19th-c. African-American village unearthed in what is now NYC's Central Park

Just a few months ago, anthropologists and historians finally received permission from the city of New York to begin digging in an area of Central Park (near 85th Street and Central Park West): a critical step in a decades-long quest to reveal the history of an African-American community destroyed in the 1850s by the creation of Central Park. From a New York Times article (published a couple weeks ago):

While the borings of the past produced just a few artifacts, the dig [ which ended on July 29, 2011—XJ ], generated 250 bags of material that should keep the scholars busy for months, if not years. The work on Wednesday alone yielded a toothbrush handle fashioned of bone and the lid of a stoneware jar.

About two-thirds of the residents of Seneca Village were African-American, while the rest were of European descent, mostly Irish. The community was settled in the 1820s, a few years before slavery was abolished in New York. Despite old news reports that the village was a squatter camp, it was, in fact, made up of working- and middle-class property owners.

More in the NYT, and here is the website for the Seneca Village Project. They have more images and panoramas from the excavation.

From a statement by project co-directors Nan Rothschild (Barnard College, Columbia University) and Diana Wall (City College of New York, CUNY), about the more than 250 bags of artifacts that will now be washed and analyzed in labs:

Best of all, many of these artifacts can be associated with two specific households. We found the foundation walls and many objects from inside the home of William Godfrey Wilson, a sexton for All Angels' Church who lived in a 3-storey home near the church with his wife and eight children, and we excavated the backyard of Nancy Moore's home (later occupied by the Webster family a bit to the southeast.

In the latter area we found the buried surface dating to the period of the Village, the ground on which the Villagers walked and on which they discarded many sherds of broken plates and glass, pieces of smoking pipes and butchered animal bone (apparently mostly beef) which suggests that someone in the Village vicinity was able to do butchering. From this area we hope to be able to recover information on the environment, including plants that were native to the Village and those representing the foods that were consumed there. After the lab analysis is complete we will be able to provide information on the lives of the residents of this community, bringing them into the present and making them part of New York City's known history.

(via Farai Chideya on G+)


  1. You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a
    bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones!

  2. Looks like reverse-redlining was alive and well back in the 1840s…. the Lane site (Irish, “house”, rented, 178.22 sq meters) was valued at $500; the Allen site (African-American, “shanty”, rented, 93.93 sq meters) was also valued at $500. No “Euro-American” (i.e. “good whites” ;-) rentals listed for further comparison.

      1. I couldn’t find a unit of measurement on the “interactive map” page, but since the lengths were expressed in decimal I presumed meters. (Plus, the Midwestern-optimist in me really wanted to hope that 7 folks (one of them a boarder) weren’t all slammed into a 10.1′ x 9.3′ box, contemporary uptown “efficiencies” notwithstanding ;-)

  3. Honestly, the first thing that I thought of when I read of the digging in Central Park was the Seinfeld episode with “Fragile” Frankie Merman.  Perhaps the archaeologists are the scene are van guys?

  4. I like how the US treats stuff only a few decades old as important and historical. Like this, or the Smithsonian’s understanding that stuff *right now* is historical, and important to preserve for posterity.

    With that kind of attitude, they’ve got a fighting chance of preserving more than just potsherds, and actually learning from history. The UK could stand to learn a bit, there, I think. We get kinda snooty about stuff unless it’s at least a few centuries old. And potsherds aren’t considered interesting unless they’re roman or older.

    1. Well, you know the old saying about the difference between America and Europe: In Europe a hundred miles is a long way, and in America a hundred years is a long time.

    2. Correct.  In the UK, the Victorians destroyed many (most) of the interesting features of London, not sure how successful they were in the rest of the UK.  Having said that, dig under a city and it will be bones (not Turtles) all the way down.

      We are not only standing upon the shoulders of giants, we are walking upon the bones of our ancestors.  (cc commons)  

    3. I once stayed in a Cornwall timeshare, and the proprietors were “gobsmacked” that we drove out from London in one day. That’s the difference between US and UK. To many Brits, 200 miles is a long journey but 200 years is no big deal. An American would say the opposite.

  5. Kevin Baker’s historical novel “Paradise Alley” (not to be confused with the Silvester Stallone film of the same name which gets more Google hits) deals with Seneca Village and mixed-race families there if people are interested.

      1. Let’s not be too hasty here. It all comes down to a matter of standards. If Tim thinks worms and rocks are cool, then his statement was correct.

  6. If you are independently wealthy you can play tiddly winks all day and it doesn’t really matter.  But when you are a financially strapped nation and every dollar counts, digging up 150 year old broken pots is not a worthwhile use of tax dollars.

    1. Grumble, grumble.  Certainly these student archaeologists from four different academic institutions could be gaining their practicum doing something productive, like mining coal for the enrichment of some gentleman who plays tiddly winks all day.

  7. It’s nice to see the doctrinaire folks once again looking through their NON- corrective lenses at what is a fascinating story – got your tea bags right here!

  8. From the Official Central Park Website “Funding for the excavation and identification of artifacts was funded by
    the National Science Foundation, National Geographic, the Durst
    Foundation, PSC-CUNY, the Richard Gilder Foundation, and private

  9. The 1850’s? Wow, I think I won’t feel good if archeologists digged out my grandmothers doll and treat that like some dinosaur bones.

  10. Although it is clear that tax money was not spent here, I would surely give my tax dollars to the unveiling of this historical site rather than to the “children” in Washington, who lately, should be put in time out.

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