Seneca Village was a small settlement of mostly African American landowners in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, at the present site of Central Park. it was founded in 1825 by free black people – the first such community in the city – although it also came to be inhabited by several other minorities, including Irish and German immigrants, and possibly some Native Americans.
The settlement was located on about 5 acres (2.0 ha) approximately bounded by where 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues would have been constructed. At its peak, the community numbered more than 350 people, and had three churches, two schools, and two cemeteries. It existed until 1857, when it was torn down for the construction of Central Park. Several vestiges of Seneca Village's existence have been found over the years, including burial plots.
- One theory suggests the word “Seneca” came from a Roman philosopher named Lucius Annaeus Seneca, whose book was often read by African American activists.
- In Upstate New York, the Hamlet of "Seneca Falls" was established in the 17th century. Notable strides in Women's Rights and civil rights were made in this area.
- The village could have also been named after the Seneca nation of Native Americans.
- According to Central Park Conservancy historian Sara Cedar Miller, "Seneca" could have been an amalgamation of anti-Native American and anti-black slurs.
- An alternate theory posits that Seneca Village could be named after the West African nation of Senegal, the origin country for many of the village's residents.
- The name could have also come from when the days of the Underground Railroad, when fugitive slaves from the Southern United States were being hidden in nearby areas.
The land was originally owned by a white farmer named John Whitehead, who began selling the land in September 1825. At the time it was far from the core of New York City, which was centered in what is now Lower Manhattan. A young black man named Andrew Williams was the first person to purchase parcels, obtaining three lots for $125. The same day, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church trustee Epiphany Davis bought twelve lots for $578. The AME bought six additional lots the same week, and by 1832, at least 24 lots had been sold to African Americans. Additional development was centered around "York Hill", a plot bounded by where Sixth and Seventh Avenues would have been built, between 79th and 86th Streets. York Hill was mostly owned by the city, but 5 acres (2.0 ha) were purchased by William Matthews, a young African American, in the late 1830s. Matthews's African Union Church also bought land in Seneca Village around that time.
More African Americans began moving to Seneca Village after slavery in New York state was outlawed in 1827. In the 1830s, people from York Hill were forced to move so that a basin for the Croton Distributing Reservoir could be built, so many of York Hill's residents migrated to Seneca Village. Later, during the potato famine in Ireland, many Irish residents came to live in Seneca Village, swelling the village by 30 percent during this time. Both African Americans and Irish immigrants were marginalized and faced discrimination throughout the city. Despite their social and racial conflicts elsewhere, the African Americans and Irish in Seneca Village chose to live close to each other. By 1855, one-third of the village's population was Irish. George Washington Plunkitt, who later became a Tammany Hall politician, was born in 1842 to one of the first Irish settlers in the village, Pat and Sara Plunkitt. Richard Croker, who later became the leader of Tammany, was born in Ireland, but he came with his family to Seneca Village in 1846, and lived there until his father got a job that enabled them to move.
The one-story frame-and-board houses in Seneca Village were referred to as "shanties", which reflected their roughshod outward appearance, though some of the houses resembled log cabins. While the houses were not professionally constructed, their interiors were better off than the cramped tenements of lower Manhattan. Landownership among black residents was much higher than in the city as a whole: more than half of blacks owned property in 1850, five times as much as the property ownership rate of New Yorkers. Furthermore, one-fifth of Seneca Village's inhabitants actually possessed their own residences. Many of Seneca Village's black residents were landowners and relatively economically secure compared to their downtown counterparts. At least one property owner lived in Lower Manhattan.
Nevertheless, many of the residents were still poor, since they worked in service industries such as construction, day labor, or food service, and only three residents (two grocers and an innkeeper) could be considered middle class. In addition, many black women worked as domestic servants. Many residents "squatted", boarding in homes they did not own, demonstrating that there was significant class stratification even with Seneca Village's abnormally high landownership rate.
The residents subsisted on the abundant natural resources nearby, such as the fish of the nearby East and Hudson Rivers, and the firewood from nearby forests. Some residents also had gardens and barns, and many residents obtained animal feed from two nearby bone disposal plants at 66th and 75th Streets.
In 1855, a New York state census found that Seneca Village had 264 residents. On average, the residents had lived there for 22 years. Three-quarters of the 264 residents recorded in 1855 had lived in Seneca Village since at least 1840, and nearly all had lived there since 1850. At this time in New York City's history, most of the city's population lived below 14th Street, and the region above 59th Street was only sporadically developed, and was semi-rural or rural in character.
After slavery in New York was outlawed, African American men in the state could vote as long as they had $250 worth of property, as well as lived in the state for three years. Of the 13,000 black New Yorkers, 91 were qualified to vote, and of the voting-eligible black population, 10 lived in Seneca Village. The purchase of land by blacks came to play out significantly in their political engagement. Blacks in Seneca Village were extremely politically engaged in proportion to the rest of New York.
The economic and cultural stability of Seneca Village enabled the growth of several community institutions. The Village had three churches, two schools, and two cemeteries; by 1855, two-thirds of the inhabitants (180 of 264 total) were regular churchgoers. Two of them, First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of Yorkville and African Union Church, were all-black churches, while All Angel's Church was racially mixed.
AME Zion had owned land in Seneca Village since 1827, but used the land mostly as a cemetery until the 1840s, and only built a church in 1853. The church had a congregation of 100. According to the New York Post, the cornerstone included a capsule with "a Bible, a hymn book, the church's rules, a letter with the names of its five trustees and copies of the newspapers, The Tribune and The Sun". Following the razing of Seneca Village, AME Zion Church disappeared.
African Union Church purchased lots in Seneca Village in 1837, a few hundred feet from AME Zion Church. It had 50 congregants. The church contained one of the city's few black schools at the time, Colored School 3, founded in the mid-1840s. One of the teachers in the school was 17-year-old Catherine Thompson.
All Angel's Church was founded in 1846 as an affiliate of St. Michael's Church, the main campus of which was located at Amsterdam Avenue and 99th Street. All Angel's was intended to be a mission to Seneca Village's and other nearby residents. At first, the church was hosted in a white policeman's home, but a wooden church at 84th Street was built in 1849. The congregation was racially diverse, with black parishioners from Seneca Village and Irish and German parishioners from other nearby areas. It only had 30 parishioners from Seneca Village When the community was razed, the church relocated to the corner of 81st Street and West End Avenue.
Other nearby settlements
While Seneca Village was the largest former settlement in what is now Central Park, it was also surrounded by smaller areas that were occupied mainly by Irish and German immigrants. One of these areas, called "Pigtown", was a settlement of 14 mostly Irish families located in the modern park's southeastern corner, and was so named because the residents kept hogs and goats. Pigtown was originally located further south, in what is now considered 50th through 59th Streets from Sixth to Seventh Avenues, but was forced further north because of complaints from the pungent animal smells. An additional 34 families, mainly Irish, lived in an area bounded by 68th and 72nd Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Nearby, on the current site of Tavern on the Green, were a collection of bone-boiling plants, which employed people both from Seneca Village and from nearby settlements. To the southwest of Seneca Village was the settlement of Harsenville, which is now part of the Upper West Side between 66th and 81st Streets.
There were also two German settlements: one at the modern-day park's northern end and one south of the current Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. Many of the Irish and German residents were also farmers with their own gardens. An additional settlement in the northeast corner of Central Park carried the former Boston Post Road. That corner contains McGowan's Pass, a topological feature that was used during the American Revolutionary War, and Blockhouse No. 1, a still-extant fortification built during the War of 1812. Mount St. Vincent's Academy was also sited near McGowan's Pass until 1881.
Planning of Central Park
By the 1840s, members of the city's elite were publicly calling for the construction of a new large park in Manhattan. Two of the largest proponents were William Cullen Bryant, the editor of the New York Evening Post, as well as Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the first American landscape designers. The Special Committee on Parks was formed to survey possible sites for the proposed large park. One of the first sites considered was Jones's Wood, a 160-acre (65 ha) tract of land between 66th and 75th Streets on the Upper East Side. The area was occupied by multiple wealthy families who objected to the taking of their land, particularly the Jones and Schermerhorn families.:451 Downing stated that he would prefer a park of at least 500 acres (200 ha) at any location from 39th Street to the Harlem River.:452–453 Following the passage of the 1851 bill to acquire Jones's Wood, the Schermerhorns and Joneses successfully obtained an injunction to block the acquisition, and the transaction was invalidated as unconstitutional.
The second site proposed for a large public park was a 750-acre (300 ha) area labeled "Central Park", bounded by 59th and 106th Streets between Fifth and Eighth Avenues. The Central Park plan gradually gained support from a variety of groups. After a second bill to acquire Jones's Wood was nullified, the New York State Legislature passed the Central Park Act in July 1853, which authorized a board of five commissioners to start purchasing land for a park, as well as create a Central Park Fund to raise money.:458 As the campaign to create Central Park moved forward, the community was referred to in pejorative terms, and the Irish and black residents were often described as "wretched" and "debased". Seneca Village itself was referred to using racial slurs. The residents of Seneca Village were also accused of stealing food and operating illegal bars.
Park advocates and the media began to describe Seneca Village and other communities in this area as "shantytowns" and the residents there as "squatters" and "vagabonds and scoundrels". This included Egbert Ludovicus Viele, the park's first engineer, who wrote a report about the "refuge of five thousand squatters" living on the future site of Central Park, and criticized them as having "very little knowledge of the English language, and with very little respect for the law." While a minority of Seneca Village's residents were landowners, most residents had formal or informal agreements with landlords, and there were only a few residents who were squatting in the legal sense of not having permission from the landlord.
In 1853, the Central Park commissioners started conducting property assessments on more than 34,000 lots in and near Central Park. The Central Park commissioners had completed their assessments by July 1855, and the state supreme court confirmed this work the following February. As part of the tax assessment, residents were offered an average of $700 for their property. The minority of Seneca Village residents who owned land were well-compensated. For instance, Andrew Williams was paid $2,335 for his house and three lots, and even though he had originally asked for $3,500, the final compensation still represented a significant increase over the $125 that he had paid for the property in 1825.
Clearing occurred as soon as the Central Park commission's report was released in October 1855. The city began enforcing little-known regulations and forcing Seneca Village residents to pay rent. Members of the community fought to retain their land. For two years, residents protested and filed lawsuits to halt the sale of their land. However, in the summer of 1856, Mayor Fernando Wood prevailed, and residents of Seneca Village were given final notice. In 1857, the city government acquired all private property within Seneca Village through eminent domain, and on October 1, city officials in New York reported that the last holdouts living on land that was to become Central Park had been removed. A newspaper account at the time suggested that Seneca Village would “not be forgotten…[as] many a brilliant and stirring fight was had during the campaign. But the supremacy of the law was upheld by the policeman’s bludgeons.”
All of the inhabitants of the village were evicted by 1857, and all of the properties within Central Park were razed. The only institution from Seneca Village to survive was All Angels' Church, which relocated a couple of blocks away, albeit with an entirely new congregation. There are few records of where residents went after their eviction, as the community was entirely destroyed. To date, no one has been identified as a descendant of a Seneca Village resident. Elsewhere in Central Park, the impact of eviction was less intense. Some residents, such as foundry owner Edward Snowden, simply relocated elsewhere; however, squatters and hog farmers were the most affected, as they were never compensated.
Some traces of Seneca Village persisted in later years. As workers were uprooting trees at the corner of 85th Street and Central Park West in 1871, they came upon two coffins, both containing black people from Seneca Village. A half-century later, a gardener named Gilhooley inadvertently found a graveyard from Seneca Village while turning soil at the same site. The site was named "Gilhooley's Burial Plot" in honor of his discovery.
The settlement was largely forgotten for more than a century after its demolition. Public attention to Seneca Village was invigorated after the publication of Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar's 1992 book "The Park and the People: A History of Central Park".
The Seneca Village Project was formed in 1998 as a collaboration between Cynthia Copeland of the New-York Historical Society; Nan Rothschild of Barnard College; and Diana Wall of City College of New York. It is dedicated to raising awareness about Seneca Village's significance as a free, middle-class black community in 19th century New York City. The project facilitates educational programs, which engage school children, teachers and the general public, and bring Seneca Village into public knowledge.
In February 2001, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, State Senator David Paterson, Borough President C. Virginia Fields, and New York Historical Society Executive Director Betsy Gotbaum unveiled the Historical Sign commemorating the site where Seneca Village once stood. The plaque is located near the modern-day Mariners Playground, near 85th Street and Central Park West.
Following a 1997 exhibition on the community at the New-York Historical Society, Wall, Rothschild, and Copeland, as well as Herbert Seignoret, decided to see if any archaeological traces of the village remained. They worked with local historians, churches and community groups to shape the direction of their research project on the site. In June 2000, Wall, Rothschild, Copeland, and other researchers started performing imaging tests to determine if any traces of Seneca Village remained. With student participation, the project conducted exhaustive archival research and preliminary remote sensing. Researchers used soil borings to identify promising areas with undisturbed soil. In 2005 the team performed ground-penetrating radar tests, successfully locating traces of Seneca Village. After extended discussions with the New York City Department of Parks and the Central Park Conservancy, officials granted permission for test excavations in the regions of the village most likely to contain intact archaeological deposits.
Digs took place in 2004, August 2005, and summer 2011. The 2011 excavation uncovered the homestead of William Godfrey Wilson, a sexton for All Angels' Church, and another important deposit from the backyard of two other Seneca Village residents. Archaeologists found over 250 bags of artifacts, including the bone handle of a toothbrush and the leather sole of a child's shoe. The public location of the site in Central Park meant that excavators had to back-fill incomplete units each weekend and could not cut any root thicker than half an inch. Nighttime guards also monitored the site to ensure that it was undisturbed. Following the excavation, more than 300 people attended an open house at the project site.
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