Soon after the Dutch village of New Harlem was established in 1658, its settlers organized a Reformed Dutch Church to meet the community’s religious needs. Meeting informally at first, by 1665 they had raised the funds to construct their first house of worship near the Harlem River, at what is now the corner of 125th Street and First Avenue. In 1667, a plot to the north of the church was established as the community’s first official burial ground, where interments of Harlem’s founders and their descendants were made for many years. In 1686, Harlem’s Reformed Dutch Church relocated to a new building on property just south of their original church and later established a new cemetery at that site. The original cemetery, located at 126th Street and First Avenue, would come to be known as the Negro Burying Ground.
The first documented African Americans in New Harlem were slaves purchased in 1664 by the village’s settlers, who used slave labor to work their expansive farms and help build and maintain the settlement. By 1790 a census tally of the Harlem district found 115 slaves working upper Manhattan’s farms and estates, roughly one-third of the population. It is not known when African Americans were first interred at Harlem’s original village burial ground at 126th Street, but at some point the eastern end of the graveyard was designated for that purpose. By 1771 it was formally identified as the “Negro Burying Ground” on historical documents.
After emancipation in 1827, freedmen and women, working their own farms or continuing as servants on Harlem’s estates, created a small African American community centered around Little Zion, an uptown mission established on East 117th Street by downtown’s Mother Zion (the African Methodist Episcopal Church). Blacks also were part of the Harlem Reformed Dutch Church and joined other churches that opened in the area. African Americans of all denominations were buried in the Negro Burying Ground at 126th Street.
Harlem’s original black population diminished as new immigrant groups moved into the area during the second half of the 19th century. Though African Americans would return to Harlem in great numbers in the 20th century, transforming it into a black metropolis, the area’s first black community—and theirburial ground—was largely forgotten. The Negro Burying Ground was supplanted in the 1880s by a pleasure and amusement ground known as Sulzer’s Harlem River Park, then by a movie studio, and, in 1947, by a bus depot.
Today, the Harlem African Burial Ground site is located under the southeastern corner of the MTA’s decommissioned 126th Street Bus Depot, which covers the entire block bounded by First and Second Avenues and 126th and 127th Streets. Documentary evidence of the quarter-acre burial ground came to light during planned rehabilitation of the depot, and in 2015 archaeological testing uncovered human remains there. Although no intact burials were found, discovery of a skull and over 100 bones confirmed the site’s history. A task force that includes community members and representatives from Harlem’s Elmendorf Reformed Church, the descendant congregation of Harlem’s original church, was formed to work with the city to redevelop the depot appropriately. Designated the 126th Street Harlem African Burial Ground Memorial and Mixed-Use Project, future redevelopment plans include a memorial and cultural center to acknowledge the site’s significance.
While the exact number buried in Harlem’s African Burial Ground is not known, the task force has been combing through church records to piece together details about the site. Their examination has yielded the names of 40 individuals believed to have been interred there. Historical newspapers offer clues of others laid to rest in Harlem’s African Burial Ground.An 1857 obituary for Charlotte Lewis, a domestic worker, notes her remains were interred in the “burying-ground of the colored” at Harlem. In the New York Times’ 1859 coverage ofthe sensational death of Harmon Carnon, “a respectable and industrious colored man” killed by his Cuban son-in-law in a murderous rampage, the “Colored Cemetery at Harlem” is mentioned as Carnon’s burial place. Continued research and memoralization of Harlem’s African Burial Ground will offer an opportunity to honor the lives of those interred there and preserve an essential piece of the city’s history.
Sources:Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps, No. 67; Bromley’s 1914 Atlas of the City of New York,Pl 13; New Harlem Past and Present (Pierce 1903); Revised History of Harlem (Riker 1904); Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 (Wallace 2017), 846; Topic Intensive Documentary Study, Willis Avenue Bridge Reconstruction (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2004); Phase 1B Archaeological Investigation126th Street Bus Depot (AKRF 2016); “Died,” New York Times,Jan 31, 1857;“The Escaped Murderer, Sanchez,” New York Times, Jan 13, 1859; “Sulzer’s Harlem River Park,” New York Age, Nov 19, 1927; “Rezoning a Block in Harlem, Respecting an African Burial Ground,” New York Times, Sept 26, 2017; 126th African Burial Ground Memorial & Mixed Use Project(NYCEDC); Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force
When New York City authorities decided to close the public burial ground at Washington Square in 1825, they selected a property “situate between the Third and Fourth Avenues, and between the 48th & 50th Streets” as the location for the new potter’s field. The site was considered well-suited for a public burial ground, since it was outside the populated city but only about a mile-and-a-half from both the state prison on the Hudson River and the almshouse at Bellevue. The grounds had recently been improved by the Commissioners of the Almshouse (who may have already been using it as burial ground), were enclosed by a “strong stone wall,” and required “no preparation for its immediate occupancy than that of a small tenement as a residence for the Keeper.” The site was quickly put into operation—the following year, 1,659 of the 4,973 people who died in the city were interred in the new potter’s field.
Located between today’s 50th and 48th streets and extending from Park to Lexington avenues, the remains of more than 60,000 people were laid to rest in the potter’s field over the next two decades, including approximately 600 cholera victims interred there during an outbreak in the summer of 1832. By the 1840s, the city was regularly receiving complaints about conditions at the 50th Street potter’s field. The New York Mirror called the site “disgraceful to the city of New-York—revolting to every properfeeling of the human heart, and unworthy of a Christian country.” In an 1845 report to the Board of Aldermen, the City Health Inspector described the situation at the site, where “bodies have not been regularly or decently interred in graves, but great pits have been dug in which a large number of bodies have been deposited; and when filled, have been covered over slightly with earth, allowing the most offensive and pernicious exhalations to fill the atmosphere, to such an extent as to endanger the health of the whole neighborhood.” Though a site on Randall’s Island was selected for a new potter’s field in 1843, many of the city’s indigent and unknown continued to be buried at the 50th Street site until the late 1840s.
During the 1850s, the defunct public burial ground at 50th Street was continually disturbed by the city’s northward expansion. A section of the grounds at Fourth Avenue (today’s Park Avenue) and 48th Street transferred to a private owner, necessitating the removal of some 2,000 bodies to another part of the field. Property owners in the vicinity petitioned the city to convert the site into a public park, as it had done with the previous public burial ground at Washington Square, but the request was refused by the city council, who voted to open 49th Street through the site. The city cut the street through in 1853, leaving “the bones of its unfortunate citizens” scattered about, according to the Evening Post.
Thousands of bodies were again disinterred and moved to another area of the grounds in 1857, when Fourth Avenue and 50th Street were graded along the site’s western and northern boundaries. This work left the old potter’s field in shambles—the Herald described stacks of coffins lining the sidewalks and a rough fence erected on the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and 50th Street to “prevent the pile of coffins tumbling from their somewhat higher position to the level of the newly made sidewalk.” Exposed coffins were visible in the soil banks along the graded streets, “with the hairless skulls of the poor pauper occupants staring the passerby full in the face.”
In April 1857, the City Health Inspector recommended removal of remains from the 50th Street Potter’s Field, noting that the “general appearance of the ground was disgusting,” with hundreds of human bones exposed and “many people gathered there on Sundays and amused themselves by poking out the skulls and bones.” In 1858-59, the remains were disinterred and transferred to the potter’s field then in operation on Ward’s Island. The 50th Street potter’s field is notable as the last potter’s field established on Manhattan Island; much of the site is occupied today by the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, built in 1929-31.
Sources: Colton’s 1836Map Of The City and County Of New-York; Bromley’s 1955 Manhattan Land Book of the City of New York, Pl 78; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 14:306-308; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Mar 6, 1827; [City Inspector’s Report of Deaths], New York Evening Post Jul 17, 1832; “Board of Health,” New York Spectator, Jul 26, 1832; “Potter’s Field,” New York Mirror May 30 1840; Documents of the Board of Aldermen of the City of New York Vol 11, 1845, 681-682; “Burials in Cities,” New York Daily Tribune May 30, 1848; “Twelfth Ward Street Opening,” New York Herald, Mar 26, 1850; “Old Potter’s Field,” New York Evening Post, May 30, 1853; “The Old Potter’s Field,” New York Times, May 31, 1853; “The Old Potter’s Field,” New York Herald, Mar 15, 1857; “Public Health—Potter’s Field Again,” New York Daily Tribune, Apr 7, 1857; “Exhumation of Bodies at the Potter’s Field,” New York Evening Post, Jun 8, 1858; “Potter’s Field,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper,Jun 19, 1858; “The News,” New York Herald, Jun 7, 1859
On March 31, 1823, New York City’s Common Council passed the first of a series of laws banning interments in lower Manhattan, an action that was part of a movement in American cities that sought to promote public health by prohibiting burial of the dead in dense population centers. Though the ban was supported by those who regarded the numerous churchyards scattered throughout lower Manhattan as foul-smelling, unattractive eyesores that spread diseases, it was opposed by congregations and by families who had invested in purchasing lots and vaults in their churchyards. The opposition, who viewed the ban as an attack on private property and the rights of churches, was so strong that the Common Council reconsidered the measure twice over the next two years, both times reaffirming its original prohibition. However, the controversy demonstrated that the city needed to offer an alternative to those that had been deprived of a burial place as a result of the new interment law.
At the same March 1823 meeting where they passed the interment law, the Common Council appointed a special committee to select a “Suitable Site for a public Burial Place to be called the City Burying ground.” This committee soon presented reports on the development of the new city burial ground, which would accommodate the “different religious congregations of the City,” as well as individuals “who may choose to select particular Spots for their families;” ground in the cemetery would also be reserved for the interment needs of the city’s “numerous poor.” The site selected for the municipal burial ground was part of common lands belonging to the city, located a little over three miles from City Hall, about 10 acres bounded by Fifth and Sixth avenues and 40th and 42nd streets. The city spent approximately $10,000 preparing the new cemetery, building 10 public burial vaults in the grounds, planting rows of weeping willows and elms, and enclosing the site with a four-foot-high stone wall that was topped with a “strong mortised fence, five feet high, made of Locust posts and the best Georgia pine.”
Despite the city’s efforts to provide a handsome municipal burial ground that could be used by all its citizens, the project never attracted middle- or upper-class New Yorkers and there is no evidence that congregations or families ever acquired lots or vaults in the city cemetery. The project was abandoned by the late 1820s; although the land is said to have been used as a potter’s field, reports from the 1850s state that the ground had been found to be too wet to be used for burials and remained wasteland until 1837, when it was appropriated for reservoir purposes. The city subsequently constructed the Croton Distributing Reservoir on the eastern portion of the site, while the western side became a public park known as Reservoir Square. In 1884 Reservoir Square was renamed Bryant Park; in 1899 the city demolished the reservoir and replaced it with the New York Public Library.
Sources: Goodrich’s 1828 Plan of the City of New York and of the Island; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 12:811-812; 13:116-118; 14:209-212; 15:245; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 3:715, 968, 975; The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (Sloane 1991), 34-40; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Apr 4, 1823; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Jun 13, 1823; “New Burying Ground,” New York Evening Post, Oct 15, 1823; “New Burying Ground,” New York Spectator, Oct 15, 1823; “Corporation Proceedings,” New York Evening Post, Dec 22, 1824; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Evening Post, Dec 27, 1824; “To Masons,” New York Evening Post, Jul 2, 1825; “The New York Crystal Palace,” New York Herald, Jun 3, 1856; “The Removal of the Crystal Palace,” New York Herald, Nov 29, 1856
In April 1797, New York City authorities decided to purchase a piece of property “bounded on the Road leading from the Bowery Lane at the two Mile Stone to Greenwich” to replace the public burial ground then in use at Madison Square Park. The property was seen by many as a good choice for the new potter’s field—it was in a rural area north of the populated city but a convenient distance to the Almshouse in City Hall Park, to the public hospital at Bellevue on the East River, and to the new state prison just west on the Hudson River. One group, however, was incensed by the plan—affluent New Yorkers who had country retreats in Greenwich village. The burial ground would not only abut the suburban homes of many of the city’s elite, but it was contiguous to the only road leading westward from the Bowery turnpike to Greenwich, so they and their fashionable visitors would have to suffer the slow-moving wagons carrying bodies to the site.
Fifty-seven owners of residences in the vicinity, including Alexander Hamilton, immediately sent a letter of protest to the Common Council, stating that the burial ground would “lie in the neighborhood of a number of Citizens who have at great expense erected dwellings on the adjacent lots for the health and accommodation of their families during the summer season, and who, if the above design be carried into execution, must either abandon their seats or submit to the disagreeable sensations arising from an unavoidable view of and close situation to a burial place of this description destined for the victims of contagion.” The petitioners offered to buy another piece of land in exchange for the planned site, but their proposal was denied. The city proceeded with preparing the new burial ground, bounded by Greenwich Lane on the north, Fourth street on the south, Wooster Street on the east, and Minetta Creek (which ran southwest from the foot of Fifth Avenue to the corner of MacDougal and Fourth streets) on the west. This property forms approximately the eastern two-thirds of today’s Washington Square Park.
By November 1797, the new burial public burial ground was ready—fenced with “good posts and rails” and planted with trees—and the city ordered the keeper to commence interments there instead of at the old Potter’s Field at Madison Square Park. The keeper, who lived in a house in the northeast corner of the seven-acre site, dug graves, maintained the grounds, and performed another important function—protecting the cemetery from grave robbers. During the 18th and 19th centuries, medical students and physicians were in desperate need of cadavers for their training and research; with no mechanism in place to supply them with fresh corpses, they resorted to body snatching—a crime so common that almost every prominent physician in the city confessed to having taken part. They often pilfered remains from the city’s most vulnerable graveyards—the African burial grounds and potter’s fields, where their raids were less likely to arouse public outrage.
John McKenzie, Keeper of the Potters Field in 1808, was dismissed from the position when he confessed to “conniving at the disinterment and taking away of dead bodies” from the burial ground. One of his successors in the position, William Schureman, was a more faithful servant to the dead—at about 3 o’clock on an April morning in 1824, Schureman “suspected that some person had entered the field for the purpose of removing the dead, and after sending for two watchmen, and calling his faithful dog, he went to ascertain the fact.” His suspicions were confirmed when he arrived at a burial pit containing about 10 coffins that had been uncovered; when the person concealed in the grave refused to show himself, Schureman sent his dog into the pit. Instantly, “a tall, stout fellow made his appearance, and took to his heels across the field.” The grave robber was eventually secured by the watchmen and sentenced to six months in prison. Reporting the story, the New York Evening Post cautioned, “the young gentlemen attending the medical school of this city, will take warning by this man’s fate. They may rest assured that the keeper of Pottersfield will do his duty and public justice will be executed upon any man, whatever may be his condition in life, who is found violating the law and the decency of Christian burial.”
The potter’s field was a burial place not only of “strangers and paupers,” but citizens, rich and poor alike, who died of yellow fever. In the summer of 1798, the disease returned to the city in such proportions it became known as the Great Epidemic; of the 2,000 New Yorkers who perished, about 660 were buried in the potter’s field. The following year, and in subsequent outbreaks, churches were forbidden from burying yellow fever victims in their burial grounds; all those succumbing to it were interred in the potter’s field. In an address delivered to the New-York Historical Society in 1857, John W. Francis describes the potter’s field at Washington Square as “our Golgotha during the dreadful visitations of the Yellow Fever in 1797, 1798, 1801, and 1803…many a victim of the pestilence, of prominent celebrity, was consigned to that final resting-place on earth, regardless of his massive gains, or his public services.”
In addition to serving as burial ground for the indigent, the unknown, and those dying of contagious diseases, the potter’s field was the location of a number of church plots, which lined the burial ground’s eastern edge. Among these church plots were several at the northeastern corner of the potter’s field belonging to congregations of the Scotch Presbyterian Church, and two 50-foot-square plots set aside for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and Asbury African Church.
By the 1820s, some 20,000 bodies had been laid to rest in the potter’s field and the area surrounding the burial ground—once farm fields and country estates—had transformed into a thriving suburb of the city. Houses and shops lined the blocks immediately south of the burial ground; wells were dug, pumps installed, and streets regulated. “The present Pottersfield is nearly filled, and by Spring it will be necessary to remove it to some other place,” the city council reported in December 1824; a month later, they announced, “the time has arrived when interments should be interdicted in a part of Our City so rapidly improving as that in the vicinity of the present Pottersfield.” In 1825, the burial ground was closed and ordered filled and leveled. The city acquired additional land on the west side of the potter’s field to give the property a uniform shape, and in 1828 the site was described as “a beautiful public square, called Washington Square, which is also used as a military parade ground.” By 1878 it was a public park.
When the city was in the process of creating a public square from the burial ground, the Common Council declared “it is not the intention of this Board to disturb any of the graves within these grounds nor will there be any absolute necessity for such a measure.” They acknowledged that among those buried there were “many connected with our most respectable families” and said they would not think of “disturbing the numerous remains deposited there.” Despite these noble intentions, remains of those resting under Washington Square Park have been disturbed a number of times over the years.
Workmen digging the foundation for the park’s iconic Washington Memorial Arch at the Fifth Avenue entrance in 1890 unearthed coffins, skeletons, and headstones, two bearing the date 1803. In 1941, the New York Times reported more “grim human relics of the eighteenth and nineteenth century” were encountered by WPA laborers who found human remains during excavations for a sewer on the north side of the park. During utility excavations at the northeastern corner of the park in 1965, Con Edison workmen broke through the domed roof of an underground burial vault containing several coffins and “at least 25 skeletons;” this likely was part of the burial grounds of the Scotch Presbyterian Church.
And remains representing at least 31 individuals, including 16 intact graves, were discovered during archaeological work connected with renovations at the park between 2009 and 2013. Also discovered during these excavations was a beautifully-engraved brownstone marker found in the southwest quadrant of the park. “Here lies the body of James Jackson,” the inscription on the three-foot-tall headstone says, “who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.” Though no human remains were found associated with the headstone, research confirmed that Jackson was a victim of yellow fever and that’s how he—and his finely-made headstone—came to rest in the potter’s field.
New York City’s municipal Almshouse was under siege in the 1790s. The city was in a growth spurt that would double its population to 60,000 by the end of the decade; at the same time, it was ravaged by annual outbreaks of yellow fever. Though yellow fever endangered all New Yorkers (750 fell to it in 1795), the city’s poor were most susceptible to the disease. The rising number of indigent residents and ailing poor placed a strain on the crumbling, sixty-year-old Almshouse, which housed close to 800 people by 1795.
In response to this situation, the city opened a new, larger almshouse just north of the first Almshouse in City Hall Park and established a yellow fever hospital at Bellevue, along the East River north of the settled city. The city also found a new burial place for the poor, interred in grounds adjacent to the Almshouse since the 1750s. In August 1794, the Common Council ordered that the “Triangular Piece of Ground at the junction of the Post & Bloomingdale Roads be appropriated to the use of the Alms House for a Burying Ground.” A month later, the council directed that the hospital at Bellevue be permitted to bury their dead at this same site. The site became a graveyard for interment of paupers, the unknown, and those dying of contagious diseases.
The public burial ground at Post and Bloomingdale roads—the vicinity of present-day 26th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues—was used for just three years. Opposition to transporting the dead on the busy roads leading to the potter’s field compelled the city to discontinue its use in May 1797 and open a new public burial ground at what is now Washington Square Park. The abandoned potter’s field at Post and Bloomingdale roads transferred to the United States government for an arsenal in 1806; later it was the location of the House of Refuge for juvenile delinquents. In 1847, the site was leveled, sodded, and enclosed to create Madison Square Park.
Though the burial ground was used only for a short period, hundreds of people likely were interred there during this calamitous time. Some burials were disinterred when the U.S. government built a powder-and-shot magazine at the site; in 1808, L’Oracle (one of the city’s early 19th century newspapers)reported that “persons employed in digging the foundation of the Magazine in the Old Potter’s Field daily dig up coffins and dead bodies which are disposed of in the most indecent and disrespectful manner.” On several occasions in the early 20th century, construction workers uncovered human remains at the north end of the park during excavations for sewer lines and water pipes. Burials may still be present beneath the park.
Sources: Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps, No. 14; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 2:92, 102, 351, 365; Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (Valentine 1856), 465; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 5:1313, 1474, 1494; Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (Oshinsky 2016), 11-28; “Twenty Dollars Reward” [Notice], New York Evening Post, Apr 8 1809; “Park Once Potter’s Field, New York Times, July 11, 1908; “Unearth Skeleton in Park,” New York Times, Sep 11, 1930.