Uncovering an African Burial Ground in the NW Bronx

A section of Van Cortlandt Park was discovered several months ago to have been the site of unmarked graves for slaves owned by the Van Cortland family. (Photo by Julius Constantine Motal via The Riverdale Press)

Historians in the Bronx are examining a half-acre of land in Van Cortlandt Park in the northwest Bronx believed to once serve as a slave burial ground. Nicholas Dembowski, vice president of the Kingsbridge Historical Society, who is working with President Peter Ostrander on the project, spoke to Simone Johnson of The Riverdale Press on how they are going about their investigation despite a lack of historical records.

Dembowski gathered information about Bronx slaves wills, censuses and other historical documents. Although the parks department acquired the Van Cortlandt estate in the late 1800s, city officials have no records revealing who exactly was buried at Vannie.

Records might be scarce, but knowledge of the Van Cortlandt family isn’t, as it’s clear through historical research one of the area’s original families owned slaves. In fact, it’s part of the tour of the Van Cortlandt House Museum, where parts of the mansion’s third floor is where slaves were quartered.

Dembowski discovered census records from 1790 that included what would later become Riverdale, Kingsbridge and Spuyten Duyvil, which included a count of about 60 slaves. Court and tax records also were used to identify the presence of slaves within the community based on  documented names, according to Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan.

While the city’s Parks Department, working alongside the Kingsbridge Historical Society, plans to put up a historical marker at the burial ground, Dembowski wants more.

Go to The Riverdale Press to find out what the historian is seeking, along with other research that points to the presence of slaves in the area, and how they contributed to the wealth amassed by the Van Cortlandt family.

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