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Five things you probably didn't know about Manhattan's secret graveyards

An elementary school in Inwood sits on top of a forgotten burial ground.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

In 1903, New York City workers discovered the graves of enslaved African Americans in an area of Inwood, where P.S. 98 Shorac Kappock elementary school currently stands.

The workers had been digging up material for 10th Avenue at 212th Street, when they hit grave markers and human skeletons that were buried in an upright position, according to a New York Times article from that year. It turned out that the 36 sets of remains belonged to African Americans who were enslaved by colonial landowners during the 1600s and 1700s. Since the burial ground was close to a colonial cemetery where the Dyckmans and other early settlers were buried, it was thought to be an extension of that.

Preservationists unearthed these remains, but a newspaper photo from the time showed a pile of bones at the site. 

It's unknown exactly where these remains are today and the former burial ground is now a parking lot at the school. Unfortunately, this is not a unique story in New York City. There's a dark history, especially in Manhattan, of removing anything in the way of its expansion northward, and this Halloween, the New York Adventure Club is bringing NYC's forgotten and hidden burial grounds and graves to light with a talk by Don Rice, an author, local historian, and the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum Alliance Board president.

While there are many burial grounds that have been discovered, and likely more to come, Rice will touch on five in northern Manhattan. We spoke to Rice ahead of his talk and learned these five secrets about the borough's old burial grounds:

1. Many of these cemeteries were in Inwood and Washington Heights

New York City only started to build infrastructure in this area around 1900. The streets were being graded, leveled and filled, which is when they would find these graveyards. Before that, the area was mainly farms and natural land, Rice says. It was usual to bury the dead outside of city limits and for families to have their own private cemeteries.

213th Street Nagel Cemetery NYC

2. They contained the Lenape people, enslaved and freed African Americans and Dutch colonials

At the intersection of Dyckman Street and Sherman Avenue, there's a cemetery of old colonial graves.

Further north, a large colonial burial ground was unearthed east of 10th Avenue at 212th Street. This is where the Dyckman family, whose farmhouse still stands at 204th and Broadway as a museum, buried its dead. 

Along Fort Washington Avenue, there was a burial ground for soldiers who died during the American Revolution, most likely during the Battle of Fort Washington on November 16, 1776.

One of the oldest burial grounds dates back to the Lenape, the Native American civilization who lived here before the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609. The remains of at least eight Lenape people were found next to Seaman Avenue near 204th Street.

3. They were moved as the city stretched northward

In the case of northern Manhattan, almost all of the old cemeteries unearthed were dismantled casually, without much thought, according to Rice. Old bones were considered an obstacle to progress.

The remains that were reburied had to go through red tape and it was done at a cost to the city. If remains weren't reinterred, they were taken by institutions, personal collections or were lost to "oblivion," Rice says.  

4. There's a reason these grounds were forgotten

As families and their descendants moved away, there was no one left to claim remains. 

"A couple of generations is all it takes to forget," Rice says. "With city changes coming fast, you can imagine that people have moved away and the land is owned by new people."

Plus, there were no places of worship attached to these burial grounds, so there weren't any groups to advocate for the gravesites.

Inwood burial grounds map
Photograph: Courtesy of American Geographical Society Library

5. They're gone, but they can still be remembered

While remains pretty much no longer exist at these locations, officials and institutions have been calling on the city to place plaques and signs to commemorate them.  

In 2018, State Senator Marisol Alcántara, along with the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, cultural resource professionals, Community Board 12, and local Inwood residents committed to work with the city to push for the installation of a plaque over the slave burial ground where the school sits, according to NY1.

“It is important to tell history in the most accurate way possible," said State Senator Marisol Alcántara. "While we know that slavery was a dreadful, inhumane, and despicable system in our nation’s history, we cannot shy away from telling the truth. Local historians and residents of Inwood have for decades spoken of this slave burial ground, but government has never taken action to honor and formally memorialize the lives of those who worked the lands of Upper Manhattan while in bondage. It is time that this story is told and the remains of these former slaves be given the honor that they deserve." 

Rice says he'd love to see this happen to keep these grounds, and those buried there, in the public consciousness. The Dyckman Farmhouse, with help from a grant, is working to educate visitors about the enslaved people of Northern Manhattan. A lot of people don't realize New York City allowed slavery (until the 1820s) and those slaves helped build the original roads and infrastructure.

"I would like to see us remember that," Rice said. "A talk like this is never an easy talk to give. For some reason around Halloween, people are receptive to talking about death. Somehow on a visceral level, we can deal and think about it in a way that's not quite so ghoulish. In the right context, we can use these conversations to try to connect with the people who lived here before us." 

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