Van Cortlandt Park

Vault Hill

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

My body I commit to the earth, to be buried in a family vault which I intend to build on my plantation. If I do not cause the vault to be built in my lifetime, my executors are to build it, and deposit my remains therein.

                   Frederick Van Cortlandt (1699-1749), Last Will and Testament

Upon the death of Frederick Van Cortlandt in 1749, the family burial grounds were established on what has become known as Vault Hill in Van Cortlandt Park. The burial vault holds the remains of many Van Cortlandt family members who were interred there until the land became a public park in 1888. After that time, the family purchased a large plot in nearby Woodlawn Cemetery.

Frederick died before the completion of his new manor home, the Van Cortlandt House, and his estate passed to his eldest son, 13-year-old James. At the onset of the Revolutionary War, City Clerk Augustus Van Cortlandt, James’s younger brother, was told by the Provincial Congress to find a safe place to secure the city records for fear that they might be destroyed during the British occupation of New York. In August 1776, Augustus wrote to his cousin John Jay that he had taken advantage of a visit to his ailing mother to hide the records in the family burial vault.

Before they were permanently sealed, a bronze plaque was hung on each vault, one for the Van Cortlandt family and one for the Bailey family. The Baileys were a prominent family in the borough’s early history. In addition, the Reverend Luke Babcock, rector of St. John’s Church in Yonkers is buried here. He served as Frederick Van Cortlandt’s pastor.

The cemetery was entailed in perpetuity to the Van Cortlandt family after the City acquired the parkland. In 1890 NYC Parks acquired the authority to issue permits for repairs and restorations to Vault Hill. During the 1960s, however, the grounds were vandalized and headstones and markers were removed.

The square stone-walled structure sits atop a steep ridge of Fordham Gneiss, surrounded by the flats of the park’s Parade Ground to the south and west, and the Tibbets Brook valley and Van Cortlandt Golf Course to the east. The rocky outcrops on Vault Hill rise 169 feet above sea level and offer an inspiring view of the Parade Ground and, on a clear day, the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Directions to Van Cortlandt Park

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