Copp's Hill Burying Ground

Exhibit edited and curated by Ryley Harris



Copp’s Hill Burying Ground is the second-oldest cemetery in Boston. Established in 1659, Copp’s Hill, which was once known as the North Burying Place, is the final resting place for many people who contributed to the early history of Boston and the nation, including prominent Puritan ministers and people involved in the Revolutionary War (1). In regard to the Revolutionary War, in addition to serving as a burial ground, Copp’s Hill was used as a strategic military location by the British during the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 (2). Copp’s Hill is located in the section of Boston known as the North End, and from the 1600’s through the 1800’s, it was home to many merchants, shipbuilders, and craftsmen. The cemetery itself is encompassed by Snow Hill, Charter, and Hull Streets. Originally known as Mill Hill, its name was later changed to Copp’s Hill in memory of William Copp, who was the first person to live in this area (1). The Copp’s Hill Burying Ground was closed to burials in the 1850’s, and a century later, it was declared an official site on the Freedom Trail of Boston (3).


Copp’s Hill was an important area for African Americans in early Boston. At the base of Mill Hill, many free African Americans lived together in a community known as the ‘New Guinea’ colony (4). Although there are no formal records for the name “New Guinea” prior to 1790, the name was used in oral tradition and could have originated from there. For reference, Africans first arrived in Massachusetts in 1635 as slaves from the West Indies (5). During this time, both free and enslaved African Americans worked in unskilled and common labor positions, and most white families had at least one black servant in their homes. Although conditions for slaves in Massachusetts were not as terrible as those in the South, slaves and even free African Americans still lived in Boston with many more restrictions than white people (1). However, at the end of the 1700’s, there was a change in attitude against slavery in Boston, and through efforts by people such as Prince Hall and through court decisions like Commonwealth v. Jennison, slavery was abolished in Massachusetts (6).  Of course, the fight for total equality of African Americans in Boston was far from over.

African Americans in Copp's Hill


It is unknown how many African Americans are buried in the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground.  Up until the 1830’s, it was common practice for people who died in Boston to be buried in a local burying ground such as Copp’s Hill. Consistent with this practice, local African Americans were buried in Copp’s Hill, although there is debate on the exact number. Records from the late 1800’s provide some of the oldest documentations of African Americans being buried in Copp’s Hill (2, 7). While there is no number of African American burials established in these records, they do refer to the presence of the ‘New Guinea’ colony and indicate that the southeasterly side of the Snow Hill Street section of the cemetery was used for the burials of slaves and free African Americans (7). This location in the cemetery was most likely the least desirable because it was located on the outside boundary of the cemetery by the original main entrance at Charter Street. In 1900, an official study was conducted of the cemeteries in Boston, and while African Americans are mentioned as living in the “first colored colony, then called New Guinea” and being buried in the Snow Hill Street section of Copp’s Hill, the study does not identify the number of African Americans buried there (4). A much later study, the Report and Inventory prepared by the Historic Burying Grounds Initiative in 1986, states that more than 1,000 African Americans are buried in Copp’s Hill, but an exact number is still unknown (8). It is now speculated that between 1,000 and 1,100 African Americans are buried in the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground.


Although most graves of African Americans in Copp’s Hill are unmarked, or the grave markers have been stolen or decayed over time, we have knowledge of a few African Americans who were buried in Copp’s Hill based on the remaining headstones. For example, some African American servants were buried with their masters, including Mary Ball, who was a servant to Robert Ball. A notable African American historical figure buried in Copp’s Hill is Prince Hall, who was the founder of the African Lodge of the Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons of Boston, which was the world’s first lodge of black Freemasonry. During his lifetime, Hall advocated for black rights, in particular equal education. Another African American historical figure buried in Copp’s Hill is Abel Barbadoes, who served in the Revolutionary War and later contributed to the construction of the African Meeting House. There is also speculation that Phillis Wheatley, a famous African American poet, may be buried in Copp’s Hill as well. Conflicting sources debate whether Wheatley was buried in the Granary Burying Ground or in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground (1).


Why are there no records?


It is not surprising that the number of African Americans buried in Copp’s Hill is unknown because we do not have any information about most of the people, whether white or African American, who were buried at Copp’s Hill. There were no formal records kept of who was buried there, with much of the information being gleaned from grave markers such as engraved headstones and tombs. During this time, the Puritan religion dominated Boston, which meant that many people believed in predestination, or in other words that God had already selected each person’s fate after death, and there was nothing one could do to influence that fate during his or her lifetime. In return, this belief made death a frightening concept, and therefore, cemeteries were not treated the same way as they are now. Many people could not afford headstones, as they were imported from England and very expensive. In addition, little thought was placed into the actual arrangement of people in the graveyard, and people may have been buried on top of one another. Because people did not visit their loved ones after death, Copp’s Hill was not well maintained and was even used as a grazing field for cattle. So, while there are an estimated 10,000 people in total buried in Copp’s Hill, the actual number of people buried there whose identity is known is approximately 2,000 (1).


In the late 1700’s, there was a change in religion known as the Great Awakening. As a result of this change, there was a movement to make cemeteries more visually appealing and open to the public. The Rural Cemetery movement occurred in the early 1800’s, beginning with the opening of the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. The Mount Auburn Cemetery, which has walking pathways, trees, and a grid design, altered the public perception of what a burial place (now called a cemetery) should look like (1). In response, headstones in Copp’s Hill were moved to be in straight rows, walking pathways were installed over grave sites, and trees were planted. Although this movement initiated the recording of burials, it also made discovering who was actually buried in the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, regardless of race, even more challenging (9).

Comparison of Copp's Hill to the African Burial Ground National Monument


The stories of unmarked graves of African Americans from the early roots of the United States in Copp’s Hill is similar to the graves of African Americans discovered and later commemorated in the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan, New York. In 1991, construction of a government office building unearthed the remains of what was noted on a 1755 map of New York as the “Negros Burial Ground” (10). Originally, the government wanted to keep building at the same time that the remains were being exhumed and preserved, but after many protests, construction was suspended, which allowed scholars more fully to examine and analyze the site and the people buried there. In total, 441 bodies were recovered, dating from the 1630’s up until 1795, making this site the oldest and largest excavated burial ground for African Americans in the United States. The project, monument, and visitor’s center that followed from this discovery transformed New York City’s history by providing context to the lives of New York’s early black citizens, who played a big role in constructing the city (11).


Although the excavation of these bodies was unplanned, it raises questions of what would be found if a similar excavation were to occur in Copp’s Hill, which was open during the same time as the “Negros Burial Ground.” Many of the bodies in New York were covered in shrouds fastened with pins and were buried with shells, coins, beads, rings, and other artifacts that showed a connection to their native land of Africa. In addition, analysis of the skeletal remains showed that these people most likely did strenuous labor and often suffered from malnutrition (11). Would the same types of information be found in Copp’s Hill? We know of an existence of a community of free and enslaved African Americans in the New Guinea area adjacent to Copp’s Hill, and we know that these people had very interesting lives, yet there is still so much we do not know. The African Burial Ground National Monument was an effort by New York to provide insight into the lives of these first African Americans. Boston should consider a similar project, perhaps using advances in technology, to research and explore the African Americans buried in the Copp’s Hill Burying Group in an effort to enhance our understanding and recognition of the rich history of African Americans living in early Boston.

This is a map of the City of Boston from 1645. Copp's Hills is located in the North End at Mill Hill. Image courtesy of Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center.

Prince Hall is of the few known African Americans buried a Copp's Hill. He was the founder of the Black Freemasons. Image Courtesy of Grand Lodge of the Freemasons of British Colombia and Yukon.

These are classic puritan style headstones, because headstones were imported from England at the time many people could not afford them, leaving them unmarked and unknown. Image Courtesy of The City of Boston Historic Burying Grounds Initiative.

This is an image taken in 1930, and it shows how Copp's Hill was changed through the installation of walking pathways and rearrangement of headstones into straight lines that occurred during the 1800s. Image courtesy of Digital Commonwealth.

These are examples of some of the artifacts discovered during the excavation of the African Burial Ground National Monument. Image courtsey of The National Parks Service

Work Cited

(1) Donohue, Barbara. Copp’s Hill: Evolution of a Puritan Burying Place, 1659 - the Present. Grave Goods Publishing, 2017.

(2) MacDonald, Edward. Old Copps Hill and Burial Ground; with Historical Sketches. Boston: Benjamin Parks, 1882.

(3) “Copp's Hill Burying Ground: The Freedom Trail.” The Freedom Trail. The Freedom Trail Foundation. Accessed November 19, 2019.

(4) Annual Report of the Cemetery Department of the City of Boston for the Fiscal Year 1900-1901. Boston: Boston Municipal Printing Office, 1901.

(5) “Timelines.” MSP African Americans in Massachusetts. Massachusetts Studies Project, 2005.

(6) Hardesty, Jared. Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston. New York: New York University Press, 2016.

(7) Shurtleff, Nathaniel Bradstreet. Topographical and Historical Description of Boston. Boston: City Council, 1871.

(8) Report and Inventory: Copp's Hill Burying Ground. Vol. II. Boston: Parks & Recreation Department, 1986.

(9) Thomas, Kelly. “Copp's Hill Burying Ground Project.” Email, November 15, 2019.

(10) Guidebook to African American History in the National Parks. Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2011.

(11) Rothstein, Edward. “African Burial Ground, and Its Dead, Are Given Life.”The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Feb. 2010,