NYC reburies remains of early New Yorkers in Washington Square Park

March 3, 2021

All photos: NYC Parks / Daniel Avila

The New York City Parks Department on Tuesday reinterred the human remains of early New Yorkers found during construction in and around Washington Square Park. The skeletal remains were placed in a wooden box and buried five feet below grade within a planting bed, with an engraved paver marking the site at the southern entrance of the park near Sullivan Street. The remains were uncovered between 2008 and 2017, including the unearthing of two 19th-century burial vaults in 2015 that held the remains of at least a dozen people.

Prior to its creation in the 1850s, what is now Washington Square Park was used as a potter’s field. Over a period of 30 years between 1797 and 1825, it is estimated that 20,000 people were buried at the park.

According to Parks, many of those buried at the site were unable to be identified, were indigent, or had died from yellow fever. There were also several church burial grounds located in the northeast section of the park.

“Today we honor these individuals and acknowledge Washington Square Park’s history as a final resting place for thousands of early New Yorkers,” NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said in a press release. “We are so grateful to our colleagues at Green-Wood Cemetery and the Landmarks Preservation Commission for their expertise and guidance on this important project.”

As 6sqft previously reported, workers found two 19th-century burial vaults while upgrading water mains under the park in 2015. Officials said they believe these remains were associated with one of two late churches in the area that have since been razed.

As part of Landmarks Preservation Commission protocol, intact burials were left untouched, but the city had removed several hundred bone fragments for reinterment later. Forensic analysis of the bone fragments did not reveal details about the individuals found. Green-Wood Cemetery volunteers helped with the excavation, overseen by the LPC’s archaeology department.

“Making sure that those who have gone before us are remembered with dignity and respect is a critical part of Green-Wood’s mission,” Richard J. Moylan, president of Green-Wood Cemetery, said. “We are honored to provide our expertise on such an important historical project.

The new paver marking the gravesite reads:

“From 1797 until 1825, what is now Washington Square Park was the City’s Potter’s Field, where thousands of people including the unidentified, the indigent and those who died of yellow fever were buried. In addition, several church burial grounds were located in the northeast portion of the park. Fragmentary remains of some of the early New Yorkers buried in this Potter’s Field were found by archaeologists during construction in and adjacent to Washington Square Park between 2008 and 2017. The City reinterred the remains on this site in 2021.”


Photo credit: NYC Parks / Daniel Avila

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