Starting sometime in the 1880’s a group of “Weekend Archeologists” began exploring the virgin soil of Inwood, on the northern tip of Manhattan, with pick and shovel.
Often these gentlemen of a Victorian era and dress had no idea what they were looking for. They were however intelligent men, armed with maps, sketches and books, as well as an acute awareness of the area’s historical significance.
Native Americans had once called the area home; the Dutch had in turn had displaced the indigenous peoples, farming the land while leaving behind traces of their settlement; then came the Revolutionary War and its more recent, though long eroded, battle-scars of a conflict that had so greatly affected the region.
They approached their task with great enthusiasm. Acting on tips from local farmers, assisted sometimes by children and often using tools of their own design, these admitted amateurs uncovered archeological treasures that likely would have been lost forever.
The group uncovered Native American burial sites, shell middens, arrowheads, pottery, Hessian huts, cannonballs, military buttons and great piles of broken crockery, the refuse of colonial homesteads.
How lucky these urban adventurers considered themselves. Such digs simply would not have been possible downtown where so many artifacts had been entombed forever beneath layers of pavement, bricks and concrete.
By the turn of the century, their work reached a fever pitch. The subway would soon arrive. The weekend digs would soon become impossible as downtown sprawled ever northward.
Soon everything worth finding would be buried beneath the foundations of modern Inwood.
The below essay, housed in the New York Historical Society archives, describes the work of these devoted amateurs to whom history owes a such a great debt.
Historical Explorations in New York
By: Reginald Pelham Bolton
May 23, 1923
“Public interest has been attracted by the recent spectacular discovery in Egypt, to the subject of historical explorations, America too has a history, but many people are unaware of the fact that for a quarter century of a century past members of the New York Historical Society, which is one of our oldest organizations, have been pursuing systematic investigations into old sites, Indian and Colonial, and have searched the battlefields and the camping grounds of the armies of the Revolution, with results that have added many items to our country’s historical record.
The Society organized some years ago a Committee on Field Exploration, assigning to it much of its members as were actively engaged in this work. Working in groups these enthusiastic archeologists have scoured the surface of the city wherever unoccupied land permitted, and have dug deep into the ground, exploring the buried remains of buildings, the refuse of old households, and the debris of the camps. This work requires patience and well as muscle. Much of the soil must be sifted after it is raised, a process that can be recommended to those suffering from rheumatism, gout, lumbago and liver complaints.
The method of discovery is by the use of old maps and historical books locating some old site approximately, then by searching the surface for indications of human occupation, and by prodding the soil with a light steel rod, known as a “sounder,” we attain a considerable degree of expertness in deciding the character of objects below the sod, then the shovel is brought into play exposing the buried layer or deposit, and in the sifter even such small objects are caught as buttons, nails and pins. Yet pins tell quite a story, for their age can be decided from the way the heads are made, old nails fix the date of a building, and buttons are quite important for those of a military character have numbers on their faces and thus locate American or British regiments on the site.
It is a pleasant experience that these excavations attract the attention of many people, not only grown ups but youngsters, and thus many a story of history can be told to our visitors. Of course the boys are all convinced we are hunting for Captain Kidd’s treasures. “What are you looking for”?, is their usual enquiry, “worms or gold”?, and its hard to get them to believe we derive no profit, nor do we sell what we find but place it in museums. One rather scornful youth enquired— “What do you think you are looking for”?— a heart searching query.
One interesting line of work consists in measuring old sites, forts and buildings and making maps or drawings of them. This requires a little knowledge of surveying or engineering, but its results are important. And of course, some of the workers must keep the notes of every incident and discovery, and write up the subject for publication by the Society or the newspapers. The too, the photographer must get busy and his pictures must be such as will clearly show the scene, whether it be an Indian skeleton lying in his grave, or a ruined building, a pile of cannon balls, or a lot of broken pots and pans, or a silver coin.
One of our party is a born joker, and he made a sly snapshot of me while we were digging out a skeleton when I happened to be eating a sandwich, while holding the deceased’s leg bone in the other hand. Then he had a stereopticon slide made of the scene and slipped it in among my pictures when I was giving a lecture. You may imagine how I felt when I was shown up as a Cannibal before my audience.
Even the kiddies will sit on the edge of the diggings and watch the work, shouting when a big worm is dislodged or a seven-year beetle comes to light. And when they get to know what a bullet or a piece of chinaware means, how quick their sharp eyes are to see it in the dirt.
Last summer we were working in old Fort Washington where many cannon balls, shells and bullets came out as we dug, and with them much broken china and porcelain, beautiful old bowls and plates and cups which we patch together during the winter. I could tell you a whole story on that subject alone, but not tonight.
In that place we found nearly a thousand buttons of many different regiments that that had been quartered in the Fort during the Revolution, and learned a great deal from them.
Up the Hudson River around West Point there were many places occupied by troops, and by searching for their camps we have been rewarded by finding American regimental buttons and badges, and have been able to decide which of the States sent troops to its defense.
In other old forts as far away even as Ticonderoga, our experience has aided other explorers to locate the rubbish pits of garrisons, and to trace the outlines of the old works and barracks. Sometimes, as last fall at White Plains, a farmer will dig up some bones, and is unable to tell what kind of human being they once supported. We went to that place and by careful sifting of the soil of the grave, we found buttons showing that five soldiers and one officer of the Massachusetts regiments, one British soldier and one Tory had all been buried in one grave. By comparing the buttons we were able to decide the engagement in which they fell in 1780 and the day on which their burial took place.
The objects we find have to be cleaned and compared, and are then placed in various museums for exhibitions.
So when you visit New York City, you will find many such interesting objects in the New York Historical Society’s buildings, the Washington’s Headquarters or Jumel Mansion, and in the Dyckman farmhouse and Van Cortlandt Mansion.
And perhaps some day in your own neighborhood you will see us or other explorers at work, delving with steel rod or shovel into the soil after Indian or Colonial or other remains of the past history of your own home land. Step the, look, and listen, for you will surely gain something of interest and added information from these men, who work for the love of the work, and those whose labor is adding to the sum of human knowledge, and whose discovered treasures are not for their own enrichment but for the benefit of all peoples.
Like the radio, they carry a message to all nations, and it is a message of devotion and common interest, which is helping to bring the diverse peoples of the earth nearer together in a better understanding of each other. “
Reginald Pelham Bolton
May 23, 1923
A portion of Reginald Bolton’s collection can be seen today at the Dyckman Farmhouse and Museum on 204th Street and Broadway. Click on the link for hours and other information.