Central Park’s Seneca Village Unearthed

Archaeologists successfully located the remnants of Seneca Village, a 19th century village located in today’s Central Park and New York City’s first community of African-American property owners. The two-month-long excavation was located inside of today’s Central Park between 81st and 89th Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues. It was razed in 1857 to allow for the construction of the Park.

Today’s Seneca Village Project included 10 years of preliminary research, including the excavation of historic documents, soil analysis, and ground penetrating radar. Both the Central Park Conservancy and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation supported the Project team’s eight-week excavation of the site as a result of that impressive decade of preparation and commitment to unearthing Seneca Village’s remains.

Project archaeologists identified and excavated artifacts, including a stoneware beer bottle, kitchen utensils, a toothbrush handle carved from bone, and clothing remnants from the home of a Village porter and sexton, William G. Wilson. Ceramics and the bones of butchered animals were excavated near the home of a villager named Nancy Moore.

Seneca Village was established in 1820s. By the 1850s, it had become a thriving community with a population of more than 260. Two-thirds of its villagers were of African descent, while the rest were of western European descent (predominantly Irish). The community included three churches, with one of the congregations being racially-integrated. A village school was located in the basement of another church. The study of black Seneca Villagers provides important insight into the lives of 19th-century African-Americans who lived in urban areas in the northeast. The Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, a not-for-profit organization, hopes to use information discovered in the excavation to illuminate the ways in which Seneca Villagers negotiated their shifting identities during the tumult of the 19th century.
“When Seneca Village was razed in the 19th century, its community and culture were lost to memory,” said Nan Rothschild. “Now, more than 150 years later, a talented, diverse group of students is helping to bring this significant and self-sufficient African-American and Irish community back to life, hopefully to become part of New York’s known history.”

“The history of Seneca Village and the lives of those who lived there in pre- and post-antebellum New York is such fertile ground for authentic storytelling,” said Cynthia R. Copeland. Excavating the site is confirming our notions that the fitness of the community was strong, intentional, and that it endures.”

“Seneca Village is so important because most modern-day New Yorkers are not aware there was a black middle class in 19th-century New York City,” said Diana Wall. “The excavation not only brings their presence home, but also informs us about their ways of life.”

The Central Park Conservancy provides free tours of the Seneca Village area. Tours cover the history of the village, its property owners, and what New York City was like at the time. Visit centralparknyc.org for more information on the history of Seneca Village.

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