Erie County Poorhouse Cemetery

Updated August 27, 2019

Excavations and construction on UB South Campus have periodically uncovered skeletal remains and remnants of wooden coffins. Historians believe that these were the result of burials of residents of the Erie County Poor House, which operated on the site of UB’s South Campus from 1851-1913.

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In 2012, UB sought and obtained a court order that gave the university authority to exhume remains uncovered during construction projects.  The order also granted UB the authority to analyze the exhumations in accordance with prevailing practices and ethical treatment of the remains for research and historical purposes. Under this order, UB has the legal authority to store and reinter the remains in a cemetery.

Exhumation and storage of remains was overseen by faculty from UB’s Department of Anthropology and was conducted in keeping with the standards of professional scientific inquiry and in accordance with the court order.   

Remains had been discovered in a concentrated area on the western side of the South Campus centered on Michael Road.   The remains mainly consist of skeletal fragments, bits of burial clothing and wood from coffins. 

UB’s researchers estimate that at least 3,000 individuals were buried at the site.  

On Oct 11, 2017, the university reinterred the remains of 372 individuals at Assumption Cemetery in Grand Island after a non-denominational reinternment ceremony and committal service.

On Monday, Nov. 26, at 3 p.m., the university held a dedication ceremony at the site of a new memorial garden to honor those who died in the care of the former Erie County Poorhouse and were buried on land that is today part of UB’s South Campus.

Meaningful research on Western New York history

Since the remains were discovered in 2008 and 2012, a research team from the UB Department of Anthropology had conducted extensive research to tell the story of these individuals and create a picture of what life was like for them in Buffalo during a period in the two previous centuries. The Department of Anthropology also sought to locate the boundaries of the cemetery to determine the identity and number of individuals who were buried there through archival and anthropological research.

It’s important to note that specific identities were not able to be denoted, but that scientific analysis and documentary research have yielded descriptions of gender, age and ethnic origin.

This analysis, conducted by physical anthropologists under the leadership of Distinguished Teaching Professor Joyce Sirianni, provided important insight on the health and morbidity of a specific population: Western New Yorkers living in poverty in the 19th and early 20 centuries.

The project had given UB students the opportunity to conduct meaningful research that adds significant information to the historical knowledge we have about our local community.

Under the leadership of UB archaeologist Douglas Perrelli and UB physical anthropologist Joyce Sirianni the findings of this research has been presented at research conferences nationwide and is available to the general public.  

UB’s archaeological fieldwork ended in September 2012, with no further discoveries of human skeletal remains associated with the current construction project since that time.

Respectful treatment of the remains

The University at Buffalo held a non-denominational reinternment ceremony and committal service on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 11 a.m. at the UB Newman Center, 495 Skinnersville Rd., Amherst.

The ceremony and service, officiated by Rev. Msgr. J. Patrick Keleher, Director and Campus Minister for the Newman Center and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Joyce E. Sirianni, Pastor of Faith United Presbyterian Church, commemorated the lives of 372 people buried between the mid-19 and early-20 centuries on the grounds of the former Erie County Poorhouse cemetery, near the edge of what today is the university’s South Campus.

University remarks were given by Laura E. Hubbard, vice president for finance and administration.

A funeral precession left the Newman Center at the conclusion of the ceremony and proceeded directly to a committal service at 1 p.m. at Assumption Cemetery in Grand Island.

The October 11th events at the Newman Center and on the grounds of Assumption represent the culmination of approximately nine years of devoted work at the confluence of dedicated science and compassionate humanity by UB researchers and several community partners that began after construction crews discovered the first of the poorhouse’s 372 gravesites, uncovered during a Bailey Avenue lighting project in 2008 and again in 2012.

Their meticulous and respectful efforts restores the dignity and individuality of the deceased that had been previously lost amidst a forgotten history and allows for the remains to now be moved to a permanent resting place on hallowed ground.

Any remains uncovered during future South Campus construction projects will be reinterred at Assumption Cemetery in Grand Island; all remains will be treated properly and respectfully, and will be memorialized for posterity.  A monument marks the reinterred location for the deceased with the following inscription:

In respectful memory of the men, women and children of the Erie County Poorhouse 1851-1913. A temporary shelter for some, a much needed home for others. The remains of the deceased in the former poorhouse cemetery were moved to this site from the grounds of what is now the University at Buffalo South Campus. May this permanent resting place bring the peace they sought in life.

Memorializing former Poorhouse residents

The university has created a new memorial garden to honor those who died in the care of the former Erie County Poorhouse and were buried on land that is today part of UB’s South Campus.

The South Campus memorial garden is situated immediately to the west of Clark Hall and is accessible by way of Rotary Road. The landscaped garden is enclosed by a circular walkway with a roughly 6-foot monument of American black granite that is flanked by park benches. The inscription reads:

The land surrounding this monument formerly served as the burial grounds for those who died while in the care of the Erie County Poorhouse (1851-1913). Some of the deceased have been respectfully reinterred to a permanent resting place at Assumption Cemetery on Grand Island, New York. Others remain in the unmarked graves in which they were buried. Though the names of those men, women and children are lost as part of an unrecorded history, the spirit of their identity and the dignity of their memory will be forever honored.

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