At the Historic Old Dutch Church in Kingston, the Ghosts Come Alive
October 30, 2023
One of the most historic graveyards in New York State rests beside the Old Dutch Church in Kingston. Located in the Historic Stockade District, the burial ground is the final resting place for many famous Kingston and Hudson Valley former residents. In addition to other events held throughout the year, the church hosts living history tours every October. During the tours, some of the ghosts “come alive” to tell their stories to new generations.
A Brief History of Kingston, New York
You may not remember that Kingston was actually the first capital of New York State. But let’s take a step even further back.
Before the Europeans arrived in the area, the Hudson Valley was inhabited by the native Esopus people, a tribe of the Lenape. In fact, many of the place names that remain today are remnants of the indigenous culture that once ruled the region.
But in the early 1600s, the area was settled by Dutch colonialists. And although the Dutch only presided over the region for a short time, they also left their footprints in Kingston. Take the existence of the Old Dutch Church for example. The original church was built at the same location in 1660, and has since been referred to as “The Cathedral of Kingston”. At the time, the village was named Wiltwyck and was under Dutch control.
Unfortunately tensions grew between the Dutch and the Esopus as the years passed, leading to the Esopus Wars. During the fighting, the Esopus burned down the original church. Shortly after, the Dutch ceded the area to the British in 1664.
The British Take Control
For the next century, the story of Kingston was similar to that of any other New England town or village. This time the tensions that were growing were between the American patriots and the British loyalists. As before, the Old Dutch Church was at the center of the battles. Angered with the Americans, the British burned down the church once again in 1777.
It was also in 1777 that Kingston was established as the capital of New York, and when George Clinton became the first governor of the state.
The Importance of the Old Dutch Church
Officially titled “First Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Kingston”, the Old Dutch Church is a landmark as the oldest church in Kingston. (Not to be confused with the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, just an hour south.) Despite having been burnt down during multiple wars, the church continued to rebuild. Each time bigger and stronger than before.
The current structure was designed by architect Minard LaFever. The impressive building was constructed with large cutes of native bluestone and completed in 1852. At the time, it was the tallest steeple in New York State. But, by law, it remains the tallest building in Kingston to this day. This allows the steeple to be significant in Kingston’s skyline, seen from miles and miles away.
Over its history, the church has been host to many historically famous visitors. Along with New York’s first governor, George Clinton, both George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the church before becoming president. Furthermore, Ulysses S. Grant, Martin Van Buren, and Charles Arthur all visited the church while serving as president.
In 2008 the Old Dutch Church was named a National Historic Landmark.
Who is buried at the Old Dutch Church in Kingston?
Some of the most famous visitors to the church remain there to this day. The burial grounds surrounding the church are both stunning and historic. The lot houses roughly 300 headstones, spanning centuries, with many predating the current church building. It’s important to note that not all of the graves are clearly marked.
The most notable permanent resident, of course, is George Clinton. In addition to being the first governor of New York, he also served as Vice President under both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He also has the largest monument in the cemetery.
Additionally, the cemetery has laid to rest several Native Americans, Dutch settlers, British soldiers, and former slaves and servants.
Old Dutch Church Living History Tours
In collaboration with Theatre on the Road, the Old Dutch Church in Kingston hosts living history tours every October. Each year, the “ghosts” that come alive change, representing various famous residents from Kingston’s past. Some of the people you’ll encounter on the tour are actually buried in the cemetery at the Old Dutch Church, but not all.
And I have to say, the ‘haunted’ living history tours at the cemetery are very well done. Having experienced many of these types of tours across New York and the world, the Old Dutch Church does a wonderful job. Most of the actors with Theatre on the Road do justice to the historical figures they are portraying, breathing life into their stories once again.
The living history tours typically occur every Saturday night in October. Tickets are just $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, and children under 12 are free.