Think about this when you’re relaxing in Central Park over the weekend: An entire community once lived there, with homes and several churches and at least one school, right in the park (before it was the park). We’re talking about Seneca Village, a largely African-American community of some 260 people that existed from the 1820s until 1857, when they were evicted so that Central Park could be created. They lived in the area between 81st and 89th Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues, in what is now part of Central Park, east of Central Park West.
For many years, three professors from City College, Columbia, and NYU had sought to gain permission to dig in the park, seeking artifacts from this community. They had documentary records of Seneca Village, including maps of houses, newspaper accounts, affidavits, and church records. They had radar that showed where homes existed. But the city wouldn’t let them excavate — until 8 weeks ago. Today marks the last day of their dig. We spoke to archaeologist Nan Rothschild of Columbia, who told us about what they found…and what it means.
“There’s a whole lot of documentary information that tells us Seneca Village existed,” she told us. “But once the community was eradicated, it was lost from memory.” Her group has worked to return it to memory, starting in 1999, when they were conducting documentary research with students in the field, followed by mapping, soil boring, and using ground-penetrating radar to determine which areas had once held houses. In 2006, they began the work of getting the Parks Department to let them dig. “I think they were concerned that if we did that, others would do that too,” said Rothschild. (The New York Times reports that the Conservancy, fortunately, “does not seem too worried.”)
The archaeology team has focused their efforts between 83rd and 85th Streets, encompassing about three city blocks. The work has been, in Rothschild’s words, “just an amazing experience.”
“People knew they had to leave and took most of their belongings, but we found a whole roasting pan, deteriorated, possibly originally intact; a kettle — they’re being treated at the Met. We found pieces of a shoe, and one whole shoe sole with fabric on top, which probably belonged to either a small women or middle-sized child.”
They also found a house, the former home of William Godfrey Wilson, who was the sexton of All Angels Church. His house was behind that church, which was on 85th Street. “He and his wife, Charlotte, lived there with their children,” said Rothschild. “My fantasy is that the kids lived on the top floor, the parents in the middle, and eating and cooking was done on the ground floor. We found a lot of broken ceramics, stoneware, beer bottles, a toothbrush handle, and some little tiny fish vertebrae. The Hudson was only a few blocks away.”
In the yard of someone named Nancy Moore, they found remnants of cow bones that had been butchered, jaw of a young cow, and teeth from a pig. “They probably had kitchen gardens,” said Rothschild. There was also half a dinner plate, a lot of pieces of pitcher or teapot, which can be reconstructed, and possibly a bitters bottle.
When All Angels Church was moved, the Wilsons followed, but what happened to the evicted people of Seneca Village remains something of a mystery. Rothschild and her team had thought they might have moved to the community of Weeksville in Brooklyn, which was another like-minded community of African-American abolitionists, but research showed that that didn’t happen. “A couple stayed on the Upper West Side,” she said. “We think some of them might have gone to Little Africa, where Greenwich Village is now, and others seem to have gone to Long Island. These were free people, they paid taxes, owned property. It was a period during which New York State was establishing emancipation.”
Rothschild has done other digs in New York City, including the block where Goldman Sachs now stands and 7 Hanover Square. She’s also done field work in New Mexico, and said, “In a funny way, Seneca Village is more like New Mexico than Lower Manhattan. In Lower Manhattan you have this incredibly dense settled area; the soil is really complicated, and you might find just a tiny window of undisturbed 17th century material. But Seneca Village was only occupied for 30 years. It was protected by the construction of the park.”
The group also found evidence of five cemeteries in Seneca Village, spots that won’t be excavated, though New Yorkers will be told of the locations. Research into the artifacts discovered will continue.
“We’re so lucky to be able to conduct this excavation,” said Rothschild. “I won’t ever go into the park and see it in the same way again.”
Here’s video of Rothschild discussing the dig.