Montresor’s plan of New York City during the Stamp Act Riots

John Montresor, Engineer / P. Andrews Sculp, Dukes Court St. Martins Lane, 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… Survey’d in the Winter, 1775. London: A[ndrew] Dury, [1768] /ca. 1775.
Engraving on laid paper, in all ca. 24 ¾”h x 20 ¼”w at neat line plus margins, full old color with later retouching. Faint tape stains at upper corners, upper-right margin slightly extended, two small chips to left edge.

A lovely example of this landmark map of New York City, based on surveys made during the Stamp Act Crisis by John Montresor, arguably Great Britain’s longest-serving and most accomplished military engineer in America.

Montresor (1736-99) had a long, varied and almost unbelievably accomplished career in the American Colonies, beginning with service during the French and Indian War and not concluding until 1778, by which time he was Chief Engineer in North America. In the mid-1760s he was based in New York City as a senior engineer reporting to General Gage, then Commander in Chief of British forces in North America. In December 1765, during the upheavals following passage of the Stamp Act, Gage ordered him to “Sketch him a Plan of this Place on a large Scale with its environs and adjacent country.” (Montresor, Journals, p. 342)

Montresor promptly complied, though in the toxic environment he was compelled to work “Sub Rosa as observations might endanger ones house and effects if not ones life.” (p. 345) Despite the difficulties, he was able to present a fair copy to Gage in February of the following year. He later returned to England for several months leave, during which time he oversaw the engraving of this and other maps by Peter Andrews at the firm of Mary-Ann Rocque. The Plan of the City of New York was published separately, advertised for sale by Rocque in December 1768, and copies were also included in Thomas Jefferys’ General Topography of North America.

Offered here is an example of the second edition of the map, which appeared in 1775 and differs only minimally from the first edition of 1767. The imprint of publisher Andrew Dury is added, and Dury has slyly altered the date of survey in the title cartouche from 1766 to 1775, thus disguising that the map had been drawn a decade earlier.

The map is the first large-scale map to depict Manhattan as far north as Greenwich Village and the first to convey a sense of the island’s rolling, even hilly topography prior to later development. To achieve this Montresor used a variety of styles of shading and hachuring to differentiate built-up areas, areas of elevation, wetlands, woodlands, fields &c. A table of References at the bottom identifies particular points of interest, including Fort George, the Battery and other military facilities at the southern tip of the island; 14 religious establishments representing more than 10 denominations, including “the “Jews Synagogue” near Broad Street (with their “burying ground” well north at the apex of Bowery and Love Lanes); and King’s “Collegde” (now Columbia). North of town several new blocks are laid out in the Bowery, field boundaries are indicated, and much attention is given to the fine country manors of the De Lancey, Rutgers and other leading families north of the city, with their geometrically-arranged formal gardens clearly visible.

At lower left a long note summarizes the history and geographical position of the city, along with more extensive observations about the layout and inadequacies of Fort George and the Battery, the latter of which “is in a ruinous situation, & was constructed at an Enormous Expence, & seems to have been intended for Profit & Form then [sic] Defence.” At upper left an inset chart shows New York Bay and Harbor from Manhattan to Sandy Hook.

For all the map’s merits, Augustyn and Cohen rightly point out significant flaws, including imprecision in the street plan, lack of detail in the settled areas, and the omission of docks on the East River. These were likely the result of the very difficult circumstances under which Montresor was working rather than any inattention to duty on his part.

Montresor was a deeply flawed character, and his arrogance, xenophobia, entitlement and apparently limitless capacity for resentment leap from the pages of his Journals. Nevertheless he deserves to be remembered and greatly admired for his immense talent, energy and contributions to the British conquest and mapping of North America, among them this plan of New York.

Robert Augustyn & Paul Cohen, Manhattan in Maps (New York: Rizzoli, 1997), pp. 70-72 (1st state).  William P. Cumming, “The Montresor-Ratzer-Sauthier Sequence of Maps of New York City, 1766-1776,” in Imago Mundi, no. 31 (1979), pp. 55-56. Daniel C. Haskell, Manhattan Maps A Co-operative List (New York: New York Public Library, 1931), 307. Phillips, p. 525. Sellers & Van Ee, 1105. Stokes, Iconography of Manhattan Island (New York: Robert H. Dodd, 1915-1928), vol. I pl. 40 and pp. 339-340. Quotes from Montresor’s Journals are from G. D. Scull, ed., The Montresor Journals in Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1881.