John Montresor, Plan of the City of New York
John Montresor (1736 - 1796) A Celebrated British Officer’s Secret Plan of the City of New York, One of the Most Significant Representations. A plan of the city of New-York & its Environs to Greenwich, on the North or Hudsons River, and to Crown Point, on the East or Sound River, Shewing the Several Streets, Publick Buildings, Docks, Fort & Battery, with the true Form & Course of the Commanding Grounds, with and without the Town . Survey'd in the winter, 1775
Hand-colored copperplate engraving. Peter Andrews, 1775. Fearing that Manhattan would soon become a battleground and needing to know the city's layout, General Thomas Gage, the commander-in-chief of the British forces, summoned to his office his best engineer, Lieutenant John Montresor, on December 7, 1765. At this time, Gage asked Montresor simply to "procure" a map of the city and its surroundings. Not finding one, Montresor was ordered to, as he noted in his journal, "Sketch him a Plan of this Place on a large scale…." Montresor worked on the plan at a time of violent hostility toward British officials and soldiers. Rioting in response to the arrival of the hated stamps (as ordered in the Stamp Act of 1765) had nearly plunged the city into chaos. In the midst of the turmoil, Montresor conducted the surveys in secret because, as he noted, if he were detected, it "might endanger one’s house and effects if not one’s life." The effects of making the plan under these circumstances can readily be seen, as only a few streets on it are identified, and their lengths are imprecisely plotted. This is most likely due, however, to the original intent of the plan as a military survey, which would focus more on topography and key installations. Montresor was one of the most active and wide-ranging military engineers operating in America in the period spanned by the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. He was also one of the most highly regarded, having been appointed chief engineer in December 1775. Also indicative of the of his stature is the compelling portrait of him painted by John Singleton Copley, now at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. During the Revolution, he worked closely with three leading British commanders: General Thomas Gage, Sir William Howe, and Sir Henry Clinton. Among his projects were surveys of Bunker's Hill (1775), Philadelphia (1777), and this map of New York. During the war, Montresor returned to New York City and bought Randalls Island in the East River and lived there with his family, during which time it was known as Montresor Island. The rich and volatile history behind the creation of this map make it a critical component in the history of the mapping of New York City.