From 1797 to 1826, the lovely Washington Square Park–a place where NYU college students canoodle and chess players quietly play–was a common burial ground or potter’s field. It is not known how many bodies rest below this public space, but historians estimate around 20,000.
Before the arrival of European settlers, the area was a marsh fed by Minetta Brook. Sappokanican Indians lived in a settlement nearby. Then, with the advent of colonization, the area was used as farmland. The city purchased it in 1797 for use as a burial ground for New Yorkers who couldn’t afford last rites, or those who succumbed to the yellow fever epidemic of the early nineteenth century. In 1827 it was designated as a public park, but didn't actually look like one until development in the surrounding area accelerated in the 1850s.
In October, 2009 archaeologists excavated an area of the park, expecting to find human remains. But as a backhoe scooped dirt away, a tombstone was revealed–perfectly in tact. The grave belonged to Irish immigrant James Jackson, who died on September 22, 1799. City death records list him as a watchman. He died when New York was struggling to contain a series of yellow fever outbreaks.
Image via DNA Info. By New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.