September 30, 2015

What Washington Square Park Looked Like in 1609 (and today)

Image: Washington Square Park, 1609 (screen capture of Welikia map)

Wow! Look at Washington Square Park in 1609. Do you the think the sinewy line running into the "park" from the north is Minetta? I do. Look closely at the southwest corner of the site. The curvy line continues towards the Hudson though under tree cover.

This map is from the Welikia Project. What is Welikia?
We’re going beyond Mannahatta, launching the Welikia Project to encompass all of New York City, including the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, and surrounding waters. Welikia Hear Welikia pronounced means “my good home” in Lenape, the original Native American language of the region.
The Welikia map has A LOT of information about wildlife that inhabited the site (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and plants), landscape features, and how the Lenape used the site in 1609. It's worthwhile to explore the map.

Here are a few details. Meadow vole and two species of mouse were the most likely mammals to live in the "park". Thirty species of birds were reasonably likely to be found on the site including common species from today: red-tailed hawk, blue jay, and American robin. Have you ever seen a snapping turtle, eastern painted turtle, redback salamander, bullfrog, or green frog in Washington Square Park? These reptiles and amphibians were more likely than others to inhabit the "park". The 47,212 square meter block area was likely populated with species from an oak-tulip forest. How would one identify an oak-tulip forest? The New York Natural Heritage Program provides the following clues.

Image: A young tulip tree in Washington Square Park (photo by Hubert J. Steed)

An oak-tulip tree forest would be a closed canopy comprised mostly of trees (greater than 80%), followed by shrubs 2-5 meters in height, and shrubs less than 2 meters and herbs, then vines and non-vascular plants. The canopy would be dominated by tulip trees and oak species (white, red, chestnut, and black). Other species would be red and sugar maple, sweet birch, American beech, and white ash. The sub canopy would include flowering dogwood, American witch-hazel, spicebush, and sassafras, with understory species of lowbush blueberry and maple leaf viburnum.

Image: Washington Square Park, today (screen capture of Welikia map)

Here's Washington Square Park and its surroundings now. What a big difference 406 years make!

For a live experience of the trees of Washington Square Park, use the WSP Eco Map at!


  1. I often wonder what my own area looked like in pre-European days. I imagine clean water, green marshes, sandy beaches free from trash, and giant live oaks.

    1. Georgia | local ecologistOctober 18, 2015

      Hi, Les! Your description reminded me Henry Beston's The Outermost House (minus the live oaks).


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