Eastern Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in Portland Maine, with reputed burials dating to 1668. The oldest known gravestone in the cemetery dates from 1717, when Mary Green died.
Located on a height of land at the base of Munjoy Hill, it offers an outstanding view of the harbor, waterfront and downtown business district. Pedestrian access is conveniently provided by paved sidewalks and automobile access is via Congress Street and Washington Avenue.
Originally, only the southeastern half of the present cemetery was utilized. The other half was unfenced and used as a public common. In 1820 this second half became part of the cemetery. The cemetery was active until the 1860s and occasionally after that. It totals approximately 5.3 acres in size. The present iron and granite fence along Congress Street was erected in 1852. The granite receiving tomb to the right of the entrance was erected in 1849. Both were rehabilitated in 1986.
Eastern Cemetery contains over 3,500 known graves and over 200 unknown graves. Many religious, civic, and business leaders who shaped the social, cultural and economic development of the City during the 18th and 19th centuries are buried here.
The earliest known Irish Catholics in Portland are also buried here:
A John Mayland, a native of Ireland, was buried here in March 1804, aged 19. He is not listed as a Catholic, but three years later Mrs. Mary Gannon, listed as a Catholic, was buried in Section L of Eastern Cemetery. She is one of the first known Irish Catholics to be buried in Portland. The wife of a cabinetmaker named Michael Gannon, Mary died February 16, 1807, aged 29. A James Davis, Catholic, was buried in the cemetery in 1810 at the age of 46. His gravesite is lost.
Nicholas Shea (1776-1824) was buried in Section B-10 with his wife and several children.Shea, a County Wexford native, and his wife Barbara Connolly Shea resided on the corner of Free and Cross Streets, where he operated a grocery store. In the spring of 1822, Mass was first celebrated in Portland in their home by Bishop Jean Cheverus of Boston. When Nicholas died, his widow Barbara continued to run the store until her own death in January 1830. Their daughter Eleanor was buried here in 1807 at the age of nine months and was followed in death by two young brothers, Nicholas in 1813, and Edward in 1824. Another son named Nicholas was buried here in 1875, aged 57.
Some of the Irish Catholics buried here in the 1830s and 1840s included Mrs. Catherine Bowers, wife of Nicholas, and their son Nicholas; John Duffy (1772-1838); Margaret Finney (Feeney?), widow of Peter, who died January 1, 1837, aged 75; John M. Haggerty (1826-1828), the son of John, a tailor, and his wife Susan; Richard Landers, the five year old son of prominent Irishman John Landers; Margaret McAnelley, wife of Patrick, who died in 1838, aged 28; John O’Friell, the fifteen-year old son of Barney, who died in 1834 (buried Section C:89); and Martin O’Riley, a native of Anacarty Parish, County Tipperary, and four of his children (Section B:14).
John Connor, son of John Connor, a prominent block maker from Wexford, was buried in the cemetery in March 1843, aged 16. His brothers Charles F. and Richard Connor are also buried here. They died four days apart in their early twenties in the fall of 1855. All three gravesites are lost. The father John was one of the founders of St. Dominic’s Church.
John Mahan (1818-1846) was buried in “A Tomb 67.” He was the grandson of William McMahon (McMahan), an Irish schoolteacher who taught in Portland (Falmouth) during Revolutionary War times.
On July 21, 1851, Daniel Sheridan (spelled Sherredon in the records), age 19, was killed on board the steamer Boston. He was “crushed to death in the crank pit, where he had fallen.” Daniel was interred in Eastern Cemetery, but his gravesite is lost.
After the 1830s, most Irish Catholics were buried in the Catholic Ground of Western Cemetery, and after 1858, they were brought across Vaughan’s Bridge to be interred in Calvary Cemetery in what is now South Portland. Most of the graves and gravesite locations of the Catholics in Eastern Cemetery are lost, although some survive. There was a cluster of such gravesites off Funeral Lane, near the main entrance to the cemetery on Congress Street.
Soldiers of several wars are buried in the Eastern cemetery, including those who fought in the earliest colonial wars to those who fought in the Civil War. The commanders of the American ship, “Enterprise,” and the British ship, “Boxer,” are buried side by side. These two warships fought each other off the coast of Maine during the War of 1812.
The Eastern Cemetery is also the resting place of some of Portland Maine’s noted abolitionists who campaigned against slavery, provided safe houses and assisted runaway slaves in their journey to freedom.
On the Eastern Promenade at the foot of Quebec Street this little known mass grave is marked by a boulder which commemorates the communal graves of twenty-one prisoners of war from the War of 1812.
The story of the mass grave goes back to December 23, 1812, when the British warship, HMS Regulus, en route from Quebec to Boston with American soldiers taken prisoner at the battle of Queenstown, put into the port of Portland under a flag of truce and anchored. Their leader was Lt. Colonel Winfield Scott, later known as “Old Fuss and Feathers” in the U.S. Army. Many of the prisoners aboard were sick with fever, malnutrition and dysentery. The twenty-four most severely ill were landed and housed in the Town Hospital on the Eastern Promenade on December 29th according to the old records. Within a month, twenty-one of these prisoners had died. They were buried in a mass grave at the foot of Quebec Street. The bronze plaque affixed to the boulder that marked the site was imprinted with the names of the soldiers buried there in 1887.
The Eastern Cemetery is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is supported and maintained locally by Spirits Alive, dedicated to the Eastern Cemetery, the oldest historic landscape in Portland, Maine.