Seneca Village was a 19th-century settlement of mostly African American landowners in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, within what would become present-day Central Park. The settlement was located on about 5 acres (2.0 ha) near the Upper West Side neighborhood, approximately bounded by Central Park West and the paths of 82nd Street, 89th Street and Seventh Avenue, had they been constructed through the park.
Seneca Village was founded in 1825 by free Black Americans, the first such community in the city. At its peak, the community had 264 residents, three churches, a school, and two cemeteries. The settlement was later also inhabited by Irish and German immigrants. Seneca Village existed until 1857, when, through eminent domain, the villagers and other settlers in the area were ordered to leave and their houses were torn down for the construction of Central Park. The entirety of the village was dispersed except for one congregation that relocated.
Several vestiges of Seneca Village's existence have been found over the years, including two graves and a burial plot. The settlement was largely forgotten until the publication of Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar's book The Park and the People: A History of Central Park in 1992. The Seneca Village Project was formed in 1998 to raise awareness of the village, and several archeological digs have been conducted. In 2001, a historical plaque was unveiled, commemorating the site where Seneca Village once stood.
- One theory suggests that the word "Seneca" came from Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger, whose book Moral Epistles was often read by African American activists and abolitionists.
- 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.
- Another 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 use as a code-word on the Underground Railroad, when fugitive slaves from the Southern United States were being hidden in nearby areas.
The land was originally purchased by a white farmer named John Whitehead in 1824. One year later, Whitehead began selling off smaller lots from his property. At the time, the area was far from the core of New York City, which was centered south of 23rd Street in what is now Lower Manhattan. On September 27, 1825, a young African American man named Andrew Williams purchased three lots from the Whiteheads for $125. On the same day, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion Church) trustee Epiphany Davis bought twelve lots for $578. The AME Zion Church bought six additional lots the same week, and by 1832, at least 24 lots had been sold to African Americans. Additional nearby 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 Great Famine of Ireland, many Irish immigrants came to live in Seneca Village, swelling the village's population 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 lived 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 two 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 received 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 an improvement on the cramped tenements of Lower Manhattan. Land ownership among Black residents was much higher than that in the city as a whole: more than half owned property in 1850, five times the property ownership rate of all New York City residents at the time. One-fifth of Seneca Village's inhabitants owned their residences. Many of Seneca Village's Black residents were landowners and relatively economically secure compared to their downtown counterparts. At least one property owner, the Lyons family, lived in Lower Manhattan but owned property in Seneca Village.
Nevertheless, many of the residents were still poor, since they worked in service industries such as construction, day labor, or food service. Only three residents could be considered middle-class, of which two were grocers and the other was an innkeeper. 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 high land ownership rate.
The residents relied on the abundant natural resources nearby, such as fish from the nearby East River and Hudson River, and the firewood from surrounding forests. Some residents also had gardens and barns, and fed their livestock scraps of garbage. There were two bone disposal plants in the vicinity 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 1840 or before, 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; 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 and had lived in the state for at least 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 had a significant effect on 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 the churches, First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of Yorkville and African Union Church, were all-Black churches, while All Angels' Church was racially mixed.
The AME Zion Church, a denomination officially established in lower Manhattan in 1821, owned property for burials in Seneca Village beginning in 1827. In 1853, the Church established a congregation and built a church building in Seneca Village. 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". The church building was destroyed as part of the razing of Seneca Village.
The African Union Church purchased lots in Seneca Village in 1837, about 100 feet (30 m) from AME Zion Church. It had 50 congregants. The church building 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 Angels' Church was founded in 1846 as an affiliate of St. Michael's Episcopal Church, the main campus of which was located at Amsterdam Avenue and 99th Street. All Angels' was intended to be a mission to the residents of Seneca Village and nearby areas. 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 had only 30 parishioners from Seneca Village. When the community was razed, the church relocated a few blocks west and was officially incorporated at 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 farther south, from Sixth to Seventh Avenues somewhere within the "50s"-numbered streets, but was forced northward because of complaints about 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 from Seneca Village and 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 included a portion of the former Boston Post Road. That corner contains McGowan's Pass, a topological feature that was the site of a Hessian encampment 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 primary proponents were William Cullen Bryant, the editor of the New York Evening Post, and 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.:451 The area was occupied by multiple wealthy families who objected to the taking of their land, particularly the Jones and Schermerhorn families. 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 an 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;:458 the act authorized a board of five commissioners to start purchasing land for a park, and it created a Central Park Fund to raise money.
In the years prior to the acquisition of Central Park, the Seneca Village community was referred to in pejorative terms, including racial slurs. 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"; the Irish and Black residents were often described as "wretched" and "debased". The residents of Seneca Village were also accused of stealing food and operating illegal bars. The village's detractors 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, criticizing the residents as people with "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; only a few residents were squatters with no permission from any 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 New York 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 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 mid-1856, Mayor Fernando Wood prevailed, and residents of Seneca Village were given final notices. 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. An Australian newspaper in 1920 had described "a famous old woman [...] still living at 90 years of age" in Hawaii, who was said to have been born in Seneca Village. By 1997, The New York Times reported that no one had 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. Squatters and hog farmers were the most affected by Central Park's construction, as they were never compensated for their evictions.
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 interest in 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, which described the community extensively.
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, former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, State Senator David Paterson, Borough President C. Virginia Fields, and New York Historical Society Executive Director Betsy Gotbaum unveiled a plaque 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.
In 2019, the city announced a request for proposals for a statue honoring the Lyons family, property owners in the village. The statue would be placed at 106th Street in the North Woods section of the park, and has received funding from several private donors including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Ford Foundation, JPB Foundation, and Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.
Following a 1997 exhibition on the community at the New-York Historical Society, Wall, Rothschild, Copeland, and 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 boring to identify promising areas with undisturbed soil. In 2005, the team used ground-penetrating radar to successfully locate traces of Seneca Village. After extended discussions with the New York City Department of Parks and the Central Park Conservancy, researchers were granted permission for test excavations in the regions of the village thought most likely to contain intact archaeological deposits.
Digs took place in 2004, August 2005, and mid-2011. The 2011 excavation uncovered the foundation walls and cellar deposits of the home of William Godfrey Wilson, a sexton for All Angels' Church, and a deposit of items in the backyard of two other Seneca Village residents. Archaeologists filled over 250 bags with artifacts, including the bone handle of a toothbrush and the leather sole of a child's shoe.
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