In the early 20th century, development was spreading up to the last rural area left on Manhattan—Inwood, at the island’s northern tip. Workers began to raze Inwood’s old farmlands and estates and grade the land to lay out streets. In 1903, sensational reports appeared in city newspapers describing a burial ground that street graders had unearthed near 10th Avenue and 212th Street. The reports said that “huge skeletons” with “iron balls and chains hanging from their limbs,” some buried in an upright position, had been found in a grove of trees on top of a knoll that rose 12 feet above 10th Avenue. Neighborhood residents said it was well known that the knoll was an old burying ground for the slaves of local families who had estates nearby. Representatives of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society and the American Museum of Natural History investigated the cemetery and, although they discovered the stories of upright burials and iron chains and balls were false, they confirmed that the human remains were “Negro” and agreed the site was a burial ground for the enslaved. The African burial ground was thought to be an extension of a colonial cemetery located across 10th Avenue, where the Dyckmans, Nagels, and other early settlers of northern Manhattan were buried.
Before emancipation in 1827, slave labor played an important role in the economy of most of the rural areas around New York City, particularly the Dutch American farms and estates like those of Inwood. In the 1700s, about 40% of the households in the rural parts of Manhattan Island included slaves. Most of these homes had two or three slaves, women working as household help and men as farm labor. Unlike in the plantation South, most of the enslaved men, women and children of New York did not reside in separate quarters, but instead lived under the same roofs as their owners, often sleeping in cellars or attics. Slaves were frequently buried in separate graveyards near the family burial grounds.
The African burial ground in Inwood included 36 graves arranged in rows, each marked by an uncut stone at its head, which was oriented to the west. Investigators found pieces of decayed wood and rusty nails—all that remained of the coffins—and brass pins, suggesting that the dead had been buried in shrouds. In one of the graves a child’s skeleton was found with a little bead necklace. Preservationists attempted to safeguard the human remains unearthed from the burial ground and give them a decent reburial, but apparently were not successful. The remains were treated with what we now consider shocking callousness—one newspaper photo shows the bones heaped in a pile near the site—and most were carried off by relic hunters. Today the former African burial ground site is located just beneath the elevated 1 train tracks, and is occupied by an auto parts store, parking facility and other structures. Writing about the site in 1924, Reginald Pelham Bolton observed:
The remains of these humble workers of the past reminds us of the time when, even in this neighborhood, the practice of slavery was customary. Perhaps no other relic of the past could more decidedly mark the difference between the past and the present than the bones of these poor unwilling immigrants, whose labors cleared the primeval forest, cultivated the unturned sods, and prepared the way for the civilization that followed…
Sources: Touring Gotham’s Archaeological Past (Wall & Cantwell 2004), 32, 98-99; Historical map of the east side of upper Manhattan Isld., from Dyckman St. to Kingsbridge (Bolton 1912); Washington Heights, Manhattan, Its Eventful Past (Bolton 1924), 204; “Skeletons in Irons Dug Up in Street,” Evening World March 14, 1903, 4; “Workmen Find Skeletons in Heavy Chains,” Evening Telegram March 14, 1903, 16; “Big Skeletons in the Bronx,” New York Times March 15, 1903; “Two Ancient Burying Grounds of New-York City, New York Daily Tribune Apr 12, 1903.