A few weeks ago I was in New York City for meetings and took the opportunity to venture out on a visit to the Bronx. An early morning arrival at JFK and a trip to see my sister at work for her car, and I was on my way for another sightseeing adventure.
New York City is one of those “northern” states where the enslavement of African peoples was routine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like most of the US, the history of slavery in New York and the contributions of the labor of enslaved Africans and indentured peoples to building New York is a mere footnote in the history books, if mentioned at all. There were enslaved Africans in lower Manhattan and places like Wall Street were not absent from the buying and selling of Africans. What of the rest of the city as we now know it? What stories are there in the other boroughs of New York City?
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, one of the rare occasions that took me to the Bronx was cross country meets at Van Cortlandt Park. As a dedicated spectator in a family of high school athletes, the trips to the Bronx, came with standing for what felt like hours as the runners disappeared in the hills and watching for them to reappear to cross the finish line. All took place in the cold that was cross country season in the north. Many years and distant memories were between me and my last visit to Van Cortlandt Park. The morning visit was met with sunshine and clear skies.
Visitors to the Bronx want to see the popular, the known. Yankee Stadium is high on the list of “places to visit.” People want to see the “House that Ruth Built,” the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Gardens and the museums. The popular of every city tells its own story of what we deem important, or of value to those who visit whether as tourists or as residents engaging in meaningful activities. If I had more time, I too might have stopped by Yankee Stadium for a few pictures as I drove by on the Major Deegan Expressway heading north.
New York City has a lot of energy. The sights, sounds and pace are quick and require keeping up or getting left behind. Whether walking or driving, the city moves at its own pace – fast. Rather than take the subway, I was driving given the distance, the fact that I was by myself, and the deep knowledge I had no idea how to get where I was going. Driving the highways north to the Bronx from Brooklyn was an adventurous start, navigated by Siri on my IPhone in the front seat (no seat belt needed), as I made my way through the traffic matching the speed of the cars and trying to avoid the trucks.
I arrived at the park and was amazed at the quiet that appeared from nowhere and embraced me as I stepped out of the car. The bustle of the traffic was gone. The noises of the city replaced by the whisper of a gentle breeze, the brilliant warmth of the sun in blue skies, and green grass on a spring day. The birds were chirping, the trees were bursting with new life and in the distance, across the expanse of endless green grass that is Van Cortlandt Park, I caught my first glimpse of the old Van Courtlandt House, now turned museum. I made my way from the car down to the walkway and into the park towards the house observing the sights of walkers and joggers making good use of the park and a sunny April day.
Van Cortlandt Park was a part of the original property owned by the Van Cortlandt family, and is now the third largest park in the New York City Parks and Recreation system. The New York City Parks Department currently owns approximately 1150 acres of the original land holdings of the family. The park was named for Stephanus Van Cortlandt, the first native-born mayor of New York, and for the Van Cortlandt family. The Van Cortlandts were a very prominent and wealthy family during the Duth and English periods in New York history.
The park lands have a rich history that pre-dates even the the Wiechquaskeck Lenapes who occupied this site when the Dutch East India Company brought the first Europeans to settle in the Bronx in 1639. These lands too were “purchased” from the indigenous peoples by the Dutch, as was lower Manhattan. The park and all that lies therein is well worth a visit with its trails, well sculpted lawns and rich history.
On the way to the house, I notice what I thought was a cemetery a few yards into the grounds. I thought it of interest that a cemetery was there in the park, and wondered who was buried there. I drew closer and read the signs. The grounds were well kept. The area was quiet and the flags on some of the headstones blew softly in the wind.
This was not a place of burial but a memorial site that served to honor veterans from the Bronx. My trips to find the history of enslaved Africans has often found its ways into encounters with historical monuments of all kinds. This was no different but it did cause me to reflect on the events we chose to memorialize and remember, as well as the lives of those we choose to remember. The memorials along the way are always food for thought. The Memorial Grove was another place to pause and honor the dead who were remembered by family and friends, those who had a place to visit and name their grief and loss. After a brief stop, it was on to the House that loomed in the background.
The sign on the wrought iron fence that surrounds the house, separates the house from the park lands which surrounds it. The house sits on a fenced portion of the land at the original site where it was built. The sign on the fence reads: This Revolutionary War landmark is the oldest house house in the Bronx and became the first history house museum in New York City. It is a National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Places and is a proud New York City Landmark.
There is much to learn before one enters the welcome center. As I entered, I noted the statue of a man who I thought would be a Van Cortlandt. On closer inspection, it is the statue of Major General Josiah Porter that sits in the front entrance, ably guarding the edifice, as he looks over the vast park lands that extend into the rolling hills. The panels below his likeness tells the story of why he is there and who placed him there. One more memorial, this one for service to the National Guard. I was interested in knowing who this man was and why he was in front of the house, but that was for another day.
The Van Cortlandt House was built in 1748 by Frederick Van Cortlandt, son of Jacobus Van Cortlandt, the seventh son of a Dutch immigrant to New Amsterdam in 1638 who turned merchant and was named as the fourth wealthiest man in New York City. This grandson, a seventh son purchased the earliest tracts of land. This initial purchase, according to the guide, would eventually become a large “profitable wheat plantation.” The wheat plantation eventually grew to 3000 acres.
The Van Cortlandt House Museum offers a self-guided tour for its visitors unless you call ahead to schedule a tour. After paying the fee and receiving a paper guide I entered the house and worked my way through the building, examining the rooms that were detailed in the tour guide I was given on entrance. Upon entry, I had to wait for my eyes to adjust to the dimness of the house with its drawn shades to preserve the contents of the home.
The three floors of the house to me back to a different time. There was much to learn about the Van Cortlandt family and the way they lived. The house would have been grand in its day, with a variety of rooms furnished for the period. There was no sign of the wealth of the Van Cortlandts anymore, but given the size of the home and the property where it sat, it was easy to imagine the house in its hey day. Each room is now separated from visitors by wrought iron. However, it is easy to see the contents of each room, and to find one’s way via the guide.
The rooms of the house are well decorated and well preserved. As I wandered through the house, I read the guide until I got to the top floor where a group of students sat listening to a gentleman elaborately dress in clothing of the period, regale them with tales of the house and a history of the time in which the house was built and occupied. Of note: George Washington and John Adams both stayed at the house.
The size of the house piqued my curiosity as did what I read and the purpose of my visit. I made my way back to the visitor center, where I attempted to appease my curiosity in conversation with Oneida who runs the reception area. I later met Laura Carpenter, the Director of the Van Cortlandt House Museum. As life would have it, Laura and I had mutual friends, so we visited for a while as she told me more about the house and answered my questions.
The House is owned and operated by the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York. Laura has been at the museum for 22 years and is a wonderfully informed source of information about the plantation history of the house and of history in New York City.
There are cursory mentions of the large plantation that the Van Cortlandts owned in the guide. This plantation, as most others, operated on the labor of enslaved Africans but there is no mention or sign of these African residents of the property. The 3000 acre wheat plantation would have needed a lot of labor to plant, maintain and harvest the grain which was also used for provisioning the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. New York was the bread basket for the colonies in the 1700’s which is hard to tell from the many tall buildings that dot the landscape. The Van Cortlandts also shipped eggs and butter to the Caribbean. All required a labor force that is unaccounted for in the history of the Van Cortlandt family.
Little is known of the Africans who lived on this plantation in the Bronx. Laura told me the story of Pierro who ran the mill. Pierro lived with his family in one of the long demolished residences that were on the plantation. Laura believes that Pierro was one of the many Africans who lived on the Van Cortlandt plantation. There is little in the house or on the property about the slaves. Perhaps that will change someday.
There are parts of the house that are not open to the public. One of those places is the attic. Laura has been in the attic. She says that there are what appear to be slave quarters in the attic of the house. That would be plausible since the enslaved people who tended the house would have to live somewhere. Slaves in the attic? In Old New York City?
I left the visitor center and walked around the house, saddened that these Ancestors were unknown, their stories untold. I wondered where they were buried, what sat atop their bones in these days where the wheat fields have grown concrete buildings.
The house was last occupied in 1886. Slavery was legally abolished in New York City in 1827. The Van Cortlandts were not the only plantation owners in this part of New York. By the 1770’s the Van Cortlandts owned an additional plantation in Little Yonkers, according to the guide book. The Van Cortlandts amassed their wealth as owners of slaves. The wheat plantation, the bread, the collection of eggs, tending the cows, churning butter – the entire operation required labor to turn the huge profit that indicate success then, as now.
In the shadows on the east side of the property, I stopped and looked up at the windows at the very top of the house, windows that I thought were the attic windows. I thought once again of the lives of men, women and children who were long forgotten although their contributions to live in early New York is no longer remembered. Would it be possible to erect a marker? To share their stories? To acknowledge that they were a part of life in this home and so many others? Perhaps one day this house too will remember and honor these lives as well as those of those who are already named.
I hope that Laura and the National Society of the Colonial Dames find their way to telling the stories of these early African Americans and their lives on the plantation. In the meantime, go visit this place where they lived and ask Laura – she will tell you of these Ancestors who slept in attic and worked these 3000 acres of farmland in the Bronx. Pour a libation, sit a while – receive their wisdom, and hear their voices in the whisper of the leaves.
May these Ancestors rest in peace.