It’s hard to imagine an Inwood with mansions on the hill, a dirt road below, and just east of that cemeteries….yep….Cemeteries.
Hundreds of years of even sparse population generated numerous graves. In some lay the long forgotten members of once famous families. In other plots were the remains of slaves, the fallen dead of the Revolutionary War; even Native Americans.
With development near the turn of the century, especially during the 1920’s construction of the subway, most of the remains, presumably, found their way back into proper graves.
Could there be a grave underfoot in your little corner of Inwood?
Here’s what we know:
Dyckman-Nagle Burial Ground – (near the 215th Street 1 train Station)
This colonial burial ground was established in 1677. 417 persons were buried in this graveyard located near what is today West 212th Street. In 1905 the Dyckman family remains, with the exception of the bones of States Morris and his family, who were still seen as traitors for their Loyalist stance during the Revolutionary War, were removed .
From the grave of States Morris Dyckman, the fifth son of Jacobus Dyckman: “His manners were polite, his taste refined, his conjugal love was pure, his parental strong. His hospitality sprang from benevolence, his charity from feeling and a sense of duty. Highly esteemed in life, he was sincerely lamented in death.” Died August 14, 1806 Aged 51.
In 1909 the southern portion of the cemetery was moved to make way for 212th Street.
A letter to the editor of the New York Times dated December 29th, 1909 reads, “In the upper part of Manhattan Island, near the shores of the Harlem River, and just south of the 215th Street Station of the rapid transit railway, is an ancient cemetery bearing old time New York family names, such as Vermilya , Odell, Erskine, Sage and Dyckman.
The northerly advance of civilization has brought with it the opening of new streets in the neighborhood, involving an invasion of the old cemetery, and an utter disregard of the ordinary decencies and respect for the dead.
Tombstones are knocked down, broken in two, and trampled underfoot by man and beast. Stumps of fallen trees are being grubbed and improvements are in progress, apparently without first removing the remains of those who once ruled the destinies of the city.
This letter is written in the hope that it will attract the eye of some worthy descendant of those whose memory is thus being insulted, or some responsible city official with respect for the feelings of the living who will stop this heartless vandalism.“
In 1926-27, the remaining bodies were reinterred in Woodlawn Cemetery. A decade later, in 1936, a monument was erected in Woodlawn Cemetery in memory of the many families from Kingsbridge and surrounding communities.
Colonial Burial Ground (Dyckman and Sherman)
In the spring of 1890 workers near the present junction of Dyckman Street and Sherman Avenue stumbled upon the fragments of a beautiful jar that appeared to be of aboriginal handiwork. Further digging uncovered large amounts of decaying oyster shells indicating a possible Indian feasting site.
According to an 1897 New York Times article, “an examination of the deposit revealed split bones, bits of rude pottery, and a number of arrow points of quartz.” Soon skeletons began to emerge from the earth, and with them proof that what was thought to be an Indian burial ground was actually an early colonial cemetery.
How the arrowheads made their way into the graves is anyone’s guess. Paging Indiana Jones.
Slave Burial Grounds (211th near 10th Ave)
In March of 1903 construction workers digging near what is now 212th Street and 10th Avenue made a gruesome, yet bizarre, discovery. News accounts from the time describe about a dozen giant human skeletons, many buried upright in the earth. Workers said the heads of the skeletons were buried three feet beneath the surface. Some of the skeletons measured seven feet in length.
According to a New York Times article, “An old cannon ball was found in or near one of the strange graves. Each body rested beneath an uncut stone set endwise. Many similar stones near by as yet undisturbed indicate that more bones will be found.”
As you can imagine, theories abounded in Inwood as to the identity of these unknown dead. Some speculated the graves were those of convicts who had been buried alive in chains.
An Inwood old-timer named Walter White, at the time of the discovery, recalled that in his youth it was a well known fact that the Dyckman, Vermilye and Hadly families had once used the little knoll as a burying ground for slaves.
We know for a fact that the Dyckman and Nagle family plots were in the same vicinity.
According to a New York Times article, “Capt. Flood of the Kingsbridge Police Station had directed that the old bones be decently reburied, but nobody has so far deemed it incumbent upon himself to obey and the bones, such as have not been carried off by relic hunters, lie in a confused mass in an old soap box near the scene of the work.“
The Feast of the White Dog
In January of 1895 workers grading the landscape on 209th Street near the Harlem River discovered a series of canine burials. All of the dogs had been buried under a heap of clam and oyster shells as well as many shards of Indian pottery.
Archeologists at the time speculated that since the dogs showed no signs of injury they were more likely the victims of some sort of Indian sacrifice than the remains of someone’s dinner.
Archeologist W.L. Calver, whose turn of the century research in Inwood uncovered countless Indian artifacts, pronounced the canine graves were indeed of Indian origin. Calver said the practice was common among the New York’s Onondaga Indians who themselves called the ceremony the “White Dog Feast.”