Colonial New York Close Up: Revisiting Bernard Ratzer’s Plan of the City of New York

Plan of the City of New York in North American, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. [1770]. Brooklyn Historical Society Map Collection.

Plan of the City of New York in North America: surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767, [1770]. Brooklyn Historical Society.

Brooklyn Historical Society is excited to put two highlights of our collection on display for a limited engagement this summer in honor of the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn: two versions of the “Plan of the City of New York in North America: surveyed in 1766 and 1767″ by Bernard Ratzer (commonly called the Ratzer Map). Bernard Ratzer was an engineer and surveyor who served as a lieutenant in the British Army, and we have two versions of his impressive map in our collection. The earlier version, most likely printed in 1770, is a rare first state of this map, and from June 29th through August 28th, you can view this stunning map in its entirety, which measures about 48 x 36 inches. Also on display will be a partial copy–the bottom half which shows Long Island–of the second state, printed in 1776. This copy had been in the possession of British Lieutenant General Hugh Percy at the time of the battle, whose notations showing American positions ahead of the battle are still visible.

Historians and enthusiasts will be commemorating the Revolutionary War and this battle at BHS and at Green-Wood Cemetery later this summer with talks, tours, and reenactments. For now, I want to focus on the map itself, described by I. N. Phelps Stokes, in his Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 (1915), as “one of the most beautiful, important, and accurate early plans of New York.” Whether looking at the map from a few feet away or up close with a magnifying glass, it is easy to see Stokes’ point.

The first time I saw the Ratzer map, I was stunned first by its size, then by its overall design, and finally by its abundance of detail. Overall, this portion of upper New York Harbor, with its balance of land mass against water, is beautifully framed. Of course Ratzer’s interest was capturing the landings, landmarks, and landscape features important for planning communications, supplies, and troop movements, but the beautiful result of this pragmatic charge is almost uncanny.  

Detail, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1767 & 1766. [1770]. Brooklyn Historical Society Map Collection.

Detail showing lower Manhattan, Plan of the City of New York in North America: surveyed in the years 1767 & 1766, [1770]. Brooklyn Historical Society.

New York, as the focal point of this map, lies at its center. It is the military prize of the upper harbor as it commands a strategic location at the mouth of the Hudson River, within easy reach of Long Island and New Jersey and their extensive waterways. The footprint of Fort George (formerly Fort Amsterdam under the Dutch) is prominent at the southern tip of New York. North lies a labyrinth of streets that would look familiar to anyone who has spent time downtown, with many of the streets retaining their original names–such as Wall, Division, Pearl, Water, and John Streets. Most of the buildings labeled on this part of the map and identified in the legend are churches–18 in all, counting the Jewish Synagogue. Other important sites include City Hall, a prison and a house of corrections, a theater, a college, the Jewish cemetery, the various markets, and military buildings.

To the north of the city proper, large land holdings predominate. A few minutes with a magnifying glass will reveal estates of several prominent landowners memorialized in modern street names and parks: on the west side Bayard, Lispenard, Delancy, and on the east side the Stuyvesants. Note how the land is a patchwork of large tracts. Very little is unclaimed–it was largely the salt meadows of the Lower East Side and a few inlets along the East River that remained wild.

Detail showing Brookland Ferry, Brookland Parish, and Wallabout Bay, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. [1770]. Brooklyn Historical Society Map Collection.

Detail showing Brookland Ferry, Brookland Parish, and Wallabout Bay, Plan of the City of New York in North America: surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767, [1770]. Brooklyn Historical Society.

What of Brooklyn at this time? Brooklyn was the rural expanse of Long Island, with a few hamlets here and there. On the map, you can see Brookland Parish clustered around the Dutch Church while the Brookland Ferry area had about 50 dwellings, according to Henry R. Stiles in A History of the City of Brooklyn (1867). The rest of the landscape has been divided and cultivated, with roads connecting the far-flung villages and farms beyond the map to the ferry landing where goods were brought to market in New York. When you see the map in person, you’ll notice right away the vast salt meadows of Red Hook, Gowanus Creek, and Wallabout Bay. They give a vivid sense of how dramatic the transformation of the landscape has been over the past 240 years.

Detail showing Red Hood and Gowanus Creek, Plan of the City of New York in North America: surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767, [1770]. Brooklyn Historical Society.

Hints that creeping human development will overtake this spectacular natural environment can be found all over this map, particularly along the frontiers where settlement meets nature. If you find where your own neighborhood now stands on the map, you will create that story for yourself. I will limit myself to one final example: the magnificent panel “Southwest View of the City of New York taken from Governor’s Island” seen underneath the map. The view on the right is of Long Island, where the bluffs of Brooklyn Heights are instantly recognizable. Note the buildings surrounding the ferry landings at their base–a small cluster of dwellings huddled beneath the looming, heavily wooded ridge.

Detail, Plan of the City of New York in North American, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. [1770]. Brooklyn Historical Society Map Collection.

Detail showing view of Long Island, Plan of the City of New York in North America: surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767, [1770]. Brooklyn Historical Society.

But the focal point of this panel is this view of New York–a nearly solid mass of buildings facing a harbor teeming with ships, 2 plumes of smoke punctuating the vast sky otherwise filled with billowing clouds. This is a view at once familiar to us, for although the scale and particulars may have changed over the centuries, this dense, urban, wholly human environment is the one we New Yorkers now call home.

Detail, Plan of the City of New York in North American, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. [1770]. Brooklyn Historical Society Map Collection.

Detail showing New York from the south, Plan of the City of New York in North America: surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767, [1770]. Brooklyn Historical Society.

Two versions of the “Plan of the City of New York in North America: surveyed in 1766 and 1767″ by Bernard Ratzer will be on display at Brooklyn Historical Society beginning June 29th. You can see it any time during museum hours, Wednesday-Sunday, 12pm to 5pm. Find out more about visiting BHS here.

 

About Lisa Miller

Lisa Miller has been cataloging maps at Brooklyn Historical Society since August 2013.
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