Columbia University archaeologist Nan Rothschild walks her dog in Central Park each morning, not far from where William G. Wilson used to live—more than 150 years ago.
Rothschild has unearthed what is left of Wilson’s home, as well as other remnants of Seneca Village, the first community of African American property owners in New York City. The village existed from the 1820s until 1857, when its inhabitants were evicted to make way for the creation of Central Park.
“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.”
Seneca Village was located within New York’s famous grid street system between 81st and 89th Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues, in what is now a portion of Central Park just east of Central Park West.
The Seneca Village Project, started in 1999, is managed by Rothschild and her co-directors, Diana Wall, of City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Center, and Cynthia Copeland, of New York University. Preliminary work included research of historical documents and soil analysis. Excavation, which began two months ago, is being conducted by the three scholars, as well as 10 undergraduates from colleges across New York City. The excavation portion of their research will conclude on July 29, but research of the artifacts will continue.
The team utilized ground-penetrating radar to study the area long before the dig. In fact, the radar showed them what they thought were artifacts concentrated in one place. They later learned that the radar had, in fact, found the walls of Wilson’s home. The discovery of his 19-foot by 21-foot home was, according to Rothschild, an accident. After indentifying the walls of the 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 named 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. The community included a school, as well as three churches—one of which was racially integrated.
“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.