A great deal of what we know of New York’s archeological record, especially of Revolutionary New York, can be traced to the work of amateur archaeologist, William L. Calver, and his cohort in the New-York Historical Society’s Field Exploration Committee. Along with a series of Committee reports, Calver was a regular contributor of his findings to the New-York Historical Society Quarterly.
In 1948, eight years after his death, and sixteen after he completed the original draft, the Quarterly published his “Recollections of Northern Manhattan.” Parts of the article are excerpted here, with new illustration, in a new series highlighting the content that appeared in the Quarterly from 1917 until 1980. The run is freely available via N-YHS’ Shelby White & Leon Levy Digital Library.
RECOLLECTIONS OF NORTHERN MANHATTAN
by William L. Calver
New York Historical Society Quarterly, January 1948
The name of “Inwood,” suggesting the ultra-rural character of the area, was bestowed upon it in the 1860’s by a venerable clerk of one of our courts—so he told us himself—to encourage its settlement by nature-lovers, though as the City expanded the appellation became anathema to the promoters of real estate. Prior to that, the area bordering the present Dyckman Street was called “Tubby Hook,” while in Revolutionary days all of the northern end of the Island was known as “Kingsbridge”— a name now confined to the settlement contiguous to the old bridge on its northerly side. The name “Dyckman Street” appears to be of recent origin, for three-score years ago the name “Inwood Street” applied to it, while in remoter days it was referred to as the “Tubby Hook Landing Road.” Old-timers will recall that the appendix “Landing” went with Hudson River shore-village appellations as a relic of pre-railroad days when river traffic cut the big figure.
In the days of our earlier scoutings about Inwood there stood by the roadway two of the ancient milestones; these were the 12th and the 13th—numbered to indicate the distance from “N. York.” The 13th milestone, which stood on the west side of Kingsbridge Road, near the extreme north end of the Island, has disappeared, but the 12th milestone still remains—built into the retaining wall on the west side of Broadway at the Isham Park entrance. We were told that the stone originally stood at the 203rd Street corner. The present pitted appearance of the stone is attributable to a shotgun charge fired by a hunter who wished to empty his piece on the return from a hunt.
[As of August 2020, this mile marker remains in this location, however, the carved letters are no longer visible, and the stone has been painted black]
Remnants of Revolution [Hut camp of the 17th Regiment of Foot, Inwood Hill, New York City.]
A hundred years after the close of the Revolutionary War the fields and heights of Inwood yet abounded with reminders of that struggle; and while it was not literally true, as Lossing has it, that there was scarcely a “rood of ground” thereabouts that was not “scarred by the intrencher’s mattock,” there were evidences on every hand of military occupation. Reminders innumerable of British military possession turned up when the soil of the fields was disturbed by tillage or was loosened by the frost or rains.
In the course of repeated visits, in season and out of season, we gathered these mementoes, retrieved inscribed bits of accoutrements traceable to each and every corps of the enemy serving at New York, and ultimately located and explored three camp sites distinctly British and one unmistakably Hessian. The British sites were: (1) the camp on the northerly side of Nagle Avenue at its junction with Broadway; (2) a camping place on the west bank of the Harlem River on the line of 201st Street; and (3) an extensive “hut camp” at Payson and Seaman Avenues in the vicinity of 203d Street, west of Broadway. The Hessian camp was that of the Leib (or “Body”) Regiment, located at Arden and Thayer Streets, east of Broadway. Other camps discovered were at Fort George, at 193rd Street and Audubon Avenue, and at Fort Washington.
Picking Wild Irises
Previous to the filling in of Dyckman Street in 1892, in order to get from Fort George to the site of the present (I.R.T. Dyckman Street) subway station, we had to cross the creek as far south as present Arden Street—and then use stepping-stones at times. On our way we gathered wild iris blooms at Thayer Street and Nagle Avenue near the mouth of the creek. In Revolutionary days the creek appears to have been navigable at times along the line of the present Nagle Avenue as far as Broadway, for it is recorded by von Krafft, the young Hessian officer, that in July 1781 many pontoons were floated up from New York and placed in the “Line-barrier.”
A later burial plot named for the Nagle family existed at 212th Street until it was graded away in preparation of the area for the new subway shops and yard. In the [188o’s] and [1890’s] the plot was protected by a good fence and had all the appearance of a well- kept rural cemetery. Interments were made in the plot to about the turn of the century, but the new surface railways and subsequent subway line brought to Inwood a harum-scarum class of pleasure-seekers who overran the little plot, tore down the fences, and overthrew the memorial stones. Before the destruction was quite complete we got an indifferent sort of photograph of the already much-desecrated area and copies were made of all legible inscriptions upon the gravestones.
Before the 1903 grading of Tenth Avenue through upper Manhattan, amid a cluster of tall pear trees which stood on a knoll in the line of the Avenue at 212th Street, many rude and irregularly set stones projected from the ground. Tradition had it that these marked the graves of slaves. Our chance to verify or disprove this tradition came in March 1903 when the Tenth Avenue graders exhumed about thirty skeletons from the knoll. The skulls were pronounced by Dr. Hrdlicka, the eminent anthropologist, to be “purely African.” The presence of nails and of brass pins which had left green stains upon the skulls indicated that the bodies had been dressed in shrouds and interred in wood boxes. The only other metallic object recovered was a brass brooch set off with brass and with blue glass beads. Since manumission of slaves in this State was legislated as early as 1785 it is probable that the graves date from Colonial times when Provincial law provided not only for separate burial grounds for slaves but for extreme simplicity of ceremony in the burial.
An Indian Jar
In 1907, barely exposed by grading of 214th Street near Tenth Avenue, and just safely below the plow line, we spotted a massive and complete specimen of an Iroquoian Indian jar, the finest yet discovered. Although the pot was nearly duplicated in its dimensions and symmetry by a similar find which we made at the opening of 231st Street, we believe our first great discovery will never be equaled. Probably at the departure of the last aborigines from Manhattan Island the jar had been buried on a camp site against the day when those poor exiles would return. That day, alas for them, never arrived. But the Indian cave or “rock shelter,” now fortunately within the bounds of Inwood Hill Park, promises to be preserved as a memorial to the original occupants of Manhattan Island.
Seaman Avenue’s Mastodon
When the ship canal was cut through, in 1885, from the Harlem to the Hudson to replace the unnavigable sinuosity and shallowness of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, two features of interest in natural history were disclosed: the extensive lamination of peaty vegetable matter to a considerable depth; and the exhuming of a mastodon’s tusk (now in the American Museum of Natural History) from the bed of an ancient bog. Portions of the head of another mastodon were later excavated, during preparations for construction of an apartment house, from a bog on the north side of Dyckman Street at Seaman Avenue at a depth of twenty- one feet below the sidewalk. The tusks and skeletal remains of the mammoth still rest, perhaps, below the basement floor of No. 2 Seaman Avenue.
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