In the winter of 1926 Inwood historian and local archeologist Reginald Pelham Bolton began work on a curious and eclectic exercise, the creation of an Indian reservation in Inwood Hill Park. Bolton’s vision was not to be a true reservation, but rather a recreation of what a Native American encampment might have looked like.
“The Indian Life Reservation,” as Bolton called the site, would provide a tranquil environment where New Yorkers, especially children, could learn about the people who lived in the park hundreds of years before the settlement of Manhattan by the Dutch.
“The Indian Life Reservation” was to be staffed by actual Native Americans, though from different tribes, continents and backgrounds. These “actors” would play out the lives of the original Lenape inhabitants for all to see. While on duty the staff would dress, perform pow-wows and even pretend to live the lives of Inwood’s long forgotten aboriginal peoples.
While today the political correctness of such a facility would likely be the subject heated debate, New Yorkers at the time saw no problem with Bolton’s vision. Turn of the century New Yorkers had watched with curiosity and admiration for decades as Bolton and a team of intrepid volunteers combed the local soil for Native American remains, tools and shell middens.
And so it was, nearly a century ago, under the auspices of the Dyckman Institute, that Bolton began work on what is now just a footnote in New York history.
Later, Bolton would write, “The then Park Commissioner, the Hon. Francis D. Gallatin, welcomed the offer, and appointed the Institute honorary curators of an interesting tract of about 20 acres, which included the historic evidences of aboriginal life. This he designated the “Indian Life Reservation,” and included therein the Great Tree, the little cottage nearby, and the buildings which house the Inwood Pottery.” (Inwood Hill Park on the Island of Manhattan, Reginald Pelham Bolton, 1932).
Bolton described the backbreaking work necessary to prepare the site “then littered with tons of waste materials, bricks, timber, iron-work, broken glass, ash cans, furniture, parts of automobiles and boats, and bedsprings.”
“Under the direction of the Institute a gang of men dug deep holes in the soft ground in out-of-the-way places and buried these unsightly materials and objects,” Bolton wrote.
For a visitor’s center, Bolton and the Dyckman Institute set up shop in a 120 year old cottage located near the old tulip tree today marked by a large boulder marked with a plaque describing the site. “When acquired by the city,” Bolton wrote, the cabin “was in a semi-ruinous condition, uninhabitable, and surrounded with a wild tangle of weeds.”
After considerable renovations, Bolton described the improvements. “The cottage now provides a public room and a spacious porch that can be utilized as a shelter by visitors. In the public room there is a small library of books of reference, and some cases in which are exhibited objects illustrating aboriginal life found in the park, such as stone implements, flaked points, and many fragments of native pottery. There is also an exhibit of the pottery made by Aimee Voorhees at the Inwood Pottery, developed by that talented artist from Indian designs and forms.”
“Near the cottage,” Bolton continued, “there is a model of a native Bark Hut, made in cement by Emilio Diaz, chief of the Chibcha Indians of Colombia, whose craftsmanship will be seen in the well-casing and the rock pools in the vicinity of the Cottage.”
Fred Tarzian, who was born in 1917, described the tranquility of the park and the staff of the Dyckman Institute as an oasis from his impoverished home life on 207th and Seaman. Among his favorite haunts was the old cottage where he spent many an afternoon reading novels in the Institute’s library.
“In the wintertime I loved to go down there in my snowshoes, take my shoes off and put my feet up on the potbellied stove and read books from their early American library.” Tarzian told oral historian Sanford Gaster. “They had a lot of James Fennimore Cooper books which I read and the people who lived there were a Cherokee Indian Princess” named Naomi who lived there with her son; a professional boxer named Billy Kennedy. (Public Places of Childhood, Sanford Gaster, 1995).
“Sometimes in the late evening when he got home he would put a punching bag out on the trees and he would practice punching the bag.”
And the cottage?
“Well,” said Tarzian, “all you had to do was just walk into the park. And you couldn’t miss it. There was a spring nearby. We would always go down and fill up our cider jugs with water and take it home and everybody that visited us would love to drink from the sparkling clean water. The spring had fixed above it what looked like a tree trunk, and there was another Indian that lived there, he was from Colombia, his name was Emilio Diaz. He was like a worker in the park. In the fall, on Sundays, he would have me clean the paths of fallen leaves and I would earn fifty cents. He would build what looked like tree trunks in the park, but on one side there would be a large hole. This was for garbage disposal, and he would burn the garbage in there. And he made them out of chicken wire and he would plaster and he would stain it a nice brown so it would look like a tree trunk.”
A lifetime later, Fred Tarzian still had fond memories of the Indian Life Reservation and the refuge it provided for him and other depression era children.
“I really enjoyed visiting these Indians. All my friends, in fact, considered them to be my relatives, and whenever I would go down to visit them; they would say ‘you’re going down to visit your aunt and uncle.’ I loved them. They were very nice to me, they were humanistic type people. If you know anything about American Indians, you know they were very humanistic.”
The opening day celebration, May 8, 1926, was, according to oral historian Sanford Gaster, “as much a celebration of the ‘Indian’ as it was of the park, and, far more than was the case with any other park opening in Inwood, children were addressed specifically as beneficiaries of the new facility. Filling the park that day were not only the usual gathering of city officials and local boosters, but Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Campfire girls; the press estimated that of the thousand spectators present ‘the majority were children, attracted no doubt by the announcement that Indians would be present.”
“Bolton, who ran the day’s program, declared that it was fortunate that so many children were present, since the restoration of the ancient village of the first inhabitants of Manhattan Island was designed, among other things, to show that the American Indian ‘was not always brandishing his tomahawk and twanging his bow and arrow, but that he followed the peaceful pursuits and was of a generous and loyal disposition.”
And with that we turn to a newspaper account on the Indian Life Reservation dated January 21st, 1926.
Indian Life Reservation
New York Sun
January 21, 1926
City to Have an Indian Village
Building Plans call for Birch Bark Construction in Inwood Park
A village of birch bark through the paths of which Indians will walk as they walked three hundred years ago and more is to be set down within the boundaries of modernity which is Manhattan; watch fires will burn as they burned before the coming of the white man under the shadow of Inwood Hill; moccasins will wear new paths whence ancient ones have vanished.
New York, in other words, is to have an Indian reservation—a re-creation of aboriginal life more complete and more exact than can be found elsewhere in the United States. Plans for it have been formulated by Reginald Pelham Bolton, consulting engineer and antiquarian, with the cooperation of Francis D. Gallatin, Park Commissioner.
A reproduction of the village of the Unami tribe of the Delaware, who lived in New York between Dyckman street and Spuyten Duyvil and claimed sway as far south as Thirty-fourth, will, under the plan, be constructed in what is known as “Cold Spring Hollow,” which fifty years ago was a tract south of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek and alongside Inwood hill. The center of the village is to be at approximately what would be the intersection of 215th street and Thirteenth avenue.
Under the plans of Mr. Bolton, whose excavations on the proposed site of the new village and the established site of the old have proved the existence of this probably earliest of New York settlements, a group of Indians—Delawares or Algonquins—will be hired to live in the village and to guide tourists through it.
Will Have Modern Improvements
These later Algonquins, however, will not be asked to live under the amazingly arduous circumstances which prevailed in other days. They will be given a modern cottage and modern food, both at sufficient distance to avoid any modernizing of the village itself. But during the periods when visitors are expected they will be clad precisely as their ancestors were, and will sharpen their stone weapons and perhaps cast their fishing nets as was done in other days.
The village under expert guidance will be reconstructed to accord in every detail with that in which lived the “Wick-quas-keek” (men of the birch bark country). The huts, with their half cylindrical roofs of bark, will offer the same sort of shelter the Dutch found so many years ago. The rock shelters will be completed with the same skin and birch bark curtains, and the fires will burn in them on the spots where the marks made hundreds of years ago show that they then were built.
The “Indian life reservation” will be near the center of Inwood Hill Park, title to which was acquired less than a year ago by the city. Condemnation proceedings are now being pressed.
On the site of the proposed village, the Unami tribe, under the leadership of Chief Ranachatun, was securely ensconced when the Dutch came. For years they camped beside trade routes and traded—or camped beside trade routes and robbed, depending upon their moods. They were the first of the New York bandits.
Near them on the Spuyten Duyvil there was a ford—the “wading place.” It also was called “paparinemin” or “place of a false start,” because the peculiar formation of the creek and the Harlem River led to a duplication of tides, one arriving somewhat behind the other and giving the point four tides a day. Through this ford all the trade routes went, one branching then north to Dobbs Ferry—where the chief sachem of the nation dwelt—another east to Pelham and a third south into the Bronx.
Had an Oyster Bar
The tribe conducted, it is thought, the first oyster bar, selling oysters, of which they gathered in great profusion, to other tribes which had better hunting. Hunting, even in those days, was not as good on Manhattan Island as it had been. There were not even bulls and bears. But there were many fish, including sturgeon, and oysters for whoever would gather.
The remains of oyster feasts can still be found in “shell pits,” where the Indians were wont to throw shells, used safety razor blades and whatnot.
The Indians lived largely upon beans and corn, besides their shellfish. These modern representatives will be given a more varied diet. They shaved their heads, so that only a ridge of upstanding hair ran from forehead to neck, thereby giving themselves a most startlingly ferocious aspect. They dressed in skins, and their costumes will be copied in the new village.
Mr. Bolton, who is a member of the New York Historical Society, the Museum of Natural History, the City Historical Club and many similar organizations, and the author of several books, has been excavating in the vicinity for more than fifteen years, finding skeletons, cooking vessels and other traces of this vanished village, in which lived the first families of New York before the tribe moved out under pressure of the Dutch in 1715.
An automobile park for the benefit off visitors is planned on 207th street. So modernity will be served.