J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

View from Somewhere in the Bronx

Yesterday John U. Rees called my attention to this article by Matthew Skic, currently a student in the Winterthur museum’s Program in Early American Material Culture.

Winterthur’s collection includes the watercolor sketch shown above, made by Capt. Thomas Davies of the Royal Artillery in 1776. Skic explains:
The drawing depicts the British and Hessian assault of Fort Washington, an American fortification located on the heights at the northern end of Manhattan Island. The battle took place on November 16, 1776. Davies,…an eyewitness to the battle, executed this drawing soon after the assault.
Skic undertook an investigation of where Davies was standing when he made that sketch.
Prior to the American Revolution, Davies trained at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, England. At Woolwich he learned geometry, the technical aspects of artillery, and how to draw. Before photography, military drawings served as functional records of battles and landscapes. Drawings provided perspectives of elevation, terrain, and sightlines that maps could not. With the landscape in front of him, Davies recorded the assault, detailing the rocky heights and lower farm land around Fort Washington.

As I looked long and hard at this drawing, a few questions came to mind: How did Davies choose his viewing location? Does his drawing faithfully record the landscape? Why was this site important enough to record? My fascination with Davies’s creation of this drawing inspired me to travel to New York and view, first-hand, the landscape he saw 238 years ago. I hoped that my personal engagement with his drawing would help me understand its creation.

I first needed to figure out Davies’s location. The Continental Army built Forts Lee and Washington about where the George Washington Bridge is located today. With the Hudson River and New Jersey palisades visible in the background of the drawing, Davies shows the assault as viewed from the northeast. In the foreground of the drawing is the Harlem River, meaning Davies stood in what is today the Bronx. In order to see such a broad view of the landscape on the west side of the river, he must have stood on elevated ground.
The two main candidates, Skic thought, were University Heights and Kingsbridge Heights. After studying modern topographic maps and Google Maps, he headed to New York with a camera to trace Davies’s steps.

The big challenge, it turned out, was that these parts of New York have many more thick trees than they did back in 1776, after over a century of farming. Check out Skic’s report for the view he was eventually able to photograph. It’s possible that winter will open up the foliage and provide a clearer view as well.


G. Lovely said...

For my money it's undoubtedly University Heights, and I'd even speculate he was somewhere on the grounds of the VA hospital that now sits on the rise above Sedgewick Ave. See this British map from 1776. Aligning landmarks, the small cluster of houses around the tidal marsh, etc., the rise looks to be just west of the British encampment south of Kings Bridge Road labeled "to Connecticut" on the map:


The houses would appear to be at what is now the end of 9th Ave. in the railyard just north of the University Heights bridge.

Hugh Harrington said...

Well done Matthew Skic! This is history research on the ground which I thoroughly enjoy. Excellent commentary G. Lovely.