To a modern-day visitor, the site of Seneca Village resembles much of the surrounding Park, with rolling hills, rock outcrops, and playgrounds. But what many do not realize is that this area—near the Park’s perimeter from West 82nd to West 89th Street—has an important history. During the first half of the 19th century, before the area became Central Park, it was home to Seneca Village, a community of predominantly African-Americans, many of whom owned property.
In the 1990s, a group of scholars and archeologists interested in the story of Seneca Village formed the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village. The goal of the group was to conduct further research on the Village and to consider ways to commemorate it in an educational context. They employed several different research approaches, including archaeological and archival.
The installation of Discover Seneca Village—a collaboration between the Central Park Conservancy, the Institute, Hunter Research, and dedicated community groups—is the newest project dedicated to raising awareness about the Village’s history and honoring the people who lived there. By visiting the exhibit, located at the site of Seneca Village, people can learn about the features of the Village and gain insight into the lives of residents.
There is still much more research to be done about Seneca Village—but here is some of what we know to date about the community’s residents and landscape, as well as the artifacts that have been discovered.
The settlement of Seneca Village began in 1825 when Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoeshiner, bought three lots from John and Elizabeth Whitehead. The Whiteheads owned farmland in the west 80s and 90s but decided to divide up their land into individual lots for sale. Epiphany Davis, a store clerk, was the second person to purchase land, 12 lots, and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion) purchased several lots. From there, a community was born. From 1825 to 1832, the Whiteheads sold about half of their land parcels to other African-Americans. By the early 1830s, there were approximately 10 homes in the Village.
According to Census records from 1855, the Village consisted of approximately 225 residents, made up of roughly two-thirds African-Americans, one-third Irish immigrants, and a small number of individuals of German descent. One of few African-American enclaves at the time, Seneca Village allowed residents to live away from the more built-up sections of downtown Manhattan and escape the unhealthy conditions and racism they faced there.
About half of the African-Americans who lived in Seneca Village owned their homes, making the Village an exceptional community for 19th-century New York. For African-Americans, buying property was a path to suffrage and citizenship. That many residents owned their homes and lived in the Village for a long time indicates that they were more prosperous and stable than other African-Americans living in New York City at that time.
The Conservancy has collaborated with scholars on their research of this important topic. Discover more by watching this video featuring historians and Ariel Williams, a descendant of Seneca Village resident Andrew Williams.
The site of Seneca Village contains some of the area’s most impressive landforms, including a massive outcrop now known as Summit Rock, the highest point in the Park. This rock, virtually impossible for Park builders to remove, is a defining feature of the area and would have been quite prominent in the landscape of Seneca Village. Nearby is a natural spring, called Tanner’s Spring, believed to have been a principal water source for the Village.
Sections of Seneca Village’s landscape were swampy and rocky, but its acreage also contained small gardens, woodlands, and hills. While we do not know of any photographs of Seneca Village, there are photographs from the 1850s that show dwellings in the area and depict the landscape before it was transformed into Central Park, some of which gives us a sense of what Seneca Village might have looked like.
Seneca Village contained three churches, anchoring not only religious but also political and social life for African-Americans. African Union Church (built around 1840) and AME Zion Church (built in 1853) were both satellite locations for churches based downtown. All Angels’ Church (built in 1849) was established as a mission by St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, a congregation on the Upper West Side, and was attended by both European-Americans and African-Americans.
In the 1840s, there were many debates in the public sphere on the effects of urban growth. Between 1845 and 1855, the City’s population doubled. Some advocates believed that a large open space would provide an escape from the City—a place for New Yorkers to congregate, breathe fresh air, and experience nature. They also hoped that a large public park would be a unique expression of American democracy while also becoming a cultural attraction that would rival those in European cities.
The choice of location for this unprecedented public space was not without controversy. William Cullen Bryant, the poet and editor of The Evening Post, suggested a privately owned, largely undeveloped area along the East River known as Jones’ Woods. As plans for this location began to take shape, some park advocates argued that the 150-acre space was not big enough, nor central enough; others pointed out that those promoting this location were landowners in the area that would benefit financially from the presence of a park.
The City began to consider a larger tract of land in the center of the island that encompassed the Croton Receiving Reservoir. This was a somewhat rugged landscape with several swamps and numerous rock outcrops, which made it difficult to develop as real estate. This area also encompassed many acres that were already owned by the City, making the endeavor less expensive. Debate continued for almost three years before the City decided on this central location.
Through eminent domain (the power of the government to take private property for public use), the City bought the land for Central Park. Those who owned property were compensated for its value and residents were required to leave, a long process that ended in the fall of 1857. The construction of Central Park began in 1858 with the clearing of the land, including the demolition of buildings and removal of those interred in the burial grounds. Records show that some burials were relocated to a cemetery in Queens. By the time this section of the Park was completed in the early 1860s, no clear traces of Seneca Village remained.
Although we have limited knowledge of what life was like in Seneca Village, there has been ongoing work to learn more about its residents and their lives. In 2011, archaeologists from Columbia University and The City University of New York conducted an excavation at the site.
Over the course of two months, archaeologists and students collected several thousand artifacts, including household items of Seneca Village residents and the remains of their homes. They uncovered items such as an iron tea kettle, a roasting pan, a stoneware beer bottle, fragments of Chinese export porcelain, and a small shoe with a leather sole and fabric upper.
Earlier this year, we talked with two of the archaeologists, Nan Rothschild and Diana diZerega Wall, about what they have discovered about the community through these items, and how archaeology can provide a tangible link to the lives of Seneca Village residents.
“I felt that an excavation at the site would provide a broader and richer view of the history of the African-American presence in the North and in New York City in particular,” said diZerega Wall, Professor Emerita at the City College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “It would also help bring the history of middle-class African-Americans into the modern narrative of the nation’s history.”
With the launch this fall of Discover Seneca Village, it’s now possible to explore the history of this area like never before. This exhibit gives visitors a glimpse into pre-Park history and highlights decades of research about this extraordinary community.
If you’re interested in a guided exploration of this area, a Conservancy-led Seneca Village Tour covers the community’s history and lives of its residents, and reveals what recent archaeological discoveries show about this remarkable community and its place in 19th-century New York.
For further information, read Discover Seneca Village: Selected Research Topics and Resources.