Seneca Village: The Community that Died so Central Park Could Live

This post originally appeared on The History Blog.

Seneca Village was a small but vibrant community founded in 1825 by free working class African-Americans in uptown Manhattan. The area from West 82nd to 88th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues (the top marker on the Google Map) was still farmland back then, a good six miles north of teeming downtown, and this was long before public transit. Maps of New York City as late as 1840 actually stop at W. 26th Street (the second marker just south of the Empire State building), almost four miles south of Seneca Village.

Despite its onerous distance from the city center (the southernmost marker), the rural location had the marked advantage of offering working class African-Americans—who were subject to the worst living conditions the notoriously crowded, filthy, crime-ridden slums of lower Manhattan had to offer—access to fresh air, space, and land, land that they could build homes on and cultivate to support their families. As powerful a motivation as that must have been, it wasn't the only incentive black people with the financial wherewithal had to purchase their own property.

When Andrew William bought the first three lots of land that would become Seneca Village on September 27, 1825, slavery was still legal in New York. Legislation passed in 1799 determined that enslaved people in the state would be emancipated on July 4, 1827, but there were addenda and provisos, of course, so not everyone was instantly manumitted on the magic date, and even free black men were denied the political rights that had been extended to white men. According to the New York State Constitution of 1821, only African-American males who owned $250 in property had the right to vote. (They also had to prove that they had lived in the state and paid taxes for three years prior to casting their first ballot.) Andrew William paid John and Elizabeth Whitehead $125 for those three lots he purchased; that put him halfway to suffrage.

By 1850, black Seneca Village residents were 39 times more likely to own property than any other African-Americans in New York City. The 1850 census puts the black population of New York City at 12,000. Out of that 12,000, only 100 men qualified for the vote. Ten of them lived in Seneca Village. That's ten percent of the entire African-American voting population of New York City living in a village of less than 300 people.

Andrew William wasn't the only one to buy from the Whiteheads on September 27, 1825. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church bought six lots near 86th Street to use as a cemetery. One of the AME Zion Church trustees, Epiphany Davis, bought 12 lots for her own use, and a little community was born. The village grew steadily from then on as black people moved out of lower Manhattan or migrated to the city from Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, and New Jersey. The Whiteheads sold at least another 24 lots to African-Americans over the next 10 years.

Black people weren't the only ones to feel the lure of Seneca Village. In the 1840s, Irish and German immigrants joined the community. By 1855, census and property records put the population of the village at 264, 30 percent of them European, predominantly Irish. One of New York's most infamous native sons, George Washington Plunkitt, Tammany Hall politician and homespun philosopher of cheery corruption who "held the offices of State Senator, Assemblyman, Police Magistrate, County Supervisor and Alderman, and who boasts of his record in filling four public offices in one year and drawing salaries from three of them at the same time," was born to Irish immigrant parents in Seneca Village in 1842.

By all accounts, the diverse community got along peacefully. Black and white worshipped together at the All Angels' Church and were buried together in its cemetery. The one village midwife, Margaret Geery, delivered African-American babies and Irish and German babies alike.

The map above, drawn by Egbert Viele, shows the layout of Seneca Village circa 1856. (For your orientation information, Eighth Avenue is on the top and Seventh Avenue and the Receiving Reservoir are on the bottom; 82nd Street is on the left and 86th Street is on the right.) This interactive map of Seneca Village uses Viele's drawing as a base to explore the layout and demographics of the Village.

As the population of Manhattan swelled—between 1821 and 1855 the population quadrupled—and the city expanded northward, rural land that had once been considered hinterlands started to feel the pressure. In the late 1830s, residents of a community called York Hill around Sixth Avenue and W. 42nd Street (next to today's Bryant Park of New York Fashion Week fame, and the third marker on the Google Map) moved to Seneca Village after the government evicted them to build a basin for the Croton Distributing Reservoir, a four-acre lake that played a key role in the first aqueduct system that carried fresh water from upstate New York into the city.

By the 1840s, the city was so crowded that people went to cemeteries like Green-Wood in Brooklyn for picnics and carriage rides. Prominent figures like New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant (after whom the above-mentioned Bryant Park would be named) and landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing argued that New York City needed a public park like Paris' Bois de Boulogne or London's Hyde Park. Privileged New Yorkers, keen for a congenial setting to drive their carriages and cut their fine figures, very much agreed.

Not everyone was on board with the idea. No matter where the proposed park ended up, someone was going to be getting the shaft, and those someones were going to be poor. Social reformer Hal Guernsey said "Will anyone pretend the park is not a scheme to enhance the value of uptown land, and create a splendid center for fashionable life, without regard to, and even in dereliction of, the happiness of the multitude upon whose hearts and hands the expenses will fall?"

Nobody bothered to pretend. The newspapers advocating the new park smeared Seneca Village as a "shantytown" inhabited by "wretched and debased" "squatters." The fact that they had owned their property and homes for decades made no difference. How could a working class enclave possibly compete with the prospect of a beautiful landscaped urban Eden?

In 1853, the New York legislature picked a spot—700 acres from 59th to 106th Streets between Fifth and Eighth Avenues—and authorized the taking of the land by eminent domain. They set aside $5 million to buy the land from its current owners, approximately 1600 people over 7500 lots, just under 300 of them in Seneca Village. The property owners fought the law. For two years they petitioned the court and appealed decisions trying to save their homes, churches, school, cemeteries, their lives as they knew them. The law won.

In the summer of 1856, Mayor Fernando Wood sent the residents of Seneca Village a final notice, and in 1857 he sent the police to bludgeon them out. According to one newspaper, the violent clearing of Seneca Village was a glorious victory that 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." On October 1, 1857, the city government announced that the land was free of pesky human habitation. The dwellings were demolished and Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux began to build Central Park.

We don't know what happened to the people buried in the two Seneca Village cemeteries we know of. There is no record of remains being exhumed and relocated before the park was built. Nor do we know what became of the Senecans who were evicted or if there are any descendants of theirs still in the city.

Central Park was indeed an enclave for the wealthy, too far uptown to be convenient for the working class who even after the inception of city rail systems in the late 1860s still couldn't comfortably afford to use the first public park in the country. All the concerts and events took place Monday through Saturday, so most laborers, who only had Sunday off, could not attend. It wasn't until the 1920s, when the first playground was installed, that Central Park began to become a popular spot for working class families.

As the park grew in popularity, the fate of Seneca Village faded from memory. Some historians knew of it, of course, but they had to content themselves with documentary research and boring the occasional hole to examine the site underneath the park. Central Park is governed by a non-profit conservancy and the conservancy was not keen to have the park excavated.

In 2011, the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, after a decade of courteous but persistent inquiries, finally received permission from the Central Park Conservancy to excavate the Seneca Village site. The conservancy required that the archaeologists fill in the holes they'd dug and remove their equipment at the end of every day, which, given what people get up to in Central Park at night, was probably for the best. According to the New York Times,

With the help of 10 college interns, the Institute focused on two primary sites: the yard of a resident named Nancy Moore and the home of William G. Wilson, a sexton at All Angels' Episcopal Church, both of whom were black. Records show that Mr. Wilson and his wife, Charlotte, had eight children and lived in a three-story wood-frame house.

The holes, which were up to six feet deep, revealed stone foundation walls and myriad artifacts, including what appeared to be an iron tea kettle and a roasting pan (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for conservation), a stoneware beer bottle and fragments of Chinese export porcelain. [...]

The former yard of Nancy Moore contained the original soil of Seneca Village, in contrast to Mr. Wilson's property, which appeared to have been dug up and filled during the park's construction. Thus, in Ms. Moore's yard, the interns found a number of items that might have been discarded, including fragments of two clay pipes, as well as bones from animals that had been butchered.

The artifacts testify to what a well-established, stable community Seneca Village was. The Institute came away from the dig with 250 bags of material to analyze, including soil samples that will tell us about the environment at the time and what plants people grew for food and fun. The Seneca Village Project website has more information about the excavation, including panoramic pictures, and the archival research into Seneca Village.

The Seneca Village Project has been trying to locate descendants of the former residents and so far has come up empty. If you know of any family lore that might be related to Seneca Village, please contact Cynthia Copeland of the New-York Historical Society (ccopelandster@gmail.com), Nan Rothschild of Columbia University (roth@columbia.edu) or Diana Wall of the City College of New York (diana.diz.wall@gmail.com).

This post originally appeared on The History Blog.

14 Famous People Who Survived the 1918 Flu Pandemic

National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Over a century ago, a deadly flu pandemic swept across the globe. The first cases of the so-called Spanish Flu—named because that’s where early news reports of the disease originated, though research has put its actual origin anywhere from China to Kansas to France—are traditionally dated to Kansas in March 1918. The disease ultimately infected some 500 million people, and estimates put the death toll anywhere from 20 to 50 million. The people on this list contracted the deadly flu and lived to tell the tale.

1. Walt Disney

Walt Disney sitting in a chair.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

If Walt Disney hadn’t contracted the flu, we might never have had Mickey Mouse. Even though he was only 16 at the time, Disney lied about his birth year to sign up for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps at the tail end of WWI. Then he got sick. By the time he was ready to ship out, the war was over.

2. Mary Pickford

A close-up photo of silent film star Mary Pickford smiling.
General Photographic Agency // Getty Images

The silent film star was at the height of her fame when she fell ill; thankfully, Pickford’s bout with the flu was uneventful, but as the disease spread, many movie theaters were forced to close. Irritated theater owners in Los Angeles, claiming they had been singled out, petitioned for all other places that people gathered together (except for grocery stores, meat markets, and drug stores) to be forced to close as well. While stores were not forced to close, schools were and public gatherings were banned.

3. David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George sitting outside with his dog and reading a newspaper.
Ernest H. Mills // Getty Images

Weeks before the end of World War I, Lloyd, Prime Minister of the UK at the time, came very close to dying of the flu. He was confined to his bed for nine days, had to wear a respirator, and was accompanied by a doctor for over a month. Because it was thought that news of the Prime Minister’s illness would hurt the morale of the British people and “encourage the enemy,” his condition was kept mostly hidden from the press.

4. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Portrait of a young Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

In 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and had been in Europe for two months before contracting the flu on the boat home. The New York Times described his illness as “a slight attack of pneumonia caused by Spanish influenza.” Roosevelt convalesced at his mother’s New York City home until he was well enough to head back to Washington, D.C.

5. Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson circa 1912.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Considering Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States and he was dealing with the end of WWI, early 1919 was a seriously inconvenient time to get sick. Not only did he get the flu, but he fell ill so violently and so quickly that his doctors were sure he had been poisoned. When Wilson was well enough to rejoin the “Big Three” negotiations a few days later, people commented on how weak and out of it he seemed.

6. Wilhelm II

Wilhelm II in his uniform.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

While the German Kaiser was undoubtedly upset to get sick himself, he had reason to be happy about the flu epidemic, or so he thought. One of his military generals insisted—despite the fact that the surgeon general disagreed—that the illness would decimate the French troops, while leaving the Germans mostly unharmed. Since Germany needed a miracle to win the war, the flu must have seemed like a godsend. In the end, it ravaged all armies pretty much equally, and Germany surrendered.

7. John J. Pershing

John J. Pershing in uniform sitting on a horse.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

While the great American general got sick himself, the flu gave him a much larger problem. His troops were dying at a faster rate from illness than from bullets. Soon there were more than 16,000 cases among U.S. troops in Europe alone. Pershing was forced to ask the government for more than 30 mobile hospitals and 1500 nurses in just over a week.

8. Haile Selassie I

Haile Selassie sitting in a chair drinking tea.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The future emperor of Ethiopia was one of the first Ethiopians to contract the disease. His country was woefully unprepared for the epidemic: There were only four doctors in the capital available to treat patients. Selassie survived, but it's unknown how many people the flu killed in Ethiopia; it killed 7 percent of the population of neighboring British Somaliland.

9. Leo Szilard

A black and white photo of Leo Szilard in a suit and tie.
Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You may not have heard of him, but the atomic scientist Leo Szilard might have saved the world. While he survived the flu during WWI (he was supposedly cured by spending time in a humid room, the standard treatment for respiratory illness at the time), what he should be remembered for is his foresight before WWII. When he and other physicists were discovering different aspects of nuclear fission, he persuaded his colleagues to keep quiet about it, so that the Nazis wouldn’t get any closer to making an atomic bomb.

10. Katherine Anne Porter

Author Katherine Anne Porter sitting in a chair wearing a hat with a bow on it.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The author turned her experience with sickness in 1918 into a short novel called Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The story is told by a woman with the flu who is tended to by a young soldier. While she recovers, he contracts the disease and dies.

11. Alfonso XIII

The King of Spain working at his desk.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alfonso was the King of Spain when the “Spanish” flu hit, and he was not immune to its outbreak. The flu was no worse in Spain than anywhere else, but unlike most journalists in other countries—who were under wartime censorship—the Spanish media actually covered the pandemic, leading to an unfair association that persists to this day.

12. Edvard Munch

A portrait of Edvard Munch standing in the snow.
Nasjonalbiblioteket, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Munch, the artist behind The Scream, had an apparent obsession with sickness and death long before he came down with the flu—he painted many works on the subject. But the flu obviously affected him especially: He painted a few self-portraits of both his illness and shortly after his recovery.

13. Lillian Gish

A portrait of Lillian Gish.
General Photographic Agency // Getty Images

The silent film star started feeling sick during a costume fitting and collapsed with a 104-degree fever when she got home. Fortunately, she could afford a doctor and two nurses to attend to her around the clock. While she recovered, it wasn’t all good news. Gish complained later, “The only disagreeable thing was that it left me with flannel nightgowns—have to wear them all winter—horrible things.”

14. Clementine Churchill

Clementine Churchill speaks at a microphone.
Arthur Tanner/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

While Winston was in France in 1919, the Churchill household—including his wife Clementine and their nanny Isabelle, who was looking after their young daughter Marigold—contracted the flu. According to Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames, Isabelle grew delirious and took Marigold from her cot despite being sick herself. Clementine grabbed the child and was anxious for days about Marigold’s condition. Isabelle died of the flu, but Clementine and Marigold survived. (Sadly, Marigold would die from a bacterial infection that developed into sepsis in 1921.)

During World War II, Clementine served as a close adviser to Winston. She was also the “Chairman” of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund, which raised 8 million pounds during WWII and resulted in her being awarded the Soviet Order of the Red Banner of Labor, being made a Dame, and being given a 19th century glass fruit bowl from Stalin. Churchill’s Chief Staff Officer, General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, would later comment that without Clementine the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story.”

In the 1800s, Drinking Too Much Tea Could Get a Woman Sent to an Insane Asylum

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

If you were a woman in the 19th century, virtually anything could get you committed to an insane asylum—including drinking too much tea.

NHS Grampian Archives, which covers the region around Scotland’s Grampian mountains, dug up an admissions record from the Aberdeen Lunatic Asylum while looking into the institution’s annual reports from the 1840s. The table contains data on causes of admissions categorized by sex. In addition to those admitted to the asylum for “prolonged nursing,” “poverty,” or “disappointment in love” (one man and one woman admitted for that one!), one woman arrived at the asylum only to have her issues blamed on “sedentary life—abuse of tea.”

Intrigued by the diagnosis, someone at the archives tracked down more details on the patient and posted the case notes on Facebook. Naturally, her condition involved more than just a little too much Earl Grey. Elizabeth Collie, a 34-year-old factory worker, was admitted in November 1848 after suffering from delusions, specifically delusions about machines.

Her files state that “she imagines that some species of machinery has been employed by her neighbors in the house she has been living in, which had the effect of causing pain and disorder in her head, bowels, and other parts of the body.”

Asylum employees noted that ”no cause [for her condition] can be assigned, except perhaps the excessive use of tea, to which she has always been much addicted.” She was released in June 1849.

A letter to the editors of The British Medical Journal in 1886 suggests that the suspicion of women’s tea-drinking habits was not unique to Aberdeen mental health institutions. One doctor, J. Muir Howie—who once served as a regional president for the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh, so we can assume he was relatively respectable—wrote to the publication:

Would you kindly allow me to draw attention to the fact that, among women at least, the abuse of tea frequently leads to the abuse of alcohol! My experience in connection with a home for inebriate women has led me to this conclusion. Many of the inmates, indeed, almost all of them, were enormous tea-drinkers before they became victims to alcoholic dipsomania. During their indulgence in alcohol, they rarely drink much tea; but, as soon as the former cut off, they return to the latter. In many instances, alcohol was first used to relieve the nervous symptoms produced by excessive tea drinking.

Ah, women. So susceptible to mania and vice. It's a miracle any of us stay out of the madhouse.

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