Evidence of Native American activity uncovered in Isham Park

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Update: Less than 24 hours after this post went on-line, Jennifer Hoppa, Administrator Northern Manhattan Parks, sent the following email:

“The Capital Contractor was directed to stop work as soon as the Capital Division was informed earlier today of possible artifacts being uncovered. 

NYC Parks director of Historic Preservation John Krawchuk is closely coordinating with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to ensure that whatever is uncovered is assessed and conserved and then to advise on construction going forward.”

Thanks to all who made this possible.

An ongoing improvement project in a city park has uncovered signs of Native American settlement on the northern tip of Manhattan.

Shells uncovered in Isham Park improvement dig.
Shells uncovered in Isham Park improvement dig.
Construction in Isham Park.
Construction in Isham Park.
Shell uncovered in Isham Park improvement dig.
Shell uncovered in Isham Park improvement dig.
Shells uncovered during Isham Park improvement dig, October 6, 2014.
Shells uncovered during Isham Park improvement dig, October 6, 2014.
Isham Park improvement project
Isham Park improvement project

Workers digging a trench for the installation of water fountains in Isham Park have unearthed a curious concentration of shells.

Could the shells be part of a larger shell midden?  Could other artifacts remain buried nearby?

Isham Park area map by Reginald Bolton, 1917.
Isham Park area map by Reginald Bolton, 1917.

The notion that important Native American artifacts lie below the carefully manicured lawn isn’t that much of a stretch.  In fact, Isham Park may be one of the few remaining sites on Manhattan where an archeological dig would still be possible.

The original owner of the park, William B. Isham, a wealthy leather merchant whose family later donated the land to the city for use as a park, was well aware of the rich Native history that lay beneath his feet.

Arrowheads found by William Isham.  Source Archeological investigations on Manhattan island, New York city  By Alanson Skinner.
Arrowheads found by William Isham. Source Archeological investigations on Manhattan island, New York city By Alanson Skinner.

Poking and prodding through the soil of upper Manhattan Isham would occasionally uncover relics left by those who came before him, including arrowheads that were later donated by the family to the Museum of the American Indian.

Turn of the century Isham Street  dig at Native American burial and shell pit. NYHS
Turn of the century Isham Street dig at Native American burial and shell pit. NYHS

Early archeologists exploring the region always kept an eye out for rich concentrations of shells, which sometimes meant other signs of Native American activity, could be found close by.

Native American skeleton found in Isham Park, New York Times, September 27, 1911
Native American skeleton found in Isham Park, New York Times, September 27, 1911

In 1911 construction workers cutting 211th Street, across from today’s park, unearthed a complete human skeleton on the Isham property.  The bones were at first believed to be those of a Revolutionary War era soldier.   They were later determined to be the remains of a Native American.

Turn of the century Inwood archeologists. NYHS
Turn of the century Inwood archeologists. NYHS

What might today’s archeologists find if they sifted through the soil left behind by the earthmovers?

Isham Park improvement dig.
Isham Park improvement dig.

Paging Indiana Jones.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Argh. This is infuriating. That is definitely a Native American site, no question. I’ve had a mild obsession with the shell deposits in Inwood/Washington Heights parks, and it’s been my impression that the Parks Department folks really don’t care about being stewards of archaeological sites in the parks. This pretty much proves it.

  2. For whatever it is worth, I just tweeted a link your post to @BilldeBlasio and @NYCParks asking them to take notice. Worth a shot. Thanks for this post!

  3. A relative of mine just made me aware of this unfortunate situation. Who are the individuals associated with NAGPRA in the city or state? Are the contractors and the park system following the Section 106 laws? Are they required to consult with any tribal governments or groups in reference to the construction? Where is this issue at right now? This happened over a week ago now so can anyone give us an update on this issue?

  4. Read Kurlansky’s “The Big Oyster: History on the half shell”. Fabulous – talks about the importance of oysters, middens, etc. in NYC.

  5. My father was a NYC civil engineer who supervised the groundwork for the World Trade Center. I remember him telling me that this was often suspended because Native American artifacts were found.

  6. Here’s the latest update from Jennifer Hoppa, dated October 20, 2014, which was posted by Volunteers for Isham Park on their blog last Thursday. October 23, 2014
    (http://volunteersishampark.blogspot.com/2014/10/update-on-archeology-in-isham-park-from.html):

    THURSDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2014

    Update on Archeology in Isham Park from NYC Parks
    Isham Park update, Oct. 20, 2014
    Excavation work on the water service improvement project ceased operations last week after oyster shells surfaced at the former site of the Isham estate near Park Terrace East road, indicating possible presence of archaeological resources. Parks researched the history of soil disturbance in the park and met on site with Amanda Sutphin, Director of Archaeology at NYC Landmarks who determined the visible areas of excavation did not contain any significant resources.

    Ms. Sutphin requested that Parks adopt an Unanticipated Discoveries Plan to guide the contractor’s employees and Park’s onsite construction supervisors in the event that something significant is found during future excavations. The site is historically important for Native American and Revolutionary War activities although its development as an estate in the late 19th century, and as a park in the early 20th century, are presumed to have altered the earlier conditions.

    The Unanticipated Discoveries Plan will serve as a guiding document for excavations conducted on-site and require work to cease, and LPC to be consulted, should any archaeological resources surface during construction.

    Jennifer M. Hoppa
    Administrator Northern Manhattan Parks
    Executive Director Fort Tryon Park Trust
    Fort Tryon Park Cottage
    741 Fort Washington Avenue
    New York, NY 10040

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