17th century Native American caves still providing shelter

At the northern tip of Manhattan Island you’ll find Inwood Hill Park, a living piece of old New York. Unlike other Manhattan parks it is a largely natural landscape that hasn’t been altered too much by the wars and development that followed the arrival of European colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Park’s human history dates back to Pre-Columbian times (before  significant European influences). Local Native Americans (the Lenape) inhabited the area through the 17th century, using the Hudson (to the west) and Harlem Rivers (to the north and east) as food sources. There is historical evidence of a main encampment along the Park’s eastern edge, while  discoveries of historical artefacts and campfire remains suggest natural rock overhangs, the  ‘Native American Caves’ (the caves),  provided shelter and temporary living quarters.

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Henry Hudson Bridge across the Harlem River at the northeast of Inwood Hill Park.

I set off to explore the caves on a toe-numbingly cold day. They are a pretty easy 0.7 miles (1.1 km) walk from the A (8 Avenue Express) Inwood-207 Street subway station, though the last little way up to them is a little steeper in places. Click here for walking route.

The Park’s terrain is impressive with giant rock ridges, a valley, rock overhangs and potholes. It was largely shaped by the Wisconsin ice sheet, the most recent southward advance of ice in the last Ice Age, which reached New York roughly 50,000 years ago.

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Cliff in Inwood Hill Park

The Shorakkopoch Rock marks the site of the tulip tree under which Peter Minuit, Director General of New Netherland (17th-century colonial province of the Dutch Republic on the East Coast of North America), allegedly ‘purchased’ Manhattan from a band of Native Americans in 1626 for the Dutch West India Company for a shipment of goods worth 60 guilders. Arriving at the Rock it’s a short walk to the caves. The image below gives an idea of what the area looks like –  at least in snow!

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Area of ‘Native American Caves’ in Inwood Hill Park – seen from near Shorakkopoch Rock

Tramping uphill through knee-deep snow I heard the faint sound of a radio as I neared the caves.  After a slight double-take I saw that the nearest habitable space providing good shelter was occupied; rough material hangings covered part of the entrance and through the gap I could see a pair of feet tapping along to the music. Further uphill the next space providing shelter from the elements was also occupied and the slope steepened making further exploration risky in the conditions. Not wanting to disturb the occupants I retraced my steps.

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Amongst the caves, with musical accompaniment

Though I wasn’t able to explore the caves area properly it was a beautifully bright day and I spent  more time walking through the Park. I’ll definitely visit again to further checkout the caves and look for other geological features such as glacial potholes.

Leaving the Park I found the Indian Road  Café, where I had a very tasty breakfast (Smoked Salmon Scrambled Eggs for $12). My latte was fairly average, but I’m fussy; I’d certainly use the café again.

That evening, warm at home,  I reflected on  how cold it had been up at Inwood  and that I could treat myself to breakfast and a hot drink while people are sleeping rough in such brutal weather conditions. It brought home why there are such concerns about growing inequality in New York City;  a combination of jobs that don’t pay “living wages” and a lack of “affordable housing” has seen homeless figures  rise to the highest since the Great Depression (1929 – 39).

In 2013 the total number of homeless people in municipal shelters in 2013 was 53,270. The NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) estimated that in 2013 a further 3,180 homeless people were unsheltered, i.e. sleeping in parks, subways, and other public spaces; this figure was based on the DHS annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) survey, which takes place on a SINGLE winter night (27 January in 2014). The Coalition for the Homeless considers  the DHS figure to be an underestimate because the survey is unlikely to log those sleeping in out of the way places, such as those I came across and in the remoter parts of the subway.

It’s dangerous living rough especially in this winter’s brutal weather. Unfortunately, for some, municipal shelters aren’t necessarily a better option. Thinking back to earlier in the day and those feet tapping along to the music I hope that shelter sees its occupant safely through the winter.

 

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