Columbia Archaeologist Unearths Remnants of 19th-Century Village Beneath Central Park

Eric Sharfstein
July 27, 2011

Some 35 million people visit Central Park each year, but only a few of them realize how much history lies beneath their feet. When archeologist Nan Rothschild takes her morning walk on the park’s west side, she knows she’s not far from the remnants of Seneca Village, the first community of African American property owners in New York.

The village existed from the 1820s until 1857, when its inhabitants were evicted to make way for the creation of Central Park. It was located within Manhattan’s street grid between 81st and 89th streets and Seventh and Eighth avenues in what is now a portion of the park near Central Park West. The village included a school and three churches, one of which was racially integrated.

“Seneca Village was autonomous,” said Rothschild, director of museum studies at Columbia and research professor at Barnard College. “It had its own institutions, so its residents could live free from the everyday burdens of racism. It was a refuge. In a way, it was both in the city and out of the city—located about three miles from the densely settled portion of Manhattan.”

The Seneca Village Project, started in 1999, is managed by Rothschild and co-directors, Diana Wall, an anthropology professor at City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Center, and Cynthia Copeland, an adjunct professor at New York University. Their preliminary work included researching historical documents and soil analysis. In June and July, they led an excavation with 10 undergraduates from colleges across the city, including Barnard. Lab research of the artifacts they discovered continues.

“The Seneca Village Project directors proved, with over a decade of preparation and research, that they were committed to exploring the history of Central Park in a way that will make our relationship with the land deeper and richer,” said Douglas Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy. “Nan and her team developed and executed an incredible project, and we were honored to have them dig deeper into the history of this parkland.”

The team utilized ground-penetrating radar to study the area long before the dig. The radar detected what looked like a particularly rich trove of artifacts, which they later discovered were the walls of a home belonging to William G. Wilson, a sexton at All Angels’ Episcopal Church. After identifying the walls of the 19-by-21-foot structure, the team excavated metal roofing, a stoneware beer bottle, kitchen utensils and clothing remnants from Wilson’s home. They also discovered ceramics and butchered animal bones near the home of another villager, Nancy Moore.

“Seneca Village was a middle-class African American community,” said Rothschild. “Our notions of what African Americans were like in the 19th century do not usually include class variations. In time, the village came to include Irish immigrants, which is counter to our ideas about how these two groups got along in that era.”

During its more than three decades, Seneca Village grew into a community of nearly 300 people. Two-thirds of its villagers were of African descent, while the rest were predominantly of Irish descent.

“We know a great deal about Seneca Village from historic documents, but the archaeology gives us evidence of the fabric of peoples’ lives,” said Rothschild. “What foods—meat especially—they ate, what dishes they chose for their homes, how their homes were built. These are all details that are completely missing from the historical record and are really important in understanding, for example, how expressions of class—so visible in the purchase of home furnishings—were manifest in the village.”

The research would not have been possible without the extensive support of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Central Park Conservancy.

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 contributions.