Restoring centuries-old family treasure below the streets of Manhattan

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CNN's Jim Boulden has long been obsessed with his ancestors' history

He rediscovers a long forgotten treasure -- the family vault beneath Manhattan churchyard

New York CNN  — 

It’s not quite the same as Nicolas Cage searching for Freemason treasure beneath Trinity Church on Wall Street in “National Treasure.”

But to an amateur genealogist who can trace his family tree to the founding of Manhattan and the New York Stock Exchange – not to mention the city’s famed Bleecker Street, captured in song by the likes of Simon and Garfunkel and Bruce Springsteen – the scene was equally thrilling.

On a sunny autumn morning, I joined about 60 family members and friends below the Trinity churchyard for a rare glimpse of history – and an opportunity to set right a decade-old wrong.

Getting here wasn’t easy: We had to descend a narrow flight of steps, through a corridor replete with old pipes at head height, and then scramble through a hole in a thick foundation wall built in 1846.

But getting to this point was much harder.

Jim Boulden

I’ve been obsessed with my family history for 35 years. As a young man I was fortunate that I could interview my grandparents and great-aunts. I’d write them letters, and they’d write me back. My great-grandparents collected letters, Bibles, photos and records as far back as the late 1800s. It’s in my blood.

My holidays, walls and pocket money have all been focused on genealogy. I’ve traveled throughout Europe and the United States to track down my ancestors.

My children long ago stopped asking me why I research “dead people.”

Occasionally, though, “dead people” can help the living by giving families an extraordinary insight into their past.

It took the desecration of one of my family’s vaults underneath Trinity Wall Street for this to happen to us.

The story starts in 1790, when my fourth great-grandfather – a Bleecker – bought a burial vault in Trinity’s historic churchyard off Wall Street.

His name was Anthony Lispenard Bleecker, and he had a farm where Bleecker Street is today and a house on Broadway.

He first placed his father’s remains in the Trinity vault in 1791. For nearly 100 years, the remains of some two dozen of his extended family were interred there. The burials continued even as the church was knocked down and replaced by the current Gothic structure in 1846.

Except for one set of ashes in the 1970s, the Bleecker burials stopped after 1884. It’s not clear why. My mother, the last Bleecker in her line, never mentioned it to me and neither did her father.

In 1981, a distant cousin, Richard Bleecker, had a question. From his apartment in Jersey City, he could see Manhattan. He wondered if the vault still existed and if the ashes of his immediate family could be interred there.

He approached church officials, who told him it wasn’t clear if any of the vaults were still accessible. It was apparently the first inquiry from a descendant of any vault owner in decades.

On a chilly November day in 2000, and with the aid of two ladders, Richard and members of the Trinity staff ventured below the floor of the church wing, climbed over a wall, down a hallway and then descended through a roof and into the vault area. The Bleecker vault, along with a few others, was intact. Eventually Richard was given permission to become one of the few people to be buried in Lower Manhattan.

Then the vault was desecrated.

In 2002, workers who had been allowed in to fix a wall and upgrade the ventilating system had apparently destroyed the remaining coffins, pushing human remains and brass plates to one side and leaving bones and teeth exposed.

In 2014, Richard wanted to visit the vault again; it had been more than a decade since he’d seen it. He and the Trinity staff, armed with flashlights, were quite unprepared for what they found.

It took two years of negotiations, and a considerable amount of investment on the part of the church, for Trinity to put it right.

And put it right they did:

The vault now has a new door, a rebuilt entrance, new shelves for ashes and the now-cleaned-up coffin plates, and a gravel floor under which the remains of my ancestors now rest.

The church hosted a service in October to rededicate the vault. Dozens of our family gathered for the service, while relatives who couldn’t make it watched online.

“The Bleecker family is a significant part of Manhattan’s history,” said the Rev. William Lupfer, rector of Trinity Church Wall Street. “Twenty-six Bleecker ancestors rest in the Colonial-era vault. Trinity Church Wall Street was dismayed to hear of the severe disrepair of the vaults and we are pleased to have been able to restore and re-consecrate this historic gravesite.”

Trinity also put new name signs on our vault and three others that remain accessible. One belongs to the Morris family; it was purchased by the late New York Supreme Court Judge Richard Morris in 1751. As fortune would have it, he’s also my fifth great-grandfather – meaning I could someday be buried in either the Bleecker or Morris vault.

The day before the church service, our family got another look into the past – this time at the nearby New York Stock Exchange.

A precursor to the NYSE grew up right behind Anthony Lispenard Bleecker’s home. Anthony’s brother John and son Garrat were among the 26 men who signed the 1792 Buttonwood Agreement, which started a membership-only exchange among the city’s auctioneers, who sold securities over their counter like any other commodity.

I reached out to the NYSE, which granted us a rare viewing of the Buttonwood Agreement. We also were able to look at the committee minutes from the 1830s when Anthony’s nephew, James W. Bleecker, was president of the NYSE. These documents are rarely open to research and, I’m told, have never been photocopied, filmed or digitized. This is manna to an amateur genealogist and family historian. I have to admit I spent the time in front of the documents in a bit of shock. It’s like finding an elusive Bible record, or photos of ancestors you’ve never seen before. The painting of James W. Bleecker on the NYSE wall is the first likeness of him I’d ever seen.

This experience has reinforced a genealogy lesson I learned awhile back:

Sitting at a computer collecting names is not genealogy. It’s data. Yes, I have 11,700 names on my family tree, but I have typed each and every of them into a computer since the early 1990s.

I used to post my family tree online freely, but no more. Too often I’ve found my work elsewhere without attribution. I’ll still share with those who reach out and share too, and will always give credit where due. But when people started sending me work that was mine to begin with, I saw that my work was coming full circle – and stopped giving away my research.

To get your names, you need to go to cemeteries and read the stones. You need to knock on doors and get the Bible records. You need to find the documents not yet online. You need to join local societies and learn strategies from others. You need to read every possible census and obituary and marriage record.

In doing so, you may just rediscover your own long forgotten family treasure.