Old Derby Uptown Burying Ground, Derby
There’s a lot of CTMQ-worthy stuff crammed into tiny little Derby. When I began compiling all of that stuff, I was rather surprised to learn that the “oldest public burying ground in the US” is located here, on a sweeping hillside above the Naugatuck River.
Of course there are older cemeteries in America; the distinction here being that most early colonial burial grounds were associated with churches. This one, apparently, was not. I’ll give credit to the various Derby area history organizations, as they usually are careful to write “reportedly” and “reputedly” when attaching the superlative.
What is indisputable here is that the oldest stone remaining is that for Reverand John Bowers dated June 14, 1687. There is also a period of 241 years between the first and last stone placed in the cemetery, which is pretty crazy. Derby’s first permanent white resident, Edward Wooster (1622-1689), is buried here as well.
A whole slew of volunteers and organizations help keep this place up. Just a couple months before I popped in, the Derby Historical Society and some local businesses donated time, talent, and money for the new sign pictured above.
From the Historical Society:
The burying ground has a long and storied tradition. One of Derby’s earliest acts was to provide for a community cemetery which still stands today as the Old Derby Uptown Burying Ground. It is hard to find a reference, in the early records, for the origin of the cemetery. The first recorded death was that of Robert Hawkins in 1675. The oldest stone remaining is that of Reverend John Bowers, a former Plymouth schoolmaster who died on June 14, 1687. Another clue supporting the early origin of the Burying Ground is contained in the town records. George Beaman was elected as the town’s first grave digger in 1683. It was agreed that he should receive two shillings for a child’s grave and two shillings and a sixpence for an adult’s grave. Mr. Beaman was born in New Haven around 1654 and was among the second group of settlers that received a grant of land in Derby.
I didn’t poke around too much. It was raining and muddy and well, it’s just a cemetery. A cemetery that may or may not be the oldest public one in the US. (Though I can find no other similar claims elsewhere.)
Oh, but that’s not the only dubious claim here. Meet Dr. John Durand, a French Huguenot physician who came to Derby around 1680. He purchased a house on Academy Hill that was known to Derbyites as Brownie Castle. (The town razed it in 2016.)
On a later return trip to France, Dr. Durand packed up a bunch of lilac roots, brought them back to Derby, and planted them around his home. Thus, the first French Lilac bushes appeared in the United States in Derby.
This isn’t how facts are established, so I want to believe the historian from the Derby Library had a glint in her eye when she said, “it’s an established legend and somebody has to prove it wrong.” (She did also say that there are several sources that back up the legend, including books on Derby history.)
In 1992, someone put a plaque at his old gravesite. It does not mince words:
Not too many Connecticut towns have official flowers. Maybe Norwich has the rose? No idea, but Derby does have one… the orchid. Just kidding. It’s the lilac of course. And now you know why.
The entrance to the Olde Uptown Burial Ground is located on Derby Avenue at the base of Academy Hill. You can’t park out on the road and the driveway into the grounds is rather terrible. But visiting the supposedly oldest public burying ground in the US that contains the grave of the French guy who supposedly brought the first lilac bushes to the US is worth the effort every time.
You know it is.