Tag Archives: Harlem

Watt-Pinkney Family Burial Ground

An 1849 map shows Archibald Watt’s Harlem estate

On a June day in 1910, an undertaker and his assistants labored in the drizzling rain to remove coffins from the Watt-Pinkney estate that covered an entire city block between 139th street and 140th streets and 6th and 7th avenues (today’s Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard) in Harlem. Complete with magnificent trees, flower and vegetable gardens, two barns, and a row of chicken houses, this single-block enclave was a vestige of a vast farm purchased by Archibald Watt in 1826.

Born in Scotland, Archibald Watt came to New York in 1820 and made his fortune as a merchant and land speculator. In 1827, he married Mrs. Mary Pinkney, a widow whose deceased husband came from a wealthy Maryland family. Archibald became stepfather to Mary’s two daughters—17-year-old Mary Goodwin Pinkney and two-year-old Antoinette Pinkney. Archibald and Mary would go on to have two additional children, Thomas and Grace Watt.

Watt-Pinkney mansion at 139th Street near 7th Ave, ca. 1910 (MCNY)

Archibald’s stepdaughter Mary G. Pinkney became his confidant and business secretary and was deeply involved in his real estate deals. When he was hard-pressed for ready cash during a financial downturn in 1843, it was Miss Pinkney who came to his rescue with a $40,000 inheritance left to her by her father. In return, Archibald willed her his Harlem estate “in consideration of love and affection.” Until her death at age 98, Mary Pinkney made her primary residence at the old family manor house near the corner of 139th Street and 7th Avenue and took great pride in the grounds. Dubbed “the wealthiest spinster in the world” when she died in 1908, her real estate holdings in upper Manhattan were worth an estimated $50 million.

The 14-month old daughter of Thomas Watt, Mary Pinkney Watt’s 1858 burial record notes her place of interment as “Vault in her grandfather Archibald Watt’s garden”

Mary Pinkney’s will included a clause directing that “the mortal remains of the members of my family that lie buried in the private burial grounds situate in the plot between 139th street and 140th streets and between Sixth and Seventh avenues shall be removed to the plot now owned by me at Woodlawn Cemetery.” Six of Mary Pinkney’s family members were laid to rest on the estate—her half-sister Grace Watt, who died at age seven in 1839; her sister Antoinette Pinkney, died 1841, aged 16; her 14-month-old niece Mary Pinkney Watt, who died in 1858; her stepfather Archibald Watt, died 1867, age 77; her half-brother Thomas Watt, died 1876 at age 48; and her 94-year-old mother, Mary Goodwin Pinkney Watt, the final interment, in 1883.

In each case, the coffins were enclosed in brick masonry and sealed at the top but left without a tombstone or any other exterior markings. Although the location of the burial vaults is described as “under the grape arbor” on the property, precisely where this was within the block is not known today. When the vaults were opened in 1910, the coffins were found to be in excellent condition, with the nameplates still readable. They were removed and put in zinc boxes for reburial at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The Watt-Pinkney manor house and grounds were sold in 1925;  the house was subsequently demolished and the land redeveloped.

View of Watt-Pinkney farm, ca. 1900. The mansion can be seen in the background (MCNY)
This 1909 map shows the Watt-Pinkney mansion on north side of 139th street near 7th Ave and the grounds and outbuildings that occupied the remainder of the block.
A 2018 aerial view of the former Watt-Pinkney block in Harlem, where the family burial ground was located (NYCThen&Now)
The Watt-Pinkney plot at Woodlawn Cemetery, Sept 2021 (Mary French)

Sources: Sidney’s Map of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; Sanborn’s 1909 Insurance Maps of the City of New York,  Vol 11, Pl 33; New York, U.S., Episcopal Diocese of New York Church Records, 1767-1970 (Ancestry.com); “Died,” Evening Post, Jul 23, 1839; “Died,” Log Cabin, Nov 13, 1841; “Died,” New York Daily Tribune,  Jun 1, 1858; “Died,” New York Herald, Mar 2, 1867; “Died,” New York Herald, Nov 12, 1876; “Died,” New York Herald, Mar 26, 1883; “Estate of Millions, Miss Pinkney’s Care,” New York Times, May 4 1902; “Obituary—Miss Mary G. Pinkney,” New York Tribune, Dec 9, 1908; “Miss Pinkney Buried,” The Sun, Dec 11, 1908; “$50,000,000 Pinkney Estate Goes to a Man and Two Women,” Evening World, Dec 15, 1908; “Pinkney Estate Cut in Four,” The Sun, Dec 16, 1908; “City Overspreads Old Watt Cemetery,” New York Times, Jun 17, 1910; “Historic Estate in Auction Market,” New York Times, May 7 1911; “Harlem to Lose Ancient Landmark,” New York Times, Nov 29 1925; Biographical Register of Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, Vol 2 (Macbean 1925)

African Burial Ground, Harlem

The Harlem African Burial Ground, depicted as the “Cemetery” on marshy land next to the Harlem River on this 1820 farm map

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.

A 1904 depiction of the 17th century village of New Harlem shows the original church and graveyard (later 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” in historical documents.

An 1802 notice of sale for an adjacent property mentions the Negro Burying Ground at Harlem

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.

A view of the former site of the  first Harlem burying ground/African Burial Ground in 1903, viewed from 127th Street near the Willis Avenue Bridge. At that time the site was part of the Sulzer’s Harlem River Park

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 their  burial 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.

Detail from a 1914 atlas showing Sulzer’s Harlem River Park, which extended onto the African Burial Ground site from 1885 to 1917

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.

Aerial view of the 127th Street Bus Depot with the  historic boundaries of the Harlem African Burial Ground indicated (HABG Task Force)

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 of  the 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.

Excerpt from a 1859 New York Times article about the murder of Harmon Carnon describes his interment at the Harlem African Burial Ground

Sources:  Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps, No. 67; Bromley’s 1914 Atlas of the City of New York, Pl 13; [Notice], Daily Advertiser Jan 23, 1802; 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 Investigation  126th 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