It is said that deep within the forest of Inwood Hill Park at the northernmost tip of Manhattan lie the remnants of a mysterious Native American community called the Indian Caves of Inwood, in which indigenous people lived and prospered long, long ago. Although I know the park well, an entrance to which is across the street from where I live, I had never seen the fabled caves. But on a recent morning, your intrepid urban archeologist, a veritable Indiana Jones if you will, set off to find the truth (if any) behind the legend.
To prepare for my journey of discovery, I patiently combed the Internet for any information concerning the caves in recent weeks. What I learned was tantalizing. I encountered many Websites that repeated old tales about the caves with vague clues as to the their location. I even found a crudely hand drawn map of the park purporting to show their location.
According to multiple sources, the caves were supposedly located on a little traveled path that begins at the great Shorakkopoch Boulder deep in Inwood Hill Park. Shorakkopoch is said to be the ancient Native American name for Inwood. Armed with this sketchy information, I recently set out on my journey of discovery.
After some searching, I found the Shorakkopoch Boulder (see photo). A plaque on it reads: “According to legend, on this site of the principal Manhattan village, Peter Minuit in 1626, purchased Manhattan Island for trinkets and beads then worth about 60 guilders. This boulder also marks the spot where a tulip tree (liriodendron tulipifera) grew to a height of 165 feet and a girth of 20 feet. It was, until its death in 1932 at the age of 220 years, the last living link with the Reckgawawang Indians who lived here.”
Moreover, some say this totemic tulip tree was lovingly planted by the Native Americans to celebrate this historic real estate transaction. However, no deed recording the purported sale is extant and Native Americans did not even have the concept of real estate. In reality, no sale in which the wily Dutch governor Peter Minuit bamboozled Native Americans into selling what would become the most expensive piece of real estate in the world for mere trinkets ever took place. It is white folk nonsense.
Gentle reader, that the plaque on the Shorakkopoch Boulder repeats such nonsense was extremely disheartening and distressing to your urban archeologist. Perhaps the caves were as fictional as the purported real estate deal.
Regardless the Shorakkopoch Boulder’s mindless and discouraging repetition of untruths, I diligently searched for a path near it that might bring me to my Eldorado (so to speak). I eventually found a narrow, winding one and bravely followed it deep into primeval forest. It finally brought me to an isolated area that showed promise: massive slabs of rock, left behind by glaciers millions of years ago, tumbling over each (see photo).
I further investigated the area where I eventually found small enclosures accidentally formed by the tumbling rocks (one of which is seen here). Clearly, however, they were not caves and much too small for human habitation. Were these measly enclosures the source of the legends of the Indian Caves of Inwood? In reality, were there no caves? I wondered and worried.
Despite fearing that the caves might be nonexistent, I pressed on, diligently continuing my search. Just as I was about to give up and conclude the caves were as fictional as Minuit’s real estate deal, I discovered a spacious cave high on a bluff. I gasped as I said to myself, “The lost Indian Caves of Inwood are found!” Not only that, but I espied a present-day elderly inhabitant. The storied caves continue to shelter human beings today as they did Native Americans thousands of years ago! Click the photo for a larger one and you too will see the bearded current resident.
Yes, gentle reader, I learned that the Indian Caves of Inwood are real. Not only that, I learned that legends can be true and diligent pursuit of goals pays off. Cynicism and pessimism have no place in this the best of all possible worlds.
How to get there. Take the A train to 207th Street, then walk west and enter Inwood Hill Park, find the Shorakkopoch Boulder near a large playing field, and briefly follow the narrow footpath that travels southwest from the boulder.