Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memo: How Mount Morris got its name

One of the most interesting features of the Mount Morris Park Historic District is the large hill in the middle of Marcus Garvey Park, formerly known as Mount Morris Park.  "How did the actual hill get its name?" I wondered.  So I did some digging.

A Glance At Harlem" published in 1893 gives an early account of the history around the hill:
As early as 1636 the pioneers of Dutch civilization made their appearance in the fertile plains at the foot of the rocky height to which they gave the name of Slang Berge, or Snake Hill, now called Mount Morris. ... Under the shadow of Snake Hill they laid out a village.
James Riker's Revised History of Harlem, published in 1904, notes that the hill we know as Mount Morris was in the early 1600's the largest of at least a couple hills in the area that the Dutch called Ronde Gebergte, or Round Hills.  
One is an abrupt wooded eminence, by modern innovation styled Mount Morris, but which the Dutch called the Slang Berg, or Snake Hill, from the reptile tribes that infested its cleft rocks and underbrush even within the memory of the living. 
The Historical Guide to the City of New York, published in 1909 by the City History Club, says that the name "Slang Berg" or "Snake Hill" came from  the snakes that infested it.  Many sources identify the species of snakes as rattle snakes.

As to the name Mount Morris, the Twentieth Annual Report, 1915 of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, summarizes that:

As to the origin of the name of Mount Morris, we are as yet in doubt. It has been suggested that the park was named after Robert H. Morris, who was Mayor from 1841 to 1844, but if such was the case, it was so named before he was Mayor, because it appears on the Colton map of 1836 as Mount Morris, and in resolutions concerning assessments for taking the land, adopted by the Common Council before Mr. Morris was Mayor, the square is so designated.
It has also been suggested that the Harlem Race Course, which gave the name to the farm of which Snake Hill was a part, may have been owned and operated by some member of the Morris family who later owned the well-known Morris Park Race Course in the Bronx. They were New Yorkers, old in the racing business, but of this we have no confirmation.
Riker has the last word on the name Mount Morris, who notes that the longtime owner of the land surrounding Mount Morris was the Benson family, from approximately 1650 to 1839, when taken by the City:
Among the oldest of our historic names, significant for reference, and entering into the corporate titles of our churches, our railway and navigation companies, etc.. how preposterous the suggestion that this time-honored designation is become useless, and should be ignored! Rather cherish it, together with the more local names within Harlem, many of which it has been our good fortune to rescue. Apropos of this—has justice been done the worthy pioneers of Harlem, in selecting names for the streets, avenues and places? Mount Morris, from its former owners, would surely find a more significant name in Mount Benson.