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Astoria Man Breathes Life Into Forgotten Family Cemetery

By Jason D Antos

His name is James Sheehan and he has almost 100 people buried in his backyard.

For six decades the Astoria resident has been the caretaker of one of the city’s oldest and most historic family cemeteries. And almost nobody knows about it.

As one walks or drives by the corner of 35th Street and 20th Road in the old section of Astoria, they might notice a beautiful stone wall with an ornate wrought iron gate. Since the wall is high and the property is slightly elevated above the roadway, people pass unaware that behind this edifice stands an eternal tribute to one of Queens County’s earliest and most prolific families.   

Sheehan, now 84, inherited his house and the cemetery from his father-in-law, in the 1960s. The father-in-law was given the property by Ruth Lawrence, one of the last surviving direct descendants of the Lawrence family.

“I know the stories of everyone who is buried here,” said Sheehan.

The private burial ground which belonged to the Lawrence family was established in 1656, by an Englishman named Major Thomas Lawrence, who emigrated to New York in 1651.

It was recognized as an official cemetery by the city of New York in 1703.

“The thing that worries me the most is what will happen to this place after I am gone,” said Sheehan.

Sheehan has been tending the site for nearly 60 years, paying for repairs out of his own pocket. But now he is worried about what will become of the place in the future.

“I’ve been maintaining this out of respect for my father-in-law and the history of the Lawrences,” Mr. Sheehan said.

The Lawrences were a family not only of wealth but also of great importance, with many playing key roles in both local and American history. One of the more famous decedents was Captain James Lawrence, the naval officer whose words uttered during the War of 1812, “Don’t give up the ship!” have become immortalized in wartime history. Capt. Lawrence was buried in Trinity Church in Manhattan but the rest of his family is buried in Sheehan’s backyard. 

The graveyard holds the remains of lieutenant governors, New York City mayoral candidates and heroes of the Revolutionary and Civil War. Among the numerous prominent figures buried in his backyard are Maj. Johnathan Lawrence, a member of the state constitutional convention in the 1770s; Gen. Albert Gallatin Lawrence, a Civil War hero; Abraham Riker Lawrence, a State Supreme Court justice who was related to the Rikers of Rikers Island, and John L. Lawrence, the first president of the Croton Aqueduct.

The Lawrence family graveyard was landmarked by the city in 1966.

Sheehan served in the Army and then worked for the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority from which he is now retired.

In his younger years Sheehan said he would sit amongst the colonial era tombstones on warm evenings and smoke a cigar.

“The people buried here have become almost like family to me,” explained Sheehan.

According to Sheehan the stone retaining wall is in need of serious restoration. In recent years local youth groups have visited the cemetery to assist Sheehan in a clean up of leaves and debris from the burial ground.

“It is my hope that people will become interested in this place and all its wonderful history,” said Sheehan.

The Queens Historical Society will be working with the City Council and Community Board 1 to assist Sheehan in helping to preserve the property for future generations.

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