Washington Square, Walnut and 6th Streets
Washington Square (originally known as Southeastern Square) was another one of the original public lands laid out by surveyor Thomas Holme in 1683, as part of William Penn's idealized plan for his "green country towne". During the 18th century this plot of ground was utilized not as an urban park, as it is used today, but rather served as the city's Potter's Field, or "Stranger's Burying Ground". Between about 1705 and 1795, untold numbers of Philadelphia's poorest citizens, criminals from the jails, people who belonged to no organized church, and others living on the margins of mainstream society were buried here in anonymity. This was also the revered final resting place of both enslaved and free members of the city's growing black community. For African Americans of the time, the place known to them as "Congo Square" represented hallowed ground where large groups would gather on holidays to honor and celebrate their ancestors, and to leave gifts at the graves of their loved ones. Over time, many others were entombed here as well, including members of the Catholic faith, both American and British soldiers from the Revolutionary War, and several thousand victims of the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793. In the 19th century this land finally was transformed into a formal park and arboretum, and since then has undergone numerous physical changes. Those transformations have, on occasion, disrupted the quiet slumber of the square's unknown dead.
Since the 1950s, a total of four archaeological investigations have been performed within Washington Square and have encountered the residents of Potter's Field. The first of these specifically sought out an American casualty from the War of Independence, and resulted in the transfer of his remains to a crypt beneath the current Memorial to the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution. Subsequent excavations have accompanied various improvements and utility upgrades to the park. Collectively, these archaeological studies have produced much valuable information about the history, changing uses, and alterations of the square, as well as about the nameless Philadelphians who continue to rest in peace here to this day.
The three reports below document the archaeological studies that have been completed within the square within the past two decades. Of these, the 2007 report includes a concise summary of all previous investigations and their findings, as well as maps that document the transformation of the square over time, while the 2000 report provides the most comprehensive overview of the square's history and of the 1950s-era archaeological investigation.
Washington Square (lower left) as it appears today, with Independence Hall and Independence Square adjacent (upper right).
Washington Square as it appeared at the start of the Revolutionary War.