1814: A house by the Hudson

William’s house in New York stood on a prominent knoll in the north-western corner of the city area, between the Bloomingdale Road and the North or Hudson River.

The road dropped to the north into a valley where the settlement of Manhattanville straddled a small stream. To the west a long wall of cliffs stretched above the shoreline of New Jersey on the far side of the river. Woodland, fields and orchards spread from the road’s eastern side across the Kingsbridge Road towards Haerlem Creek, the village of Haerlem and the Haerlem River. Southward the road ran for a few miles through farmland and then more densely populated areas until it reached the heart of the city and became Broadway.

This is the area where the battle of Haerlem Heights was fought in September 1776 when George Washington led his forces to victory over the British troops who were occupying New York. In the summer of 1814 Great Britain and the USA were again at war but now the positions were reversed: it was Americans who were seeking to protect their city against attack from land and sea by British forces. ‘Patriotic Citizens’ were labouring day and night to complete a line of defences from Haerlem Heights around to Sandy Hook on the New Jersey shore.

The plan for the defences had been devised by a military survey team led by brigadier-general Joseph Gardner Swift. The new works were ‘chiefly constructed by the labour of the Citizens of the City of New York, Long Island, and of the neighbouring Towns near the North River, and in New Jersey. All classes volunteering daily working Parties of from Five to Fifteen Hundred Men. The Fortifications are testimonials of Patriotic zeal.

At the end of the year Swift submitted his report to the Committee of Defence which had been set up by the Common Council of the city. As well as a ‘large and elegantly finished Map of the Haerlem line’, the report included surveys, maps and views both large and small. One of the views features William’s house, suggesting how it may have looked from the south.

Hudson house (2)

The stone tower in the foreground was incorporated into the line of defences and became known as Fort Horn in honour of major Joseph Horn, the militia officer who supervised the works at Haerlem Heights. On the left, above the tower, is a steamboat on the Hudson, perhaps one of those designed by Robert Fulton who lived in New York with his wife Harriet and their children.

Courtenay and Fulton had been acquainted for more than twenty years. As his friend Cadwallader D. Colden noted, Fulton on his first visit to England ‘spent two years in Devonshire, near Exeter’. James Renwick, a member of Swift’s 1814 survey team, was more forthcoming: the young American, who had trained as a painter, lived for that time at Powderham in the castle ‘filled with masterpieces’, ‘occupied in copying the pictures it contains’. In Renwick’s account, when William arrived in New York ‘Suspected and accused of an infamous crime, his birth and title, which have in many other instances served as passports even for vice and frivolity to American hospitality, did not avail him, and every door was closed against him except that of Fulton.’

On the Military Sketch of Haerlem Heights and Plain, drawn for Swift’s report by captain James Renwick, William’s house is marked simply as Courtnay but at some time the property became known as Claremont. In The New York of Yesterday, his history of Bloomingdale, Hopper Striker Mott tells how the trader Michael Hogan named the house ‘after the royal residence at Surrey of Prince William, Duke of Clarence, afterwards King William IV’, but this story cannot be wholly true as the Claremont in England was not Clarence’s house and he did not live there. Extended, adapted and perhaps rebuilt by the Post family later in the 19th century, the Claremont in New York became a popular eating-house which survived until 1951 when the building was destroyed by fire during demolition.

DT4761

Historical and topographical writers gushed appreciation of Claremont and its setting: ‘an elegant country mansion, upon a most desirable spot’ (Benson J. Lossing); ‘of noble proportions and ample space, with portico, halls and windows, where there is ever abundance of light and air admitted’ (Matilda Despard); ‘The superb view from the knoll on which the mansion stands is surpassingly lovely’ (Hopper Striker Mott); ‘The spacious building bears witness to the enlarged ideas and ample means of the projector, while his taste in selection of locality is amply testified by the grand view which is afforded from every point.’ (Abram C. Dayton).

It’s clear from the maps in Swift’s report that William’s house stood just outside the city’s new defences. From the east to the stone tower above the river there was ‘a line of intrenchments with faces and flanks, crossing the Bloomingdale road to a commanding height on Mark’s grounds, and running along its summit to the bank of the North River, which falls abruptly and nearly perpendicularly to the water’s edge.’

The defences were never put to the test. British forces shifted their attention south to Chesapeake Bay, Washington and Baltimore. In December a peace treaty was agreed at Ghent between the two countries but it was several weeks before news of this crossed the Atlantic, and fighting continued in Louisiana where American forces won a famous victory in January 1815 at the battle of New Orleans.


Swift completed his final report to the Committee of Defence on 31 December 1814. Unable to find the document in 1889 when he was preparing his local history of New York and Vicinity during the War of 1812-’15, R. S. Guernsey sent a letter to the prolific author Benson J. Lossing who replied:

‘I have General Swift’s Report of the Fortifications on Manhattan Island in 1812-15, accompanied by many drawings of them, maps, etc.,etc.

‘When I was preparing my ‘History of the War of 1812-15,’ I found in the garret of the Hall of Records, in the City Hall Park, this report, covered thickly with dust and cobwebs and among papers mutilated by mice. I called the attention of Mr. Valentine, then Clerk of the Common Council, to the report, and asked for the privilege of taking it home with me for use. It was granted, with the additional privilege of keeping it as long as I please. ‘It will be safer in your hands than left to the careless custodians of it, as you see how they neglect such things,’ said Mr. Valentine.’

After a loan of nearly 30 years Lossing returned the report which was then deposited with the New York Historical Society. Guernsey included a transcript of Swift’s verbal text in his history, along with the view of Courtenay’s house. The whole report is now available online, finely presented by the New-York Historical Society.


Images from the top

The map and watercolour come from Swift’s report, pages 19 and 24:

http://digitalcollections.nyhistory.org/islandora/object/islandora%3A115181#page/19/mode/1up

http://digitalcollections.nyhistory.org/islandora/object/islandora%3A115181#page/24/mode/1up

The oil painting of the Claremont dates from around 1855 and is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of New York: Accession Number 54.90.169.

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