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Unearthing Seneca Village

Sep 2, 2011

by Chappell Ellison

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

There was a supremely wonderful moment in my life when I lived on 86th Street and Central Park West in New York City. With one of the world’s most famous parks thirty steps from my door, I never felt the pain of life without a backyard: the holy grail of apartment amenities in an urban setting. On sunny days, I escaped my tiny, shoebox-like apartment and sat under my favorite tree in the park, located on a hill near 85th Street. It was paradise.

Little did I know that my rump sat firmly on undiscovered history. After thirteen years of jumping through red tape, three universities recently received permission to excavate on that very spot in Central Park, where historians and anthropologists have confirmed the existence of an early 19th century African American community, settled just a few years before slavery was abolished in New York. Rarely does an excavation yield objects that tell such a specific story of our recent social history.

The families that settled Seneca Village were New York’s first major group of African American property owners. “To ensure that they were worthy of suffrage, black men could only vote if they owned $250 in real estate,” says Leslie Harris, associate professor of history and African-American studies at Emory University. “[L]and was critical for full citizenship.” Historians initially assumed that Seneca Village was a mostly poverty-stricken squatter camp. Yet when the initial finds of the excavation revealed the walls of a three-story home that once belonged to porter and sexton William Godfrey Wilson, they knew Seneca was an organized community.

Map of Seneca Village

“[Seneca Village] was laid out in a grid pattern and had three churches and a school,” anthropology professor Nan A. Rothschild told The New York Times. The settlement was filled with large families and skilled workers, among them a teacher, grocer, midwife, sailor and a porter. Because Seneca was far removed from the filthy, overcrowded, and crime-ridden slums of lower Manhattan, German and Irish immigrants were also attracted to the settlement. “Black and white worshiped together at the All Angels’ Church and were buried together in its cemetery,” according to The History Blog. “The one village midwife, Margaret Geery, delivered African American babies and Irish and German babies alike.”

In the 1840s, New York City had become so crowded that people held picnics in the local cemeteries. Several prominent figures successfully argued for the construction of a public park. By the time Central Park opened in 1857, Seneca Village had vanished. Claiming eminent domain, New York City forced the African American community to abandon their property, making room for the construction of Central Park. A report from the New York Daily Times on July 9, 1856 further explains: “The policemen find it difficult to persuade them out of the idea which has possessed their simple minds, that the sole object of the authorities in making the Park is to procure their expulsion from the homes which they occupy.”

The Seneca Village Project excavation site yielded enough artifacts for a lifetime of study. Buttons, cookware, a toothbrush, and pottery shards are among the fragments collected by the team of professors and their students. Each discovery provided a small window into the lives of the displaced community, a process that affected many of the archeologists. For student Madeline Landry, an unearthed shoe added to the intimacy of the moment, saying, “That shoe fit someone who walked around here.” For New York University professor Cynthia R. Copeland, finding a few marbles was a profound moment. “They reminded me that children were there,” she said. “These material objects bring the community back and allow them the dignity that they probably didn’t have when they left.”

As a respite from urban chaos, Central Park has been important to the lives of many New Yorkers. With the discovery of these abandoned belongings, the park has now become a testament to an entire culture, granting a sense of legitimacy to the history of African Americans in early New York. As student Madeleine Landry commented, “It’s been a unique privilege to be part of the effort to set the record straight.”

For more detailed information on the history of Seneca Village, visit The History Blog and the Seneca Village Project.

2 Featured Comments

  • strawberryluna

    strawberryluna said 5 years ago Featured

    Wow, I hadn't heard of Seneca Village or this archaelogical site until now. How amazing. And to think that it really wasn't that long ago that this little area had been so lived, loved, and important to a wonderfully diverse group of people. Incredible. Thanks so much for writing and sharing it!

  • JosiesBeadedJewelry

    JosiesBeadedJewelry said 5 years ago Featured

    When we see a beautiful spot in nature rarely do we think to ask, "What town was torn down to make this park?" or "Whose home and land were taken from them so I could have a picnic?" Before there was Chinatown there was Five Points... and before Five Points the area was a lake. It's amazing how much we have changed our landscape! I hope more Central Park visitors will hear this story.

53 comments

  • littlebugjewelry

    littlebugjewelry said 5 years ago

    Wow, that is really cool!

  • jammerjewelry

    jammerjewelry said 5 years ago

    Wonderful article, thanks!

  • VonlenskaVintage

    VonlenskaVintage said 5 years ago

    this is amazing! what a fantastic story!

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy said 5 years ago

    that's a sad end to a vibrant village, forgotten until now. great find.

  • sparrowgrey

    sparrowgrey said 5 years ago

    Great post, interesting story.

  • tarikyousef

    tarikyousef said 5 years ago

    Amazing how so much history is hidden in central park!

  • HomesteadingRoasters

    HomesteadingRoasters said 5 years ago

    I love that you discussed this topic on the Etsy blog. Way to go!

  • HomesteadingRoasters

    HomesteadingRoasters said 5 years ago

    I love that this blog entry exists on Etsy. Thank you for writing!

  • mooshoopork

    mooshoopork said 5 years ago

    such an interesting and neat story :) i love hearing of history especially stories not many of us know about.

  • mooshoopork

    mooshoopork said 5 years ago

    such an interesting and neat story :) i love hearing of history especially stories not many of us know about.

  • squid21r

    squid21r said 5 years ago

    I've always loved the City and this story is just fantastic.

  • satellitedaisy

    satellitedaisy said 5 years ago

    We can find history just beneath our feet & everywhere around us if we just take the time to look for it.

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 5 years ago

    Amazing! It's interesting to hear about the kinds of history that lay just under our feet. I often wonder what archeogists will make of our time decades into the future!

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 said 5 years ago

    I'd heard of this village but didn't know the details. Certainly worthy of further reading. Thank you so much for this post, Chappell!

  • Feille

    Feille said 5 years ago

    So my question is: who does that land really belong to, if african-americans were forced off it? Were they compensated? Definitely worth further study. Thank you for the article!

  • TheScarfTree

    TheScarfTree said 5 years ago

    Really interesting! Great that you pursued the history of that spot (and general land and space)!

  • krochetlady

    krochetlady said 5 years ago

    I love history, great article.. so many early American settlements were lost and simply forgotten. I'm going to visit the Seneca village project link right now!

  • gilstrapdesigns

    gilstrapdesigns said 5 years ago

    I've head about this before as well. It makes me sad but I'm glad that more people are finding out about Seneca Village. Thank you for writing about it.

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage said 5 years ago

    Interesting article!

  • grandpaspocket

    grandpaspocket said 5 years ago

    New York City never ceases to amaze me. Great informative article....thanks!

  • lovelygifts

    lovelygifts said 5 years ago

    Very interesting!

  • emmyxemu

    emmyxemu said 5 years ago

    Fantastic article!

  • LittleMissCards

    LittleMissCards said 5 years ago

    Who knew! The things they don't tell you in school...

  • tuckooandmoocow

    tuckooandmoocow said 5 years ago

    This is such an interesting article! Thank you so much for writing this--it's really piqued my curiosity.

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 5 years ago

    Great post!

  • AliceCloset

    AliceCloset said 5 years ago

    Great article and so interesting story :D Thanks so much for sharing

  • ericawalker

    ericawalker said 5 years ago

    What an interesting article, thank you. I look forward to learning more and following this story.

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 5 years ago

    I have read about Seneca Village for years. There were so many communities like this that were disassembled from force or by lack of industry. Thanks for this one.

  • HillcrestVisuals

    HillcrestVisuals said 5 years ago

    Chaps this was a fascinating story...sounds like it would make for a great book or documentary too.

  • artwink

    artwink said 5 years ago

    Wonderful, informative article on an interesting topic. New York city and it's rich history. Thank you!

  • JenSanCandles

    JenSanCandles said 5 years ago

    I was so happy when I heard that the universities were finally granted the right to excavate the site. Thanks for bringing a little bit of the history of Senaca Village to Etsy.

  • HiddenMeadows

    HiddenMeadows said 5 years ago

    Thank you for this article! Very informative, i have never heard of Seneca Village before.

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 said 5 years ago

    Fascinating

  • girliepains

    girliepains said 5 years ago

    Really great read.

  • thisthatotherthings

    thisthatotherthings said 5 years ago

    I love history, I think that's why I love vintage. This is a great read, Thanks for letting us know.

  • candyalicedesigns

    candyalicedesigns said 5 years ago

    I love learning new things about the history of the great state I live in, Thanks!

  • SarenaVictoria

    SarenaVictoria said 5 years ago

    Great story thanks for sharing...

  • cutiepiecompany

    cutiepiecompany said 5 years ago

    That's amazing! I didn't know about this--thanks for a great article, am going to check out those links for further reading.

  • Funklicious

    Funklicious said 5 years ago

    How interesting! Great article!

  • strawberryluna

    strawberryluna said 5 years ago Featured

    Wow, I hadn't heard of Seneca Village or this archaelogical site until now. How amazing. And to think that it really wasn't that long ago that this little area had been so lived, loved, and important to a wonderfully diverse group of people. Incredible. Thanks so much for writing and sharing it!

  • Tokibow

    Tokibow said 5 years ago

    central Park is so magical

  • swingkitten

    swingkitten said 5 years ago

    I love Central Park. Fantastic article!

  • BoutiqueDeBandeaux

    BoutiqueDeBandeaux said 5 years ago

    Great article! Most of my shop pics are right in Central Park...never knew about this settlement though. Learn something new everyday :)

  • HoldTheWire

    HoldTheWire said 5 years ago

    Fascinating! I had no idea that village was there. Looking forward to hearing more about it. Thanks for the post!

  • JosiesBeadedJewelry

    JosiesBeadedJewelry said 5 years ago Featured

    When we see a beautiful spot in nature rarely do we think to ask, "What town was torn down to make this park?" or "Whose home and land were taken from them so I could have a picnic?" Before there was Chinatown there was Five Points... and before Five Points the area was a lake. It's amazing how much we have changed our landscape! I hope more Central Park visitors will hear this story.

  • MarthaHorman

    MarthaHorman said 5 years ago

    Thank you for writing this story. What an important part of NCY history and I'm willing to bet that hardly anyone has even heard the name Seneca Village let along knows what or where it was.

  • post082010

    post082010 said 5 years ago

    I am sure that those babies black or white had babies that had babies, at the end we are all connected somehow, all the same - this is an amazing find!

  • Synseerly

    Synseerly said 5 years ago

    amazing! Thank you for this article.. I would have never known otherwise being a Cali girl. I am knee deep in research right now :)

  • iacua

    iacua said 5 years ago

    How interesting! I love the history!

  • CatnipHill

    CatnipHill said 5 years ago

    Surprised to find an article like this on Etsy.

  • aldachambers

    aldachambers said 5 years ago

    Wow!! I Must Read More Of This Sad Yet Exciting Piece Of Lost History. Would Love To One Day See Seneca Village OnThe Big Screen Right There In New York. Thank You Esty For Enlightening Us All.

  • aldachambers

    aldachambers said 5 years ago

    A Huge Thanks To All Responsible For Making The Seneca Village Excavation Project Possible And Continued Sucess!!

  • troyashe

    troyashe said 5 years ago

    The museum of natural history held an exhibit relating to those African descendants who lived in what is now Central Park called "Before Central Park". I also visited the library across from City hall (Surrogate building) and reviewed historical records of the city's pass. If you walk next to 26 Federal plaza, you will see the "African burial ground" which comprised five city blocks where Africans where dumped in a mast grave spanning 5 city blocks. New York has a reason to hide the history of a shameful past to Africans and Irish people who were treated in kind. Truth = controversy.

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