In 1824, John and Elizabeth Whitehead purchased farmland in New York City from 82nd to 88th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. On September 27, 1825, a young African American male named Andrew Williams purchased three lots of land from the Whiteheads for $125. On that same day, trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church purchased six lots near 86th Street for use as a cemetery for "colored" people. Among the trustees was Epiphany Davis, another African American laborer, who purchased twelve lots for $578. These transactions laid the foundation for what may have been New York City's first significant community of property-owning African Americans. It was called Seneca Village.

The Manhattan Square Benefit Map, hand drawn by Gardner Sage in about 1838, shows the church properties.

No one is sure how "Seneca Village" got its name. In fact, the community was often referred to as Yorkville on maps and in records. The fact that racist terms were frequently used to describe the community suggests that Seneca Village may have been a derogatory name.

But there are other theories too. Could Seneca have been a distortion of "Senegal," a country in Africa that many people of African ancestry had come from? Was it a "code word," used to help fugitives on the Underground Railroad find their way to freedom? Were the villagers paying homage to Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, dramatist, and statesman whose book Seneca's Morals was read by African American activists? Or maybe it was named for the Seneca Indians, a nation made up of Indians from other nations. There was also a game called "Seneca," which was played in the tall grasses (rushes).

Since no one knows why the village was called Seneca, these guesses must be proved with evidence. Contemporary uses of the name include a citation in the All Angels' parish register and an article published in the New York Herald in 1914, over fifty years after the village had disappeared.

Between 1825 and 1832, the Whiteheads sold off fifty parcels of their land. At least 50 percent of it went to people of African ancestry. In addition to purchasing land for burials, the AME Zion Church and its leaders, including Levin Smith and Charles Treadwell, went on to make additional purchases for the church or for themselves. The African Union Methodist Church also bought land and had built a church by the early 1830s.

Before the end of the 1820s, at least nine houses had been built in Seneca Village. The community grew larger in the 1830s, when from a neighboring African American community known as York Hill joined the settlement.They had been displaced when the city claimed the land located between 79th and 86th Streets, and Sixth and Seventh Avenues, to build the receiving basin for the Croton Reservoir. By the end of the 1830s, Seneca Village had over 100 African American inhabitants.

This map, drawn in 1856, shows the layout of the village. Eighth Avenue is on the top and Seventh Avenue and the Receiving Reservoir are on the bottom. 82nd Street is on the left and 86th Street is on the right.

 

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