The oldest historic site in Hartford is the Ancient Burying Ground, adjacent to Center Church, founded by Rev. Thomas Hooker and built in 1636. As the city’s first cemetery, all who died at the time were interred here. The earliest surviving gravestone dates from 1648.
As was the custom in those times, burials were randomly placed regardless of family relationship. Gravediggers would use metal rods to locate a vacant spot, when necessary. When available space began to be an issue, bodies were stacked atop one another. In the process, grave markers became misplaced or destroyed. The burying ground became a crowded site of decay, with over 6,000 corpses in the cemetery.
Over time, the premium site in Hartford’s city center, became attractive to developers. As early as 1712, a church meeting house was built on top of several grave sites. This was seen as an honor for those buried beneath, as the custom in England was to bury honored personalities within churches. By the 1890s, several structures had been built upon what was meant to be burial plots. Coffins were unearthed, bones were dug up. Some were reburied. Others were not so lucky and were carted off to the dump. In general, the cemetery was not actively used for burials and became neglected. Gold Street was but a mere 16-foot-wide alleyway lined in a slum. Efforts were made in the late 19th and 20th centuries to clean up the area, widen Gold Street, install an iron fence around the perimeter of the cemetery and generally keep the area maintained.
A popular site for gravestone rubbing, the burial ground is maintained by the Ancient Burying Ground Association which has launched an ongoing restoration program to clean and preserve the remaining headstones and provides walking tours of the site. It offers a glimpse into the early days of Hartford as a 17th century New England town.
Know Before You Go
Easiest access in through the gate on Main Street, next to Center Church. Check the website for hours and special events.