In March of 1903 workmen in the Inwood section of northern Manhattan made a startling discovery. On a hilltop, near the present intersection of 212th Street and Tenth Avenue, were discovered row after row of skeletons buried beneath crude stone markers.
According to local lore the hill contained an old slave cemetery once maintained by Inwood’s early settlers.
These slave-owning pioneers included the Dyckmans, whose Dutch Colonial farmhouse survives today as a museum on nearby West 204th Street.
“The rows of crude gravestones which marked the burying ground which the extension of Tenth Avenue has unearthed has long been the source of varied conjecture,” wrote a New York Times reporter. “Old men in the neighborhood said that here lay the bones of slaves, and this belief was strengthened by a British picture, which showed a few hundred yards west from the burial place the “huts of the blacks.” (New York Times, April 12, 1903)
“Walter R. White, a contractor at Amsterdam Avenue and Two Hundred and Thirteenth Street, who has lived in the immediate vicinity all his life,” told a reporter, “that it was a well-known fact in his childhood that the knoll was an old burying ground for the slaves of the old Dyckman, Vermilye, and Hadley families, whose estates were thereabout, and who themselves are buried in a little historic cemetery close at hand. “ (New York Times, April 12, 1903)
“The crude monuments to these graves recall the custom prevalent in this city in slavery times of burying slaves with little if any ceremony,” the 1903 Times writer continued.
“The dread of ‘an uprising of blacks’ in 1722 prompted an act providing that all negroes and blacks be buried by daylight. The act was amended afterward so that not more than twelve negroes should attend a funeral. The penalty for the violation of this statute was a public flogging. Furthermore, the slave was to be buried without any outward signs of grief or any ceremonial tokens, such as a pall, gloves or flowers.” (New York Times, April 12, 1903)
Slavery was abolished in New York in 1827.
While today the discovery would have been treated as one remarkable historic importance, contractors busy grading this new extension of Tenth Avenue wasted no time in obliterating all trace of the site.
Amateur archaeologist and local historian William Calver bore witness as the remains were roughly disinterred and provided this account:
“For about a dozen years previous to the grading of 10th Avenue, along its route through upper Manhattan Island we had had our eye on a feature of the ground at 212th Street on the line of the Avenue, for there, amid a cluster of tall pear trees many rude stones, which could hardly be said to be regularly set, projected from the ground. Tradition had it, as we found, that the stones marked slave’s graves.”(William Calver, Recollections of Northern Manhattan, 1932)
Reginald Pelham Bolton, another scholar of northern Manhattan who often accompanied Calver on digs, described thirty-six distinct graves.
“Enough evidence was secured from the hasty disinterments by the contractors’ workmen, to prove they had been buried in coffins, put together with large hand-forged nails,” Bolton wrote. “A child’s skeleton was found, with a little bead necklace, which had been we suppose its cherished treasure.” (Reginald Pelham Bolton, Washington Heights, Manhattan, Its Eventful Past, 1924)
Calver, Bolton and a handful of others were allowed to quickly examine the site before workers were sent back to level the hill.
Ales Hrdlicka, a physical anthropologist with the American Museum of Natural History, who pronounced the skulls to be “purely African”, examined the remains.
“One of the skulls we photographed, and many other skulls were photographed-en masse,” Bolton continued. “As indicated by the presence of nails in the grave, the bodies had been interred in wooden boxes while the presence of brass pins and the green stains thereof upon the skulls indicated that shrouds had been used. Aside from the nails and the pins the only other metallic object recovered was a brass brooch set off with brass and blue glass beads.”
“The remains of these humble workers of the past,” Bolton pondered, “remind 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 than 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 which followed, and the tide of which has overwhelmed and swept away nearly all traces of the old Nagle farm.” (Reginald Pelham Bolton, Washington Heights, Manhattan, Its Eventful Past, 1924)
And while the bones of the settlers buried in the nearby Dyckman-Nagle Cemetery were reinterred in other cemeteries, the remains of their slaves suffered a final indignity.
“Capt. Flood of the Kingsbridge Police Station,” the Times reported, “ 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.” (New York Times, April 12, 1903)
Today an auto parts store and public school occupy the site where the remains of Inwood’s slave population were once buried, during the daylight hours, centuries ago.