City buries human remains found during Washington Square Park construction

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The City’s Parks Department has reinterred the fragmentary remains of early New Yorkers found during construction in and around Washington Square Park.

Green-Wood Cemetery volunteered their services for excavation, which was overseen by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Director of Archaeology.

The human remains were placed in a wooden box and buried five feet below grade within a planting bed in the park. An engraved paver marks the site, near the Sullivan Street and Washington Square Park South entrance.

“Today we honor these individuals and acknowledge Washington Square Park’s history as a final resting place for thousands of early New Yorkers,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP.

“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.”

Green-Wood Cemetery workers volunteered their services for the excavation and re-internment of the remains

The human remains were uncovered during construction in and around Washington Square Park between 2008 and 2017. Washington Square Park was constructed in the 1850s at the site of the City’s former potter’s field. From 1797 until 1825, thousands of people — including the unidentified, the indigent, and those who died of yellow fever — were buried there, with several church burial grounds also located in the northeast portion of the site.

On October 23, 2009, workers updating Washington Square Park unearthed a tombstone from 1799. The three-foot-tall sandstone grave marker was inscribed: “Here lies the body of James Jackson who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.”

In November 2015, the Department of Design and Construction had a crew digging out a century-old water main in Washington Square Park. During the dig, the workers stumbled upon two burial vaults containing an estimated total of 30 bodies. It was determined that the vaults belonged to two churches that shared burial ground with the potter’s field. Unable to enter the tombs, Chrysalis Archeological Consultants used cameras in an attempt to read nameplates on the 20 or more coffins. 

Yellow fever outbreaks were common during the late 18th and 19th centuries and a vaccination was not discovered until the 1900s.  So many poor people and criminals died of the disease that the Washington Square Park potter’s field was full and Mayor Philip Hone convinced a court to turn the land into a public park in 1827. 

In consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), remains found in disturbed contexts by workers over the past several years were removed for reinterment at a later date.

Because the remains were fragmentary, forensic analysis did not yield extensive details about the individuals.

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

“The land that we now call Washington Square Park has served thousands of New Yorkers in various capacities over the generations,” added Sheryl Woodruff, Washington Square Park Conservancy Deputy Director.

“It is important to remember and respect the history of this space and the people that were laid to rest here. We are heartened to see these individuals returned to their final resting place. We are grateful to our colleagues at NYC Parks, Green-Wood Cemetery and the Landmarks Preservation Commission for their careful and considerate work.” 

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