Today we’re highlighting the rich Indigenous history of our neighborhood. This is crucial both to understand and respect the full history of the land we live on, and to recognize the story and experience of consistently marginalized groups.
Washington Square Park, once a farming land and gathering place for the Lenape, tranformed over two centuries to one of the most desirable locations to live in early New York. While standing in the park or walking through the streets of Greenwich Village today, it is hard to imagine that this was once an area frequented by the Lenape, which they called “Sapohannikan.”
The name Sapohannikan translates to “Land of Tobacco Growth.” This area was one of several that would be seasonally settled by the traveling Lenape. Over the course of the year, the Lenape lived across what is now the Island of Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Westchester, Staten Island, and Long Island.
The map above shows the intersection known as Kintecoying, or “powwow grounds,” which was the intersection of the Sapohannikan, the Munsee, the Canarsie, and the Wappingers. This is especially significant as this intersection was not only a meeting place of not only different members of the Lenape, but of different languages within the Lenape, including Munsee, Unami, and Renneiu. If you follow along the Sapohannikan Trail west from the Kintecoying intersection, you will come to what is now Washington Square Park.
The area which is now the park was incredibly lush thanks to the water that ran from Minetta Creek. It was used as collective farming land, but also as a gathering place for the Unami-speaking Sapohannikan where they traded, played games, played music, and came together as a community. Due to trading and its proximity to the Kintecoying intersection, it is likely that in this area you would have heard many different languages of the Lenape.
In the early 1600s, the land occupied by Sapohannikan was taken over by the Dutch for farmland. Then in the 1640s, the land was given to Free Black slaves and became the first free black settlement in North America. These men and women were able to purchase their freedom for an annual fee to the Dutch; their children were not be born free, and payment was also required to obtain their freedom.
After the English takeover of the colony in 1664, these lands under the control of black farmers were gradually taken, or taken over, by white settlers as part of large farming estates. In April of 1797, the Common Council of New York purchased the land west of Minetta Creek to create a potter’s field — a burial ground for poor New Yorkers with no means of paying for their burial. In 1826, Alderman Abraham Valentine passed a measure to turn the potter’s field back into a military parade ground which would soon after become a public park. Following the creation of the park, the land surrounding Washington Square Park became some of the most desirable in the city, with beautiful Greek Revival row houses lining most of the park, with those on the north side of the park still surviving today.
There are almost no physical remnants of the original Native American presence in our neighborhoods, beyond the paths of streets like the Bowery and Astor Place which followed Native American paths. So while there is little physical preservation that can be done of this important piece of our heritage, we can still remember and honor the memory of those who first settled and used this land.