An 18th-century manuscript plan for the town of “Athens” on the Genesee River, at the future site of Rochester New York, linked to Robert Morris’ spectacular real estate investments. The map was executed by Charles de Krafft, an 18th-century American mapmaker who worked as a draftsman for L’Enfant during the 1791 planning of Washington, D.C.
The plan is skillfully executed in ink and wash color on a single large sheet of vellum. The proposed town is shown in unparalleled detail, with lots delineated and assigned to the members of the investing syndicate: Robert Morris, Benjamin Barton, Samuel Ogden and Samuel Street. In all, some 193 lots are delineated, all faintly numbered in a different hand and with a lighter and redder ink than the rest of the map. The lots in Athens (more on which below) are numbered 1-104; those in the town at the south end of “Gerundigut” Bay are numbered 1-38; and in the rest of the township, they are numbered 1-51. In Athens proper, streets are named with widths noted, and a 15-acre public square is shown at the center of the projected town. The falls are labeled “Great Falls” and “Little Falls” (The falls, the former of which are some 90 feet high, offer an enormous potential source of power, largely explaining the appeal of the site as a setting for a major town.) The trees used by the surveyor as landmarks are identified in the corners of the township.
The plan was based on a survey made, probably in 1792, by one Captain Job Gilbert, who had an ownership interest in Township 13, just east of Athens. Gilbert’s work was copied, likely shortly thereafter, by Charles de Krafft, who had assisted Pierre Charles L’Enfant in laying out Washington, D.C. in 1791.
It is worth noting we have found mention of an untraced 1792 map of Township 14, Range 17 [sic] recorded in a photostat copy at the Rochester Public Library. We have so far been unable to locate this photostat. (Blake McKelvey, “Indian Allan’s Mills,” Rochester History vol. I no. 4 (Oct. 1939), p. 24)
Robert Morris and the Athens Scheme
Among the biggest losers of the American Revolution were the Iroquois of central and western New York, most of whom had sided with the British in the hope of forestalling settlement on their lands. The ironic result was that after the war these lands became fair game for wealthy speculators—both American and European—eager to make a killing from sales to land-hungry New England farmers. By means of a maze of treaties and private deals, the region was carved up into enormous tracts, one of of the more impressive being the Phelps and Gorham Purchase of 1788. The Purchase totaled some six million acres, but for our purposes, the relevant piece was a huge parcel just east of the Genesee River and another much smaller one—the “Millyard Tract”—to the west of the Falls.
When Phelps and Gorham ran into financial difficulties they sold the land in 1791 to Philadelphian Robert Morris (1734-1806). Morris was a financier, merchant, signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the founders of the American financial system. At the time this map was made, he was the United States’ wealthiest citizen and most prolific land speculator, though within a few years the Panic of 1796-97 led to his bankruptcy and imprisonment. In the early 1790s though, he was still flying high, and he soon flipped the parcel at a huge profit to a group of British investors known as the Pulteney Association.
However, Morris seems to have retained (or purchased separately) the township of Athens, bounded to the north by Lake Ontario, east by Irondequoit Bay, and west by the Genesee River (The township is shown on Augustus Porter’s very rare 1794 map of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.) With a small group of investors he sought to develop a commercial town at the Falls of the Genesee. His fellow investors included Samuel Ogden (1746-1810), who had served as a Colonel in the New Jersey Militia during the Revolution, later became involved in the iron business, and served as one of Morris’s agents; Benjamin Barton, Sr. a New Jersey-based entrepreneur; and Samuel Street, a New England-born trader and one of the important early American residents on Lake Ontario, who was trusted by the Five Nations and engaged by them to represent their interests to the Federal government.
A 1939 Rochester History article provides a brief overview of the Athens scheme:
“There was a far-flung land-development scheme back of this transaction. Barton was associated with other speculators, including Robert Morris and his agent, Samuel Ogden, in the purchase during 1792 of the township lying between the Genesee River and Irondequoit Bay, now largely occupied by the eastern half of the city of Rochester. There Morris and his associates planned to establish a town at the head of Irondequoit Bay, and a commercial city, to be named Athens, on the east bank of the Genesee at the lower falls. It was obviously necessary to check any rival enterprise at the Allan mill site. The One-Hundred-Acre Tract was therefore acquired by Barton, and its title was shortly turned over to Ogden, the active agent for the associated speculators. But Robert Morris’s land speculations had become so vast that, when in 1793 bank failures in London constricted his credit, it became necessary to unload as much of his property as possible. Thus Charles Williamson was able in 1794 to acquire the Genesee Mill Lot for the Pulteney Estate.” (McKelvey, p. 8)
The scheme to develop Athens in Township 14 goes to one of the enduring questions about the involvement of Morris and other American investors in western New York: Were they interested in actually developing the land they purchased, or were they simply flipping it in Europe for quick profit (namely to the Pulteney syndicate and the predecessors of the Holland Land Company)? This map suggests that the investors were genuinely interested in developing the choicer areas, even if their plans did not come to fruition.
The investment scheme at Township 14 was so short-lived that scant evidence of it remains today. Indeed, it is unclear who took ownership of the land after the original syndicate, although the Pulteney Association probably did so as, or just before, Morris’s investments started to go downhill in 1794. What is known is that the Athens scheme was the first formal attempt to found a town on the current site of Rochester, New York, and the present map is the most detailed extant record of that attempt. With the real estate frenzy of the 1790s more than a decade in the past, the site was finally built on in 1811, by Colonel Rochester and his partners. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the city blossomed into one of America’s first boom towns.
Lieutenant John Charles Philip von Krafft, or Charles de Krafft, (1752-1804) was an important draftsman and mapmaker during the American Revolution and early years of the Republic. A notice in the Magazine of American History, volume 19 (page 183-84) gives a precis of his background and involvement in the Revolution:
“Von Kraft was born in Dresden, Saxony, in 1752, and is said to have belonged to a baronial family; he was related to many persons of rank in Prussia and Saxony. At twenty-one he was commissioned ensign in General von Luck’s regiment of fusiliers in the Prussian army under Frederick the Great, and was promoted the same year. In seeking advancement three years later he resigned his commission, and after visiting Russia and wandering over Europe, he sailed for America, where he served in the Revolutionary war under Von Donop, and later on under Von Bose. He married in New York, and after the government was established under the Constitution, was employed as surveyor and draughtsman to the Treasury Department. In connection with his journal he made several maps and sketches which are reproduced in this volume, notably the plan of the battle of Trenton, with explanations, the battle-ground at Monmouth, the plan of Red Bank fort, in New Jersey, the plan of the region between Philadelphia and Valley Forge, with the several positions occupied by the British and the Americans, a sketch of New London and Groton-town, and the plan of the military positions on Manhattan Island, all of which are of exceptional historic interest and value.” (Magazine of American History, vol. IX (1888), pp. 183-184)
As a mapmaker, De Krafft had an exceptionally diverse output; he is recorded as the author of a descriptive watercolor of the Spruce Street Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia “showing plan of burial ground;” is credited as the compiler for Osgood Carleton’s Plan of Part of the District of Maine (1793); drew a manuscript map of the Native American mound fortifications which was bound into Thomas Jefferson’s own copy of Notes of Virginia; and most importantly, worked with Pierre L’Enfant to lay out Washington, D.C. in 1791.
“The Georgetown Weekly Ledger of July 2, 1791, reported that “a large number of gentlemen attending, a plan of the city, which had for several weeks occupied the time and talents of Colonel L’Enfant, assisted by the Baron de Graff, and which, with some small alterations [Washington] had determined to adopt” was shown to the public. Scholars have long speculated who “Baron de Graff” was. In 1800 “Charles de Krafft, Surveyor and Draftsman” advertised in a local newspaper that he “was employed by [the] government in the year 1791 (at Georgetown) to assist Major L’Enfant to plan and lay down the first draft, for the city of Washington.” (Pamela Scott, Capital Engineers, p. 16)
In all, a fascinating artifact of early American expansion, drawn by an important mapmaker and with a fascinating connection to Founding Father Robert Morris.
Old folds and a bit of wrinkling, with scattered minor soiling.