TRAVEL QUICK GUIDES
Touring Portsmouth cemeteries in any season has become more interesting and rewarding. New printed and online research is available for genealogists, researchers and the merely curious. The city is reawakening to the importance of these endangered historic sites and art historians are drawn to the skill of the talented carvers themselves.
VISIT: The Grave Site
PORTSMOUTH, NH BURYING GROUNDS
African American Burying Ground
Court and Chestnut Streets
Although town histories referred to a "Negro Burying Ground" in this area, the exact location was unknown until recently. In October 2004 workers discovered 13 wooden coffins under the city streets. DNA testing proved the remains were indeed African American. The black cemetery was designated in 1705 for the town’s enslaved and free black population at what was then a site far from the center of Portsmouth. As the town expanded the only black burial field was apparently built over by 1813. It is unknown whether 19th century residents repatriated the graves poorly or not at all. The exact size and shape of the cemetery is still unknown. After public hearings, Portsmouth residents decided to return the remains to their original burial site, divert traffic and build a memorial. (more)
Langdon Family Cemetery
Off Elwyn Road
A small family plot can be seen after a short hike into the Urban Forestry Center. The Langdon’s were an early Portsmouth farming family and this land along Spruce Creek was part of a northern "plantation" that used enslaved workers in the 18th century. Yankee families typically kept a burial site on the property, and in this case, created a separate space for slaves. The walled in "slave" burying ground with unmarked graves is further up the path behind Christ Episcopal Church off Lafayette Road. (more)
Old North Cemetery
Here lie the big names from the American Revolution. The cemetery is not far from the Sheraton parking lot and near the North Mill Pond. Dignitaries include the first NH Governor John Langdon who served in the Continental Congress. His brother Woodbury Langdon was a controversial Supreme Court Justice. Enslaved Prince Whipple is honored for his serve to Declaration of Independence signer William Whipple buried nearby. See the state historic marker for more. It is connected to Union Cemetery at the right toward the Mill Pond.
Pleasant Street Cemetery
Easy to miss, this 18th and 19th century cemetery is behind a narrow overgrown bit of wall next to the Mark Wentworth Home. The half-buried tomb near the parking lot belongs to an unknown resident.
Point of Graves
The city’s oldest surviving burying ground is across next to Strawbery Banke and across from Strawbery Banke Museum. Here behind a low stone wall you will find markers dating from late 1600s. The grounds were established sometime in 1671 and contain some of New England’s most dramatic grave carvings.
St. John’s Cemetery
Corner Bow and Chapel streets
In this unusual site at the highest point in the city center, the graves are actually above street level. The walled cemetery was established in 1732 when the original High Anglican Queen’s Chapel stood here. The church was the apex of high society in colonial New Hampshire and the yard Here the Wentworth family tomb reportedly includes the remains of at least one British Royal Governor from the family dynasty. Many memorials are actually inside the church rather than at the burial sites outdoors.
Corner of South and Sagamore
The extensive area contains a scenic and includes -- Auburn Cemetery, Cotton’s Cemetery, Harmony Grove Cemetery, Proprietors’ Burying Ground and Sagamore Cemetery. It was set aside for use by the town in 1671, but not used as a cemetery until 1830. Privately managed, South Cemetery is the final rest of a number of local notables including Portsmouth historian Charles W. Brewster, Victorian comedic actor Henry Clay Barnabee, Portsmouth "robber baron" and ale tycoon Frank Jones, 1873 Smuttynose murder victims Karen and Anethe Christiansen, furniture master Langley Boardmen and George Fishley, among the last surviving Revolutionary War veterans. Ruth Blay, the last woman executed in New Hampshire was hanged here at the highest point of the hill in 1758 for the crime of concealing the death of her stillborn child. (more)
Notes: The city of Portsmouth maintains a number of historic cemeteries through a Blue Ribbon Commission. Tours are often available and donations are always needed for repair and maintenance. The best published guide is the photo book Portsmouth Cemeteries by Glenn A. Knoblock (Arcadia, 2005). A Very Grave Matter offers tomb-by-tomb info online. See also GOseacoast.com.
(c) 2006 J. Dennis Robinson / SeacoastNH.com