Posts Tagged ‘New York in the Revolutionary War’

How Manhattan’s Turtle Bay got its name

May 13, 2013

Turtlebay1878mapTurtle Bay is a wonderful name for an urban neighborhood.

I always imagine hundreds of turtles sunning themselves on the rocks along the East River between 45th and 48th Streets.

That’s where the actual bay was once located in Colonial-era Manhattan, surrounded by meadows and hills, with a stream that emptied at the foot of today’s 47th Street.

Click on the map for a bigger view; it was drawn in 1878 to accompany a book about New York during the Revolutionary War.

Turtlebay1853But while turtles were plentiful in Manhattan (and made for a tasty meal), the name may come from a corrupted Dutch word.

“Some historians attribute the name to the turtle-filled creek, while others say it had nothing to do with turtles, that the name was more likely a corruption of the Dutch word “deutal” (a bent blade), which referred to the shape of the bay,” states the Turtle Bay Association.

“Regardless, the turtle feasts of the day prevailed and so did the name, Turtle Bay Farm.”

Not the Hudson, a site about the East River, has a more definitive answer.

Beekmanmansion“It was named after the Deutal (Dutch for “knife”) Bay farm, which originally covered 86 acres of land shaped like a knife blade. Also occupied by turtles, historians are unsure as to which one of these factors resulted in the name.”

If it was named for the shape of the bay, it no longer applies. The “rock-bound cove” that sheltered ships from storms was filled in and smoothed over in the 1860s.

The Beekman mansion—known as Mount Pleasant (left)—once stood at the northern end of Turtle Bay; it was demolished in the 1870s.

The United Nations occupies most of the site now.

The “mountain” once on the Lower East Side

February 20, 2013

GrandpittstreetssignOkay, we’re not talking about mountain as in the Rockies.

It was more of a hill, a 60-foot incline called Mount Pitt about where Grand and Pitt Streets cross today.

For Manhattan at the time, this “mount” was a high point, affording incredible vistas New Yorkers would kill for now.

Let a book published in 1879 by a descendant of the man who made his home on the hill give the details (and then check out the country road–like view in the NYPL Digital Collection illustration:

Mountpittview1796

“Upon this fine site still, though graded down very much, the highest point of that part of the city, which then commanded a magnificent prospect, extending on the east beyond Hellgate, on the west over the city and the bay to the shores of Staten Island and New Jersey, and on the south over the East River and the heights of Long Island. . . .”

Grandandpitt2013In pre-Revolution days, it was the location of a town home and gardens built by Judge Thomas Jones, hence why Mount Pitt is also known as Jones Hill.

During the war, colonists constructed a large redoubt on Mount Pitt called Jones Hill Fort.

Leveled after the war, Mount Pitt still exists in a way: fieldstone taken from it in the 1820s was used to build St. Augustine’s Church, on Henry Street.

Here’s Grand and Pitt Streets today: flattened out and a bit dreary. The current highest point in Manhattan lies several miles north.

Where was Lower Manhattan’s Golden Hill?

December 17, 2012

JohnwilliamstreetsignThere’s an incline along William Street, in the Financial District, that peaks where it intersects with John Street. Could it be a remnant of the colonial-era enclave of Golden Hill?

This was once the highest point at the tip of Manhattan—a place of an “abundant crop of grain, which it said waved gracefully in response to the gentle breeze and looked, in truth, like a hill of gold,” states an 1898 New York Times article.

BattleofgoldenhillpaintingGolden Hill isn’t only remembered for its pretty view; it was also the site of a bloody rebellion that led to the Revolutionary War.

On January 19, 1770, tensions were high between many New York residents and British soldiers. Colonists had constructed several liberty poles, signs of defiance against the Redcoats.

After the British destroyed a liberty pole in City Hall park, a confrontation ensued between soldiers and citizens several days later at Golden Hill. There, the British charged citizens with bayonets, wounding several.

“This is the first blood spilled during the American Revolution, two month before the Boston Massacre,” reports Old World NYC. “The clash would roll back and forth finally leading to a standoff . . . but the war had begun.”

Check out these other pieces from New York’s Revolutionary War past.

[Right: Battle of Golden Hill by Charles MacKubin Lefferts]

The Hudson River shoreline: 1766 and 2012

November 3, 2012

The Ear Inn is one of Manhattan’s oldest taverns—a low-key little pub on Spring and Greenwich Streets with a colorful history.

The Federal-style house was built in 1817 by tobacco farmer James Brown, an African-American Revolutionary War hero rumored to have been an aide to George Washington.

A downstairs bar has existed since 1833. It’s supposedly haunted by the mischief-making ghost of a sailor named Mickey, who was killed there decades ago. Bootleggers, prostitutes, and smugglers were also rumored to be regulars.

Fact and myth always blur around a place like the Ear. But a plaque on the sidewalk notes a fascinating bit about the tavern’s past.

The house stands right at the edge of the Hudson River shoreline in colonial-era New York City.

Over the years, the rocky shore was filled in and extended about a block and a half west—until Monday night, when the Hudson came roaring back, powered by Hurricane Sandy.

“At Spring Street, the river waters carried over the east bank, moved across West Street, spread past Washington and Greenwich Streets and then most of the way to the street named for the river, Hudson,” writes Jim Dwyer in The New York Times.

“That is: the river moved 1,200 feet inland, nearly a quarter-mile.”

A country mansion once on the Upper West Side

July 30, 2012

Picture today’s Upper West Side as it was in the late 18th century, when it was known as the rural village of Bloomingdale and filled with acres of meadows, streams, and wildflowers.

And towering over the landscape on a hill near Columbus Avenue and 91st street was the Apthorp Mansion (below, how it looked in 1790, according to a 1907 drawing).

Constructed in 1764 by wealthy Loyalist Charles Apthorp, the mansion, called Elmwood for its gorgeous trees, was conceded to be “the finest house on the island,” writes Peter Salwen in Upper West Side Story.

A newspaper ad for the property from 1780, reprinted in Upper West Side Story, reveals its loveliness:

“…about 300 acres of choice rich land, chiefly meadow, in good order, on which are two very fine orchards of the best fruit. . . . An exceedingly good house, elegantly furnished, commanding beautiful prospects of the East and North-Rivers, on the latter of which the estate is bounded.”

The house survived the Revolutionary War (it was in the middle of a battleground, after all) and Apthorp was charged with treason. After his 1797 death, his 10 children divided and sold off the land.

In the 19th century, some of the grounds became a popular picnic area called Elm Park. Finally the house itself met its end in 1891 (above), torn down to make way for 91st Street, as the village of Bloomingdale became part of the modern city.

The mansion is commemorated by the beautiful circa-1909 apartment building the Apthorp, on Broadway between 78th and 79th Streets.

Is there a sunken treasure in the East River?

December 29, 2011

There is according to a legend dating back to November 1780.

That’s when the HMS Hussar, a 28-gun British warship, sailed up the East River, reportedly on its way to Rhode Island.

With a crew of about 100, and up to 70 American prisoners of war, the Husser sank in the treacherous waters of Hell Gate—the tidal strait between Astoria and Wards Island that felled hundreds of vessels before being dynamited in the 19th century.

“Hampered by the violent currents, the Hussar’s captain, Maurice Pole, struggled to steer toward shore, but the ship sank somewhere between Port Morris and Montressor’s Island (today North Brother Island),” writes Tom Vanderbilt in a 2002 New York Times piece.

“Most of the crew survived, and the masts, it was said, jutted above water for days before being swept away.”

Immediately, rumors hit that the Hussar, carrying payroll for British troops stationed in New York, went down with 2 to 4 million dollars in gold on board.

Was it true? On one hand, surviving sailors claimed the payroll had been dropped off before the frigate sank.

Still, the British launched three serious expeditions to find the Hussar’s remains after the Revolutionary War, supporting suspicions that something very valuable had gone down with the ship.

Over the centuries, treasure hunters have gone into the murky East River waters to uncover what would be worth about a billion dollars today.

Aside from some pottery and other artifacts, no treasure has been found.

The Hussar’s remains haven’t been located either; they’re thought to have become landfill in the Bronx.

[Top: USGS topographical map; middle, a frigate the Hussar may have resembled; bottom, a 1904 etching of Hell Gate in 1774, from the NYPL Digital Collection]

When skulls and bones washed ashore in Brooklyn

December 22, 2011

In the years after the Revolutionary War, Brooklynites living along Wallabout Bay off the East River were greeted almost daily by a macabre sight.

Human bones and skulls, bleached by the sun, would be unearthed by tides, washing ashore.

These were the remains of men who died aboard the prison ships—16 rotted, disease-ridden vessels docked near Wallabout Bay, where British soldiers held thousands of captive patriots in horrific conditions.

More than 11,500 prisoners perished on these ships, their bodies thrown overboard or hastily buried in waterside graves.

“For many years after the end of the war, the sandy beaches of Wallabout Bay remained littered with the bones of men who died in the prison ships—one resident of the area described skulls lying about as thick as pumpkins in an autumn cornfield. . . . ” wrote Edwin G. Burrows in his 2008 book Forgotten Patriots.

In 1808, residents collected the bones and built a small crypt for them on Front Street and Hudson and Hudson Avenue, in today’s Vinegar Hill.

As decades passed, city leaders called for a more heroic monument to the men known as the prison ship martyrs.

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park was dedicated in 1908. Twenty-two boxes containing a fraction of the remains of the martyrs are still inside a vault there today.

[A prison ship anchored in the bay; Wallabout Bay, site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in 1851, 70 or so years after the ships occupied the bay]

Marquis de Lafayette visits New York City

January 11, 2010

New York has a couple of major roads, a high school, even a housing project named after Lafayette, the French military leader who became a Major General in the Continental Army and promoted democracy at home in France.

He was a big hero in post-Revolutionary War years. So to help celebrate America’s 50th birthday, Lafayette was invited back to the U.S. in 1824.

His arrival in August of that year put the city in the grip of Lafayette fever. 

A third of the population of New York at that time—50,000 people—greeted him on lower Broadway.

      Touring Manhattan, he attended parties, plays, and a spectacular ball at Castle Clinton in his honor before taking off to visit the rest of the country. 

A plaque in the West Village marks his visit. It’s on Hudson Street affixed to P.S. 3.

At the time, the school was run by the “Free School Society” and was considered a fine example of public education, worthy enough to show the Marquis.

New York war hero: Margaret Corbin

May 24, 2009

It’s Memorial Day weekend—an appropriate time to remember Margaret Corbin, considered by some to be the first female American soldier and someone whose name shows up all over Northern Manhattan.

MargaretcorbinCorbin was the wife of a Virginia farmer who had enlisted in the Pennsylvania state artillery to fight for the colonists during the Revolutionary War. Rather than stay at home alone, she joined his company as a “camp follower,” as other wives were called, cooking and nursing wounded soldiers.

On November 16, 1776, their company was stationed at Fort Washington—where Fort Tryon Park is today—to help stave off a sneak attack launched by British and Hessian forces. After her husband was killed instantly while operating a canon, Margaret stepped into his place and began firing. Fortryonplaque

Though the four-hour battle ended with the enemy capturing Fort Washington, and she was severely wounded, Margaret supposedly proved to be one of the best gunners on the colonists’ side. 

She never fully recovered from her injuries and was eventually given $30 plus a lifetime disability pension.

Today, a plaque in Fort Tryon Park honors her bravery. And Northern Manhattan near The Cloisters is home to Margaret Corbin Drive and Margaret Corbin Circle.


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