NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission Launches ‘Seneca Village Unearthed’ ~ an Online Exhibit & Collection of Artifacts




1855 Viele Topographic Survey with the added outline of Seneca Village, courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives.

Today, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) announced the launch of Seneca Village Unearthed, an online exhibit and collection of artifacts from what was once New York City’s largest community of free African-American landowners. Seneca Village was located in what is now Central Park, a scenic landmark. Through this online exhibit and collection, the general public will for the first time have access to nearly 300 artifacts and get a glimpse of what life was like for Seneca villagers in the mid-19th century.

This is part of LPC’s continuing efforts to make the city’s archaeological research and artifacts from across the city available to as wide an audience as possible. In addition to housing the artifacts at its NYC Archaeological Repository: The Nan A. Rothschild Center, LPC archaeology staff photographed the objects and digitized the catalogue of artifacts to create this online collection.

One nearly complete light blue transfer printed and molded gothic style whiteware teapot consisting of 49 mended body, handle, spout, and rim sherds. Cross-mends with contexts 9531.51 (1 sherd) and 9531.53 (1 sherd) as well. The transfer printed pattern is “Florentine” after the city of Florence, Italy, which was a popular stop on the Grand Tour. The pattern was very popular and fourteen different Staffordshire potteries (England) made ceramics with a Florentine pattern. Date made: 1815-1915

“We are delighted that for the first time members of the public will have access to this highly significant archaeological collection, which unearths the stories of the people who lived in this once vibrant African-American community,” said Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Sarah Carroll. “LPC is seeking to share the story of all New Yorkers in all aspects of our work, and by making resources like these available we can ensure everyone can learn about this significant part of our past.”

“We are thrilled about the launch of the Seneca Village Unearthed online exhibit by the Landmark Preservation Commission. It is a great way to honor the inhabitants that once called Central Park their home, and is a testament to the historical significance that can be found in parkland throughout the city,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP. “The history that has been left behind here tells a riveting story about the African American and immigrant experience in New York City, and we are glad that now countless people will have access to it.”

One gutta-percha comb with twelve teeth.

In mid-19th-century New York, Seneca Village was the largest community of free African-American property owners. The village was founded in the 1820s in what was then a rural area north of the city’s center located today between 82nd and 89th Street and Central Park West and the Great Lawn. Even after slavery ended in New York State in 1827, people of African ancestry found it difficult to buy land due to housing codes and restrictive covenants. Seneca Village, which did not have these restrictions, afforded them the opportunity to own land. The village’s location, far removed from the city, may have also brought some relief for its residents from the persistent discrimination and oppression they faced. By 1855, this predominantly African-American community was a vibrant, middle-class, multi-ethnic settlement with at least 220 residents that included Irish and German immigrants in addition to the predominant African-American population, three churches, a school, planting fields and orchards. Seneca Village was displaced in 18576 when the City of New York acquired its land through eminent domain to create Central Park.

Aqua glass beer bottle base and body fragments with partial embossing that reads from “..ILA/PORTE../&/ALE” and an additional fragment that reads “..ILM../..YOR..”. The bottle is from H.B Kilmer, Philadelphia Porter & Ale circa 1855. The vessel consists of four fragments that mend and many others that are similar in color but do not mend. Date made: 1855.

Archaeology has been vital in uncovering the remaining traces of this community. Little was known until a series of scholars began to study it in the 1990s, including the Seneca Village Project that explored the village’s material remains through archaeology. LPC’s online collection and exhibit focus on the artifacts found as part of Seneca Village Project in 2011, when archaeologists found the stone foundation of the Charlotte and William Godfrey Wilson house and the original ground surface that Seneca Villagers walked upon. The exhibit highlights artifacts that belonged to the Wilson family, which include dishes from their table and some of their personal objects. These objects help establish what life was really like for the middle-class African-American family in Seneca Village, which is quite different from how this community was portrayed in the newspapers during the eminent domain process that depicted villagers living in squalid conditions.

“I am thrilled that Seneca Village, Unearthed will be launched online,” said Council Member Adrienne Adams, Chair of the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Dispositions. “African American history is important to all Americans and the story of this community is crucial to our legacy. With this online exhibit, the Seneca Village Project can be recognized and appreciated by the world.”

Seneca Village was located at the northern periphery of New York City where land was still rural. Garden plots and orchards along with easy access to the Hudson River, allowed Seneca Villagers a means of growing and storing their own food. This is a stoneware storage jar that the Wilsons would have been used for food storage. It could hold acidic foods, like pickled vegetables, or dry-goods like flour and grains. Its lid, now missing, would have closed tightly and kept vermin out, which was essential in a time before refrigeration. Date made: 1800-1940.

“We hope that people will be drawn to the remaining traces of what was once a vital 19th-century African-American community and from them better understand what life would have been like for Seneca Villagers,” said Amanda Sutphin, Director of Archaeology of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. “We welcome scholars to study this collection and reveal more about the stories of Seneca Village.”

“We are very pleased that the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission is able to put the Seneca Village material online at the New York Archaeological Repository’s website,” said Nan Rothschild, Co-Director of the Seneca Village Project. “The Seneca Village Project has been in existence for 20 years and new forms of interpretation are emerging on a continuing basis. It has always been a major part of the Project to makes its findings accessible to the general public and this website enhances that goal.”

One rusted iron curry comb in multiple fragmented pieces. The comb has two serrated edges with multiple teeth. The handle portion is a trowel-type handle with a copper alloy band around one end. Date made: Early-to-mid 19th century

Take a self-guided tour through Seneca Village.

Look back at ‘A Day in the Life of Seneca Village