Seneca Village existed during a period of turbulence in New York City and the country as a whole. This section introduces the context of life in New York City in the nineteenth century.

The Erie Canal had just opened, marking the beginning of a period of economic expansion for the city and the state. The enslaved population of the city was emancipated in 1827, even as slavery continued in other parts of the nation. Cries for the abolition of slavery were growing in New England and in pockets in other regions. At the same time, Native American territories in the West were being taken, reshaped, and resettled by settlers hungry for land.

The Great Fire of 1835 destroyed New York City's wooden downtown and nearly ruined the economy, but the wave of urban renewal that followed made it the country's number one port.

New York quickly became the receiving point for travelers, opportunity seekers, opportunists, refugees, and the poor.

Often called a "city of contrasts," downtown New York was crowded with buildings and people, busy with trade and commerce. Elegant brownstone buildings stood next to houses made of wood and scrap metal. Some streets were built of cobblestone, while others were dirt.

There was mud and manure everywhere. People moved about in horse-drawn carriages, omnibuses, trolleys, ferryboats, and on foot.


Uptown was different: it had farms as well as large uncultivated tracts. There were hills, trees, rocky outcroppings, streams and springs.

There were scattered villages, and the people had a pioneering spirit.

It was not mandatory for children to go to school...some did, some didn't. Very young children often worked beside adults--along the wharves and docks, as errand boys, as fruit, pie, and hot corn vendors. They sold their wares from baskets and carts along the street.

The poorer children worked as ragpickers.

Outdoor games, such as hoops and marbles, were popular, as well as playing with crafted games and toys indoors.



There were always chores to do. People uptown often had to travel long distances to a well or spring to get a bucket of water. Imagine what it must have been like in the dead of winter to carry a bucket of freezing water down a slippery mud path back home!