Portsmouth's Historic Cemeteries
The City of Portsmouth owns and maintains six historic cemeteries:
- Point of Graves Burial Ground
- Old North Burial Ground
- Union Cemetery
- Pleasant Street Burial Ground
- Cotton Cemetery
These cemeteries today exist as invaluable records of the lives and final resting places of residents of the community over its nearly 400-year history. Recognizing this, in 2013 The City of Portsmouth and the Portsmouth Historical Society commissioned an Existing Conditions Assessment report to begin the process of developing a long-range restoration plan to maintain these historic resources for the benefit of future generations. The report documented the existing conditions of the five historic cemeteries.
For specific lot details, visit the Portsmouth Public Library Cemetery Index.
The Cemetery Committee, whose members are appointed by the Mayor, works with Parks & Greenery to encourage the restoration, preservation, and safeguarding of Portsmouth’s historic cemeteries and their history for future generations.
Historic Cemetery Trust Fund
The Historic Cemetery Trust Fund was established in July of 2014 in order to act as a repository for all funds donated, received, or authorized by the City of Portsmouth to be used for the conservation, restoration, and repair of cemeteries, burial grounds and burial sites owned by the City. The costs identified in order to fully restore the City's publicly owned historic cemeteries are significant and those wishing to make a donation are invited to donate via the City's secure online payment portal using a credit card or electronic check. Alternatively, donations may be mailed c/o Trustees of the Trust Fund, City of Portsmouth, 1 Junkins Avenue, Portsmouth NH 03801 (please note on the check that the payment is a donation to "Cemeteries Fund").
In the spring of 2015, the City completed the stabilization and restoration of five chest and hill tombs in North Cemetery. These improvements, carried out by a conservation mason in coordination with Portsmouth Historical Society, were focused on making historically-sensitive improvements to arrest deterioration and stabilize each site. In addition, DPW maintenance crews completed tree removal and extensive tree trimming work to improve aesthetics as well as to better manage vegetation in the cemetery. DPW Parks & Greenery also coordinated with a large volunteer group to remove over 80 bags of yard waste from the North Cemetery. North Cemetery is also the home of an Adopt-a-Spot garden at its entrance.
Front Enclosure Wall
From June through August 2015, City contractors worked on the restoration of the front enclosure fence of Union Cemetery on Maplewood Avenue, original to the site's establishment in 1844. The work was the largest improvement project to take place following the 2013 Assessment and Restoration Plan and included the temporary removal, cleaning and refinishing of the wrought iron fence components, and removal of the granite posts and beams for cleaning and eventual resetting. The entrance gate and sign was also restored.
One of the higher priority projects identified in the 2013 Assessment was reconstruction of the severely deteriorated Union Cemetery Receiving Tomb. The receiving tomb, which was not a burial site itself, was in a state of disrepair and was a known gathering place for illicit activities (monitored when possible).Together with a consulting conservation mason, the Portsmouth Historical Society, and the Division of Historical Resources, City staff found a historically-sensitive way to reconfigure the building remnants to return the site to stable condition. This work took place in conjunction with the completion of the fence work and included reusing existing granite roof pieces as structural supports and to retain the architecturally-significant façade. The existing brick was reused to pave the area behind the façade that denotes the footprint of the original receiving tomb location. The site no longer has a roof, but its presence is maintained as an architectural feature.
North Cemetery Front Enclosure Wall
In August 2016, the City undertook reconstruction of the North Cemetery front enclosure wall, the highest priority repair project in the city's historic cemeteries, and one of the most costly. The existing wall was in poor condition and had become unstable, deteriorated beyond the point of restoration or repair. The 2013 Report recommended that the entire wall be carefully dismantled and rebuilt on a concrete footing using the original stones and concrete caps. Preservation mason Thomas Ahern deconstructed the 210-foot stone wall in front of the historic North Cemetery, arranged and/or numbered the hundreds of stones and put it all back together again, one rock at a time. Ahern spent eight weeks restoring the wall. The North Cemetery burial ground is on the National Register of Historic Places
John Wendell Tomb Restoration
John Wendell (d. 1808) was a lawyer who moved to Portsmouth after graduating from Harvard and acquired considerable land holdings in New England. He was an early supporter of the Revolution and an important literary and financial contributor to New Hampshire's stand against the British Crown. The Wendell tomb is a barrel-vaulted hill tomb that was never completely covered over. Despite water infiltration for most of its existence and the poor condition of its exterior surface, the existing tomb appears to be intact. The brick vault has been extensively altered and repaired over the last 75 years, but all of these repairs have failed. The vault's end walls were completely rebuilt using a mix of recycled and modern bricks, but the reconstructed brickwork was not built on the tomb's original foundation. This lack of support and physical connection to the older masonry structure allowed the newer brick wall to settle and lean away from the rest of the tomb, causing a 3-to-4 inch gap between the back of the rebuilt wall and the tomb that threatened further degradation and possible structural collapse. The project stabilized the tomb architecturally and restored it to its original design.
Also marking the site of a historic city burying ground is the African Burying Ground Memorial Park
Portsmouth’s African Burying Ground, which was likely used throughout the 1700s, is located under what is now Chestnut Street in downtown Portsmouth, on the then-undeveloped outskirts of town. As early as 1705, documents referred to the site as the “Negro Burying Ground.” Over time, as Portsmouth grew during the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, the burying ground was built over and many forgot of its existence, except for a mention in the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.
The African Burying Ground was rediscovered in October 2003 when the buried remains of thirteen people were found during a City infrastructure project. Under the direction of the State Archaeologist and with appropriate protocols, the remains of eight individuals were temporarily removed with the intention of reinterring them at a later date. Subsequent DNA testing confirmed that those found buried at the site were of African descent.
It isn’t possible to determine with certainty how many of those buried here were enslaved, and how many may have been free. It is, however, very likely that many more individuals are buried on Chestnut Street, and it is the only known African burying ground authenticated by DNA testing, that dates to this era in all of New England.
Following the rediscovery of the African Burying Ground, the Portsmouth City Council appointed the African Burying Ground Committee and asked them to recommend how best to honor those buried on Chestnut Street. The Committee, chaired by Vernis Jackson, founder and president of the Seacoast African American Cultural Center, worked towards that end. Following a $1.2 million fund-raising campaign, the African Burying Ground Memorial Park -- with the identified section of Chestnut Street between Court and State Streets permanently closed to traffic -- was opened in May 2015.
For full details, click here.