Rare Map Shows Lower Manhattan, Before Revolution, in Fine Detail

Detail from "Plan of the City of New York, in North America: Surveyed in the Years 1766 & 1767" shows the northern reaches of the developed city on Manhattan's west side, which ended around "Reads" Street in today's Tribeca. Courtesy of Robert Augustyn Rare Maps and Prints

Dec. 25, 2020

We can thank a British army officer serving in “His Majesty’s Province of New York” for giving us a rare view of Lower Manhattan, circa 1770. 

Bernard Ratzer, an army engineer who has been called the “Da Vinci of New York cartography,” created “Plan of the City of New York.” The map is based on 1766 and 1767 surveys of what was then the city, and the rural environs that on the west side began above “Reads Street.” Only a few known copies exist, and one of them, from a second edition published in 1776, is now on the market for $300,000.

The seller, Robert Augustyn, a Connecticut-based rare maps and prints dealer, provided the Trib with a high resolution image of his 11-square-foot document. From it, we can hover above the British colony on the cusp of revolution. Augustyn, whose book “Manhattan in Maps” tells the history of the city through maps, calls Ratzer’s work “the finest piece of urban cartography of an American city to date.”

And for those who know those streets today, it is an especially fascinating one.

Aside from the long vanished Royal road names—King, Queen, Princess, Duke, Crown, etc.—plenty of familiar ones live on. One could, for example, begin at the corner of Chambers and Church Streets, walk (or gallop) a block over to Broad Way Street, and proceed down to the Battery—the fort, not the park—passing Warren, Murrays, Barkley, Vesyes, Cortland, Wall, Beaver and Pearl Streets, among others that remain today. 

“In far lower Manhattan there were streets added but the map matches pretty closely to what we have today,” Augustyn said.

From the land owned by G. Harrison and Leonard Lispenard  (where streets named for them mark their 18th century estates), to the country road known as The Bowery Lane, to the cultivated acres of Brookland across the East River, the map also has much to tell us about the rural topography of the period.

“One of the most fascinating things you learn is not from the developed part of the city,” Augustyn said in a phone interview, “but from the semi or undeveloped part of the city you see that the city’s ecology was amazingly varied at the time. Lots of wetland, a very hilly place.” 

As a bonus, Ratzer provides a panorama of the Lower Manhattan skyline, dominated by church steeples, as seen from The Govournor’s Island, where a finely outfitted man fishes from the rocks and a woman stands nearby, shading herself with a parasol. It is a peaceful scene, one that hardly presages the bloody battles soon to come. As Augustyn notes, Ratzer’s city plan, a copy of which was presented to King George III, had strategic value to the Red Coats. “During the Revolutionary War, Manhattan was always under threat of attack by American forces,” he said. “The British really surveyed every square inch of the island in order to defend it.”