On the northern tip of Manhattan, a twenty-minute walk from the subway, is an historical site so rare and unexpected that it warrants a detour on any tourist’s itinerary.
The majestic “Indian caves” of Inwood Hill Park were once used as a seasonal camp by the Lenape people who lived in the region before the arrival of explorer Henry Hudson in 1609.
The caves, created by the tumbling of rocks during a glacial retreat more than 30,000 years ago, are a picturesque reminder of the Native people who once lived on Manhattan Isle.
The modern history of the caves began in 1890 when Alexander Crawford Chenoweth came across a curious rock formation not far from his uptown home.
Chenoweth was a respected engineer who designed the Croton Aqueduct and the base for the Statue of Liberty, but on weekends he assumed the role of amateur archeologist.
Over the course of several days, ten years before the turn of the Twentieth Century, Chenoweth carefully explored the curious rock formations he had come across just off a trail in an area of Inwood Hill known as “the Clove.”
There the civil engineer sifted through centuries of accumulated dirt and debris to gain access to the far reaches of the small cave system.
Inside the small chambers he uncovered pottery, axes and other artifacts used in daily life by the Lenape people who used the area as a seasonal camp.
Chenoweth’s 1890 exploration of the caves was carefully documented by the New York Sun.
“Mr. Chenoweth dug away the dirt until he found an easy entrance to a chamber in which a man in stooping posture might crawl about with some difficulty. The chamber was dry, and the dirt on the floor was soft. Mr. Chenoweth began turning it through with his trowel. Many pieces of pottery, some as large as a man’s hand, a few as large as a man’s two hands, lay in little pockets of the sediment. After six hours of digging Mr. Chenoweth had all the fragments of six pots of curious forms and unique manufacture. As he pushed ahead the next day he found a dark exit from the first chamber to a second one. The exit was a hole in the rocks; half filled with dirt, and altogether so small that before being cleaned a man would have to crawl through it. With a torch Mr. Chenoweth discovered that the second chamber was about eight feet square by five feet high… The comparative regularity of the walls of the second chamber, its considerable size, and its difficulty of access led him to believe that it was the main room of a cavernous retreat.
In the meantime, he has been cleaning out the first chamber. The removal of the dirt has left it a rough room about 4 ½ feet high and 6 feet square. On the rocks at the beginning of the passage to the second chamber, and down below the level of the original layer of dirt, Mr. Chenoweth found evidence of repeated burning of hot fires. On the floor of the chamber at the foot of the burned rock, he came upon rude hearthstones, a dozen or more pieces of deer’s antlers, some eight or ten inches long, and all burned, several big sturgeon scales yellow with age and scorched, and scores of bones of many other animals that Mr. Chenoweth has been unable to identify from the scanty and burned remains. Above the burned rock and bones there is a crevice in the rocks that apparently served as a chimney for the inhabitants of the cave.
Among the many implements found by Mr. Chenoweth near the entrance of the interior passage, the most curious is probably a knife with a flint blade and a bone handle… The knife was complete when Mr. Chenoweth uncovered it. As he raised it the flint blade dropped from the hollow end of the antler bone in which it was fitted.
Near the knife Mr. Chenoweth uncovered a flat oblong piece of polished slate, two by four inches, with three neatly bored holes in it. Near it was half of a similar bit of slate…The gorget found by Mr. Chenoweth is worn away in little corrugations from one side of the middle by some soft substance.
Nearer the outside entrance of the cave lay a flint axe head. It is an indigo blue tinge, beautifully polished, with a fairly thin edge and a well-marked groove… The head is about six inches long and four inches wide. Beside it there was a curious little bit of flint, smooth and polished, sharpened squarely at one end, and rounded at the other.
All the fragments in the cave have been unusually large, and have lain so that the various vessels they once constituted might be quite easily put together… The most carefully marked pot lay just two feet within the outside entrance, under one foot of dirt. It is of dark red clay, and is eighteen inches in diameter at the mouth and two feet high. It is contracted slightly at the rim and flares a little in the middle…near the rim are nine roughly executed rows of indentations, evidently made with a sharp stick. (New York Evening Sun, November 1890)
In the decades that followed Chenoweth’s remarkable discovery other archeologists, including Reginald Bolton, William Calver, Amos Oneroad and Alanson Skinner also explored the site.
There in the natural setting of Inwood Hill these early explorers would also make remarkable discoveries documenting the live of the region’s original inhabitants. Scattered throughout the woods were arrowheads, amulets and even human remains.
Today, as they have for eons, Native Americans return to Inwood Hill for an annual celebration called Drums Along the Hudson.
So, hop on the A train to 207th Street if you’d like to take a trip back in time. You won’t be disappointed.