The Potter’s Field at Hart Island

Ana Abraham

Hart Island lies close enough to New York City to use inmate labor, but far enough away to be forgotten easily enough. It is comprised of 101 acres located on the Long Island Sound, just off of the Bronx shoreline. Hart Island is special in several respects. It is closed to the public, and it has reportedly around a million unmarked graves, making it the nation’s largest potter’s field, which is a taxpayer funded burial ground for the unclaimed dead.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers were trained and Confederate Soldiers were held as prisoners of war on Hart Island. Perhaps the most surprising fact about the potter’s field, however, is that there is very little documentation in existence about the bodies entombed there. Family members who suspect that a deceased relative or a friend is buried there have almost no resources at their disposal through the city or state of New York to find who they’re looking for. At a rate of around 1,200 bodies per year, Hart Island is fast growing. The New York Department of Correction supplies the inmate labor needed to bury the bodies, which are in cheap wood coffins marked by numbers and placed in mass graves.

However, a woman named Melinda Hunt has made it her mission to give names to the undocumented bodies at Hart Island. Hunt lives in Westchester, New York. She runs the Hart Island Project and says that being able to grieve for lost family or friends is a “basic human rights issue.” She became interested in the undocumented dead after losing friends to AIDS in the 1980s and began taking pictures of Hart Island in the early 1990s. Not too long after, the area was closed completely to the public. Hunt runs a helps family members navigate the legal system when trying to find out if their loved ones are, in fact, at City Cemetery on Hart Island.

According to Hunt’s website, the only records that exist of who is buried in the mass graves are post-1980. A fire destroyed the earlier records, losing potentially hundreds of thousands of names. Hunt, in getting her project off of the ground, petitioned New York City under the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the existing city records. She has since developed a database on her website that has over 60,000 records, and is growing.

Interested parties register online and are granted access to search the records. Hunt has also made a documentary in 2006 about the island called Hart Island: An American Cemetery. She has also made artwork based on pictures of the known inhabitants as they were during their lives. Her nonprofit work has attracted international attention, and other major cities are taking closer looks at their own potter’s fields.

As of 2011, there were 32,765 adults in Hunt’s database, and 27,769 infants. Hunt states that the mission of her project is to “make the largest cemetery in the United States visible and accessible so that no one is omitted from history.”