Seneca Village was destroyed to pave the way for Central Park but where was it, who lived there and what is the Irish connection?

Located from West 82nd to West 85th streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, Seneca Village was once one of the largest communities of free African-American property owners in New York.

The creation of the village began in 1925 when freed African Americans Andrew Williams and Epiphany Davis first purchased land in the area. Close to the river for fishing purposes and also located by a clear spring for drinking water, the village grew with records showing there to be three churches and a school as well as some three-story wooden dwellings built there.

At this time in New York, the vast majority of the population lived in the lower parts of the island (below Canal St) and so life this far up at Seneca Village was very much still rural, as wilderness was slowly shaped into farms and small centers of occupation. In the 1855 census, records show there to be 250 residents of Seneca Village and some 70 homes.   

Read more: Archdiocese of New York digitizing records dating back to 1785

Why is Seneca Village important to the history of New York City? 

A map of Seneca Village fomerly located in today's Central Park in Manhattan. Image: Public Domain/WikiCommons.

A map of Seneca Village fomerly located in today's Central Park in Manhattan. Image: Public Domain/WikiCommons.

Seneca Village is a very important part of the history of black people in New York. It had been decided by the New York State in 1921, just four years before the first purchase of land was made there, that African-American men who owned at least $250 in property holdings and could prove three years of residency in the state, would be entitled to vote. This allowed for some in Seneca to cast their ballot. As of 1855, only 100 of the 2,000 African Americans in New York had the right to vote and ten of them were residents in the small village of Seneca.

As well as being home to prominent figures in the abolitionist movement including Albro Lyons, Levin Smith and S. Hardenburgh, 50% of African-American residents there also owned their own land. This figure was an incredible five times the average rate of ownership for all New Yorkers at the time, never mind just African Americans.

Read more: Mike Quill: America’s greatest Irish-born hero?

What was the Irish connection?

While two-thirds of the residents of Seneca Village were black, the remaining third was composed of European immigrants, mainly Irish with a few Germans thrown into the mix also. The number of Irish in the village increased especially during the time of the potato famine in Ireland as the numbers of Irish immigrants to the US rocketed sky high in general.

The Irish were among those who were attracted to Seneca Village because of its rural lifestyle, which would have been more similar to the life they left behind than the tenement blocks further down in the city such as in Five Points. It’s thought that 21 of the households in Seneca Village in 1955 were occupied by Irish.

Many other Irish also lived in the other settlements which were also originally located in the areas where Central Park is now.

As stated in an article in the Irish Voice on the village: “They lived a catch as catch can lifestyle, farming small plots of land, raising chickens and hogs, working odd construction jobs, fishing in nearby rivers and ponds, scavenging for rags and bones for resale (the 19th century equivalent of collecting returnable cans), and gathering free firewood.

“Even in these rough peasant conditions, their lives were arguably more comfortable than those of their brethren downtown. Yet these settlements contributed to stereotypes about the Irish as a lazy, dirty, uncivilized people. The fact that they shared these settlements with equally despised African Americans only added to the prejudice.”

Famous Irish residents of Seneca Village

George Washington Plunkitt was a resident of Seneca Village. Image: Library of Congress.

George Washington Plunkitt was a resident of Seneca Village. Image: Library of Congress.

For the most part, the Irish residents of Seneca Village are anonymous Irish immigrants who mostly moved to America during the time of the Great Hunger in Ireland. There were two in particular, however, who lived in the general area and who would go on to become well-known faces in the city and in the Tammany Hall political system.  

The first was George Washington Plunkitt who was born in “Nanny Goat Village” in 1842 to Irish parents. He would go on to be the Tammany leader of the Hell’s Kitchen district.

The second was an Irish immigrant himself, Richard Croker, whose Irish family settled in the vicinity of Seneca village when he was three years old in 1846. An Irish famine refugee, he would later in life be the boss of Tammany Hall from 1886-1901.

Read more: The Last Hurrah - Tammany Hall converted to office and retail space (PHOTOS)

What happened to Seneca Village?

Central Park eradicated places such as Seneca Village. Image: iStock.

Central Park eradicated places such as Seneca Village. Image: iStock.

Very bluntly, Central Park.

It was realized in the 1850s that the total lack of park space on the island of Manhattan was not conducive to the creation of a healthy city. When the city’s grid system had been established in 1811, planners felt that being an island, the proximity to water would allow for a healthy and fresh feel to the city even without park space. Four decades on and even without all those skyscrapers we have now, their mistake was realized and plans were made out to develop a gigantic park to cater for some breathing space and a spot of green for residents.

When the location for the park was decided (between 59th and 110th street north-south and Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue east-west), the New York State legislature authorized that the villages currently on the land would be removed in order to make way for their plans. A common practice in19th-century America, compensation was given to those displaced but they were ultimately evicted from their land.

While many of the residents fought the destruction of their settlements, they were eventually forced to relocate but their villages, especially Seneca Village, are still remembered in the history of the city.

Do you have any surprising stories about the Irish in the US? Tell us about them in the comments section, below.