Tag Archives: Inwood

African Burial Ground, Inwood

A 1912 map of historic sites of upper Manhattan shows the “Slaves’ Burying Place” on the west side of 10th Ave, between 211th and 212th Sts. The burying ground used by colonial settlers is on the east side of 10th Ave.

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.

Headlines from the Evening Telegram, March 14, 1903, announcing the discovery of the African burial ground in Inwood

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…

A 2016 aerial view showing the area of the former African burial ground site in Inwood

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.

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Nagel Cemetery

Some of the remaining headstones in the Nagel Cemetery, ca. 1925
Some of the remaining headstones in the Nagel Cemetery, ca. 1925 (NYPL)

Late in November, 1926, I became aware that during the course of some excavations for the 207th Street Yard of the Rapid Transit System of New York City an obliterated burial ground was discovered between 212th Street and 213th Street, near the Harlem River. This district is in the northernmost part of Manhattan and within the present city limits of New York. Upon investigation by the Board of Transportation, it was learned that this site was the former Nagel, or Nagle, Cemetery. Altogether, 417 bodies were disinterred . . . Arrangements had been made by the Board of Transportation to reinter these bodies in the Woodlawn Cemetery. Toward their close I became informed of these operations and, with the permission of the Board of Transportation, was able to measure those skeletons still left unburied, provided my investigations did not interfere with the work of the contractors. Only twenty skeletons were available. The number of measurements was limited by the time allotted. Photographs were impossible, for I had the bad luck of having to work in the rain. (Shapiro 1930)

When the remains from an old cemetery in northern Manhattan were removed in 1926, anthropologist Harry Shapiro had a chance to collect data on some skeletons of colonial New Yorkers so that their physical characteristics could be compared with those of their counterparts in 17th century London (he found they were essentially the same).  The cemetery was of interest because it was a family burial ground for the Nagels, Dyckmans, and others who settled in northern Manhattan during the second half of the 17th century, and it was said to have graves dating back to 1664. In an 1806 deed, William Nagel asserted that the burial ground, which was on the Nagel farm, “has been made use for that purpose for ages past for sole us as a burial ground for the benefit of my family connections, relations, and friends.” In his will two years later, William Nagel expressly excepts the plot from his own holdings, and provides that it shall have “free access from the road to the same for interments.”

The Nagel Cemetery in 1836, on a lane from Broadway.
The Nagel Cemetery in 1836, on a lane from Broadway (Colton 1836)
The Nagel Cemetery, ca. 1925 (NYPL)
The Nagel Cemetery, ca. 1925 (NYPL)

The cemetery, which in 1926 was bounded by 212th and 213th streets and 9th and 10th avenues, was a plot of about one acre, on the crown of a gently sloping knoll.  It was originally about 200 yards west of the Nagel homestead, known as the Century House, and was reached from Broadway by a little lane bordered with apple trees.  The southern end of the cemetery, which had extended south of 212th Street, was taken in 1908 when the street was opened and a number of bodies were moved and placed in another section of the cemetery. Earlier Colonial burials were in the eastern section of the burial ground in rows about nine feet apart, running due north and south, and marked only by small, unmarked blocks of local rock, set at head and foot of each grave. The western portion of the ground was filled with graves marked with the names of local families, including the Dyckmans, Vermilyes, Ryers, and Hadleys.

Prior to 1926, a number of bodies were removed from the Nagel burial ground to other cemeteries, most notably members of the Dyckman family that were moved to Oakland Cemetery in Yonkers. When the Nagel cemetery was removed by the NYC Board of Transportation, 417 bodies were transferred to a 1,500 square foot plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and marked with an octagonal granite monument, 9 feet high and 6 feet wide, with the inscription “About this stone rest the remains of 417, among them early settlers and soldiers of the Colonial and National Wars, interred 1664-1908, in Nagel Cemetery, West 212th Street, Manhattan, the site of which was covered by a vast public improvement. Reinterred here, 1926-1927, by the city of New York.” The Nagel cemetery property was incorporated into what is today the MTA’s 207th Street Subway Yards.

The Nagel Cemetery in 1916.
The Nagel Cemetery in 1916 (Bromley 1916)
Location of graves removed from the Nagel Cemetery in 1926.
Location of graves removed from the Nagel Cemetery in 1926 (Shapiro 1930)
A present-day view of the Nagel Cemetery site.
Present-day view of the former Nagel Cemetery site (NYCityMap)
Monument at the Nagel cemetery reburial site, Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, May 2016
Monument at the Nagel cemetery reburial site, Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, May 2016 (Mary French)

View more photos of Nagel monument at Woodlawn Cemetery.

Sources: Colton’s 1836 Map Of The City and County Of New-York; Bromley’s 1916 Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan Pl 188; “Who Owns Cemetery?” New-York Tribune Mar 3, 1909 p.1; Washington Heights, Manhattan, its eventful past (Bolton 1924), 202-203; “Old Burial Ground in Subway’s Path,” New York Times Feb 13, 1927 p. 22; “Old New Yorkers: A Series of Crania from the Nagel Burying Ground, New York City” (Shapiro 1930) American Journal of Physical Anthropology 14(3):379-404; “City to Honor Dead Moved for Subway,” New York Times Jul 11 1932 p.15; Burials in the Dyckman-Nagel Burial Ground (Haacker 1954), 1-11; “The Old Nagle Cemetery,” My Inwood, May 9, 2013; NYCityMap.