Use your Edit-->Find on This Page search button and type in G/C 312. You’ll find the next grave is for:

Bearey, James
Date: 1731/11/15
Cemetery: Granary
Location: G/C 312


James Bearey has a full death date, so it will be easier to look him up in Boston vital records and cemetery inscription books to see if he's related to Mary Ballard.

One word of warning. Some headstones have been moved, especially in the older cemeteries. Sometimes sextons decided to make the burying grounds look neater, more like the park-like cemeteries that became popular in the 19th century, and moved headstones irregardless of who was buried beneath or near them. Other stones toppled and were misplaced. So enlarge your search parameters or scan the entire cemetery list for familiar names. 

Other HBGI Features 
The Historic Burying Grounds Initiative web site also includes a short history of each graveyard; an overview of the iconography of the gravestones (symbols on the graves); information on visiting a burying ground; and how you can help preserve these hallowed places.

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