Relic Hunting in Northern Manhattan

Reginald Pelham Bolton (left) and William Calver (right) in undated photo shot in Northern Manhattan.

I chanced to visit an old inn near Fort George some years ago and I noticed a human skull that the proprietor kept among the bottles above his bar.  The man told me he had unearthed it, together with several swords and cannon balls, in his yard.  I offered to buy it, not caring much to see such a relic condemned to a saloon keeper’s shelf, but he angrily refused.  He growled that he wouldn’t sell a dead man’s remains if he should starve else.  I finally bought the weapons and he gave me the skull.”
-Reginald Pelham Bolton, 1904

Much of what we know today about the history and pre-history of Inwood and Washington Heights is due largely to the turn of the century work of amateur historians, self taught archaeologists and close friends William Calver and Reginald Bolton.

Starting in the 1880’s Bolton and Calver began exploring northern Manhattan with picks and shovels, chronicling their discoveries along the way.

William Calver digging in shell midden.

Together, the two Victorian gentlemen, dressed in starched collars and neckties, followed subway digs, street grading projects and apartment building construction.  They were keenly interested in the relics often uncovered by the earth moving equipment and followed the work crews and elevated subway tracks that snaked ever northward through Washington Heights and Inwood.

Throughout the region they uncovered the remains of Native Americans, early Dutch settlers, Revolutionary soldiers and even slaves.  They also discovered ancient pottery, cannonballs and sometimes jewelry from another era.

Along the way, these two ordinary men, Calver worked for the IRT and Bolton was an engineer, became pioneers in the science of urban archeology.

On weekends, Botlon, Calver and a great cast of like-minded friends and amateur sleuths combed the hills, caves and construction projects of northern Manhattan before they were forever sealed under a vast carpet of brick and concrete.

Reginald Bolton seated in pit and William Calver to far right.

Families and children, picnic baskets in hand, often joined the diggers—sometimes witnessing gruesome discoveries.

While some criticized these amateur archeologists for their lack of formal training, their finds might have remained buried forever if not for their absolute devotion to the history of the region.

A blur of activity on Seaman Avenue.

Their love of the hunt is evident in the below poem found in the personal effects of William Calver, now housed in the archives of the New York Historical Society.

Poem discovered in the personal effects of the late William Calver.

The below article, published in 1904, describes the intrepid adventures of these “Godfathers” of Inwood history as they race to beat the developers.

New York Herald, August 4, 1904.

Relic Hunting in Northern Manhattan
New York Herald
August 4, 1904

New York Herald, August 4, 1904.

Pick and shovel within the boundaries of the city of New York suggest to you, the metropolitan resident of today, only commonplace apartment construction or the search for a refractory gas main; but it is entirely probable that the burrowing laborer is some antiquarian in search of the buried wealth of old New York.  A halo of romance and historic possibility surrounds the wielding of a spade and attends the removal of each handful of soil in certain parts of this wholly modernized Island of Manhattan.

Side by side with the plebeian digger of trenches the amateur investigator is at work.  Just ahead of the urban advance toward the northern limit of Harlem prowls the relic hunter.  He knows the ground to be rich in curious and valuable objects of historic interest, and he seeks to snatch them from their hiding places before the trampling foot of the gigantic city shall have made their recovery impossible.

Persons interested in historic research have come to regard the Washington Heights and Inwood district of New York as one of the most prolific sources of Indian, Colonial and Revolutionary relics in the country.

Affording excellent camping and fishing facilities for the aborigine tribes, the upper end of the island was long occupied by them.  Layers of shells, interspersed with weapons and implements, comparable to the “kitchen midden” heaps left by primeval European peoples, have been found, indicating the presence of large villages during many centuries.   Skeletons, pottery, pipes and ceremonial stones have been uncovered as well as hundreds of objects appertaining to domestic life and tribal customs that are of the greatest value to the historian.

During the Dutch occupation several houses were erected by squatters in this section, which were burned or destroyed before or at the time of the Revolutionary struggle.  Among the ruins of these homes have been found ornaments and utensils of iron, bone, brass, copper, pewter and gold, with parts of rare old china, glassware and handsome tiles.

New York Herald, August 4, 1904. (click on photo to enlarge)
New York Herald, August 4, 1904. (click on photo to enlarge)

Buttons, Bayonets and Skeletons

Most rich in diversity and in number are the discoveries belonging to the Revolutionary era, consisting chiefly of military paraphernalia and accoutrements. These include cannon, musket and pistol balls, swords, bayonets, camp debris, buttons, buckles, pipes, knives and the skeletons of British, Hessian and American troops.

Bolton and Calver at work in sketch from the New York Herald, August 4, 1904. (click on photo to enlarge)
Bolton and Calver at work in sketch from the New York Herald, August 4, 1904. (click on photo to enlarge)

Reginald P. Bolton, of No. 638 West 158th street, and W.L. Calver, of No. 1,188 Hewitt place, the Bronx, are the leaders of the day excavators.  During the last ten years these gentlemen have patiently, if amateurishly, raked the soil, and the result is a collection that would amply stock a large museum.

Mr. Bolton tells an interesting story of the way in which his attention was first directed to the possibilities of excavation in his neighborhood.

“I chanced to visit an old inn near Fort George some years ago,” he said, “and I noticed a human skull that the proprietor kept among the bottles above his bar.  The man told me he had unearthed it, together with several swords and cannon balls, in his yard.  I offered to buy it, not caring much to see such a relic condemned to a saloon keeper’s shelf, but he angrily refused.  He growled that he wouldn’t sell a dead man’s remains if he should starve else.  I finally bought the weapons and he gave me the skull.”

Awake to the significance of this incident, Mr. Bolton began a systematic search for buried historic treasure through the section from 150th street to Spuyten Duyvil Creek and between the Hudson and Harlem rivers.

Under the slope of Inwood Hill, which rises near the head of Manhattan, lies a plot of ground that has yielded a wealth of Indian material.  The cutting through of Seaman avenue some months ago brought to light a deep stratum of relics imbedded among the ashes of a thousand campfires.  Polished tomahawks of granite lay among delicately chipped arrowheads of flint and quartz.  A soapstone pipe, beautifully carved with the design of a human face, was found among wooden hoes and corn planters.  Near the skeleton of a dog lay several pieces of pottery, an amulet and a sacrificial stone, buried with solemn thanksgiving at the conclusion of some successful hunting expedition, when, it is entirely probable, a fat buck had been run down in the grove that is now Central Park.  Near this was found a banner stone, carried as an ensign in religious processions and regarded as a great rarity by modern collectors.  Scattered through the stratum were thousands of oyster shells.

In regard to the shells there arises an interesting point.  Among the piles of Colonial debris oyster shells are always found to be much larger than those of the Indian heaps.   This curious difference is laid to the superior fishing outfits of the Dutch, which enabled them to fish further from shore and capture the larger bivalves. Again, the site of Hessian camps is invariably marked by numbers of mussel shells, the Germans being the only ones who would eat those mollusks.  These details, seemingly trivial, have been of value in identifying localities.

Best of all the Indian discoveries was one made a short time ago by Mr. Calver.  In 181st street, just below the level of the soil and partly protruding from the bank of a cutting, was an earthenware jar, more than a foot in height, the largest and most perfectly preserved object of the kind ever found on the Atlantic coast.  Its graceful contour marks it a fine example of the potter’s art.

Relics of New Amsterdam, with their intimate suggestions of our civic predecessors, take a deeper and more personal hold on the imagination of the discoverer.  From among the ruins of dwellings once occupied by the Dyckman and Nagle families have come picturesque hand forged kettles and the hooks and chains from which they hung above the hearth.  Well-preserved knives and forks have been brought to light and fishhooks and farming implements that have lain in the ground these two centuries.

Panes of leaded glass have turned up from the investigator’s spade.  Made in far Holland they were, and through them used to peer the sturdy faces of the burgher colonists. Hinges and braces of heavy shutters that swung before windows lay near by, reminders of the days when a man looked well to his residential defenses.

Near the banks of the Harlem a cresset was discovered, an iron frame that the pioneer was wont to fill with blazing tow when he bethought him of the joys of midnight fishing.

Idly watching a relic seeker near one of these ruined foundations of New Amsterdam some months ago, a young woman was moved to emulate his more laborious manipulation of a hoe with the point of her umbrella.  In a few minutes she has uncovered a finely painted Delft brooch.  Its preservation was perfect save for the setting and she is wearing it today.

New York Herald, August 4, 1904.

Fort Washington and the desperate all-day battle on October 27, 1776, that ended in its surrender to the British were rescued from oblivion by the discoveries and painstaking researches of these relic hunters.  The very existence of the fort had been forgotten and American chroniclers had either omitted the engagement altogether or confused it with the battle of Harlem Heights until several of the amateur pick swingers became interested and rewrote a chapter of our local history.  The movement they set on foot culminated in the erection of a magnificent tablet to the gallant 3,000 who held Fort Washington against 17,000 British and Hessians, with sea and land forces, for many hours before they were forced to yield.

Mapping minutely as they went, these investigators have reconstructed not only this campaign but also a considerable part of the British military movements during their occupation of Manhattan.  Examination of the regimental buttons and buckles found among the debris of camps showed them the disposition of the divisions of the forces.  Skeletons and scattered arms indicated skirmishes.  Fortifications, redoubts, batteries, sentry lines, camps and outposts have been traced and recorded.

Bullets for Dice

Connected with the life of the redcoats and Hessians in the camps and improvised barracks a number of rare relics have come to light.  Among the strewn litter of broken case bottles lay several sets of leaden bullets pounded square and marked for dice—to be set rattling against men’s pocketbooks instead of their ribs. Other bullets laboriously roughened and furrowed with a nail for the purpose of inflicting a more dangerous wound serve as a sharp contrast to the foregoing.

Clay pipes, scissors, pocket knives, Hessian pikes, bayonets that had been used for pokers and wood splinters, hand made pins, gun flints and musket locks were unearthed wherever the soldiers camped.

One of the commonest finds in these localities is the rusted frame of a jew’s-harp, giving rise to alluring if obvious reflections anent the tunes that once twanged from its mouldering jaws.  Perhaps, by the roaring fire some winter night, a violent partisan of the Georges entertained his mates with “The Vicar of Bray” through this bit of iron; or a stalwart Scot rendered “Auld King Coul” to the shouting accompaniment of the grenadiers. Yet again it may have sounded a song still sung by the hearths of Hesse Cassel.  It is no far-fetched conceit to say that some musical patriot made it voice “Yankee Doodle” after its owner discarded it on his final hasty flight to the Battery.

Regimental buttons form perhaps the most fascinating part of the military discoveries.  Diversity of size and design admit of the enthusiastic study of the hobbyist, and without descending below the class of an extreme rarity that they are found in quantities large enough to warrant several collections and the development of a button connoisseur.

One interesting result of the assemblage and identification of these buttons has been the revival of a point that is generally overlooked—the presence of many famous British regiments in Manhattan during the war.  Few persons know that the Forty-second, or Royal Highland regiment, world famous as the Black Watch, was encamped within the present city limits; but buttons they lost or discarded have shown such to have been a fact.   Here were also the Twenty-seventh Light Dragoons, now the Prince of Wales’ Hussars, better known as the “Death or Glory Boys,” the Thirty-third Infantry, The Royal Welsh Fusileers, and the Royal Artillery.  The Coldstream Guards and the Seventy-first Highlanders are other well-known regiments that were found to have camped in Harlem during part of the seven years’ occupation. Compilers of the history of British uniforms have received indispensable aid from the Washington Heights excavators.  Many of these buttons cannot be found outside of the local collections.

Victim of a Bar Shot

Military Relics Found Near Fort Washington, New York Herald, August 4, 1904.

Bar shot fired from British frigates during the battle of Fort Washington are occasionally unearthed on the banks of the Hudson.  It was customary to fill the space between the heads of the shot with long, heavy spikes, loosely tied with marlin (twine).  When the savage missile was discharged the spikes broke free and were set whirling in all directions.  A grim relic has recently come to light that strikingly illustrates the effectiveness of the loaded bar shot.

In a field under the bold rise of the forest was found a thigh bone, presumably that of a Continental soldier, one of the valiant three thousand.  Projecting from the bone and thoroughly imbedded in it was one of these iron spikes.  Although the impact that drove it there must have been terrific, the spike had not shattered the bone and the edges of the hole were smooth and level.  Marks of a saw showed that the leg had been amputated.

From time to time questions as to the final disposition of their valuable collection have been asked of the Washington Heights discoverers.  So far they have given nothing to the State Historical Society, although they frequently exhibit, a fine collection being now on view at the Jumel Mansion, Edgecombe road and 163rd street.

There is a final detail in regard to the excavations that is worthy of note. Quantities of skeletons and parts of skeletons have come into the possession of the collectors.  These belong to every era of the American history and include even the bones dug from a long forgotten slave cemetery.  All of these remains are being carefully preserved. It is planned to inter them all beneath a suitable memorial, mingled as they are, friend and foe, freeman and thrall (slave).   The stone is to be dedicated to Indian, Hollander, Britisher, Hessian, Continental and negro—all who had a hand, however feeble, in shaping the destinies of the city of New York.

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