The Area Around the Van Cortlandt House in the 18th Century

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  • #483

    ndembowski
    Keymaster

    I am going to write a series of short posts about the area around the Van Cortlandt House during the 18th Century and the American Revolution.  In order to get a “zoomed-out” geographical overview, I decided to annotate part of a map entitled “Map Of the Country Adjacent to Kingsbridge.” It was surveyed in 1781 “by Order of His Excellency General Sir Henry Clinton K.B..”  It was made at a time that Sir Henry Clinton, then Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America, was worried about Washington’s army linking up with the French army in order to attack New York. This map was recently made available online by the William Clements Library, at the University of Michigan.  Like all maps of this time, it leaves a lot out but it is probably the most complete map of the area that I have seen.  Map key is below.

    1. Van Cortlandt House
    2. Older House
    3. Van Cortlandt Mills
    4. Thomas Emmons House
    5. Mill Pond (today’s Van Cortlandt Lake)
    6. Albany Post Road
    7. Mile Square Road
    8. Vault Hill
    9. Turtle Brook
    10. Path to Vault Hill
    11. Kortright House
    12. Isaac Green House
    13. Ryer House
    14. Breakneck Hill
    15. William Warner House
    16. Isaac Warner House
    17. Tibbett’s Brook
    18. Mount Pleasant (today’s Fieldston Campus)
    19. Upper Cortlandts (the estate of Frederick Van Cortlandt)
    20. Shortcut paths to Boston Post Road and William’s Bridge
    21. Path connecting Boston Post Road to Mile Square Road (today’s Jerome Avenue)
    22. Vermilyea House 1
    23. Abraham Vermilyea House
    24. Ogden House
    25. Gilbert Valentine House
    26. Mile Square Road (today’s Van Cortlandt Park East)
    27. Daniel DeVoe House
    28. Jesse Huested House
    29. Frederick DeVoe House
    30. Path to Albany Post Road from Mile Square Road (today’s McClean Avenue)
    31. Tibbett’s Brook Path (approximate location of Henry Hudson Parkway and Saw Mill River Parkway)
    32. Path to Tippett’s Neck (path to today’s Spuyten Duyvil Hill, approximately the same path as today’s Irwin Avenue)

    Here’s the contemporary view:

    When I look at this map, I am struck by a few things.  First, the Van Cortlandts had more neighbors than you would have otherwise assumed.  If you were to visit the Van Cortlandt House Museum today, think about how long it would take to walk to the intersection of 242nd Street and Broadway.  That is where James Van Cortlandt’s closest neighbor, Thomas Emmons, lived–not that far at all. And there were clusters of homes all around Van Cortlandt Park.  Second, I am amazed by how many of these colonial paths and roads still exist as modern-day paved roads. Van Cortlandt Park East is the Mile Square Road of yesteryear.  McClean Avenue, Jerome Avenue, the Saw Mill River Parkway, and other roads were just paths back then but they did exist and the maps show them.  These features are all shown on the customized map that I’ve been making here and you can compare maps and zoom in/out to see for yourself.

    #485

    ndembowski
    Keymaster

    The Roads and Paths around the Van Cortlandt House (Part 1 – The Albany Post Road)

    Walking around the Van Cortlandt House in the park you will come across several intersecting trails and paths.  Some of them have the look of old colonial-era roads.  Some of those paths, in fact, harken back to that era–but some do not.

    Zooming in a bit closer to the area adjacent to the VCH in the 1781 Clinton map, you will see a cross-intersection just southwest of the Van Cortlandt Mills.  The road coming from the south is the Albany Post Road, or (“APR”).

    At this intersection it splits off into three directions.  The road heading west is the continuation of the Albany Post Road.  The road that goes straight north from the intersection leads to Vault Hill, where the Van Cortlandt family buried their dead.  The road that heads east from the intersection is the road to Mile Square or the Mile Square Road.

    From this intersection, the Albany Post Road cut west and continued to about the site of present-day Broadway and 242nd Street.  It continued north along what is still known as “Post Road.”  It is fun to think that this part of one of America’s oldest roads still has its original name.  In the old days, it wound its way north through Yonkers and along the Hudson River all the way to Albany.  In colonial times, it was also known as the “turnpike” and the “River Road.”  The photo below shows today’s street sign with “Post Rd.”

    It would easy to forgive someone for thinking that the section of the Albany Post Road that went west through today’s park still exists in the form of the path pictured below.

    This path has a rustic look to it and travels in the same direction that the Albany Post Road would have as it traversed today’s park (east to west).  And it is located south of the Van Cortlandt House as indicated in the 1781 Clinton map.  However, there are a few reasons why this path cannot be a section of the old Albany Post Road.  First of all, if you look carefully at the 1781 Clinton map you will see that Tibbett’s Brook (shaded blue on the below map) flowed north between the Van Cortlandt House and the Albany Post Road (in the spot indicated by an “A” on the below map).  It would actually be impossible for Tibbett’s Brook to flow north in the area between the above-pictured path and the Van Cortlandt House.  That area, where today there is a garden on the grounds of the house museum, is at a much higher elevation than Tibbett’s Brook and we all know that water can’t flow uphill.  Secondly, the 1781 Clinton map indicates a much greater distance between the Van Cortlandt House and the Albany Post Road than exists between the Van Cortlandt House and the path pictured above.

    This is not to say that the path in today’s park is a new trail.  While it is not a remnant of the Albany Post Road, it is actually a very old path.  Have a look at the below section from an 1868 Beers, Ellis, and Soule Atlas of New York and Vicinity.

    The Van Cortlandt House is on the right under the words “Van Cortlandt Est.”  You’ll notice the presence of the present-day trail in the form of dotted lines on the map south of the house.  This trail led from the Van Cortlandt House to the large intersection west of it, where there was a store, a school, a post office, and a blacksmith shop.  This intersection was centered around the same area as the above photo showing the street signs.  That was the core of the village of Mosholu.  The laws of human laziness would seem to suggest the need for the path running along the fence of the Van Cortlandt House as it was a direct way to get from the Van Cortlandt House to this intersection.  Further to the south, under Tibbett’s Brook in the above map, you’ll see the original section of the Albany Post Road running east to west just as in the 1781 map.  That section of the Albany Post Road would intersect Broadway roughly in the area of today’s 242nd Street.  The old Albany Post Road actually crossed today’s park roughly where today you find the path pictured below.

    The below map produced by the Dept. of Public Parks in 1872 also shows the Albany Post Road hitting Broadway south of the Mosholu intersection.  The Van Cortlandt House is indicated with the letters “VCH.”

    You will also notice the contour line just to the south of the Van Cortlandt House.  It represents a drop in elevation from the area just south of the house to the lower area where Tibbett’s Brook once flowed.  You can descend that slope to the marshier area below by walking from the east/west path down this staircase that is about 150 feet south of the garden:

    You can see that it would be impossible for Tibbett’s Brook to flow north up that hill.  Interestingly, the contour line in the 1872 park map seems to mimic a set of three unlabeled line segments in the 1781 Clinton map, highlighted in lime green below.  They seem to form a frame around that area of low elevation.  Could they have represented a wall?  It is difficult to say.

    I will write more on the other roads and features around the house after July 4th.  Enjoy Independence Day!

    #486

    ndembowski
    Keymaster

    The “cross” intersection that was south of the Van Cortlandt House appears in the 1781 Clinton map and other maps of that period (although I have yet to find one with the same level of detail as the 1781 Clinton map).  Below is the 1781 Clinton map with the intersection highlighted in red.

    The below image is a snippet taken from a fascinating 1778 British map held in the Library of Congress, entitled “Skecth [sic] of the road from Kings Bridge to White Plains.”  As you can see, it is definitely more of a “sketch” than a detailed work of cartography.

    The roads are drawn somewhat abstractly so see the below labels to align this sketch with the 1781 Clinton Map.

    The purpose of the above map was to show the disposition of British troops, which held positions north of Kingsbridge (in Yonkers, Dobbs Ferry, etc.) at that time.  This explains the lack of detail in this area.  Nonetheless, the intersection where the Albany Post Road, Mile Square Road, and path to Vault Hill branch off is indicated roughly in the same area.

    That same intersection is visible in the below snippet from another map from the Clements Library at the University of Michigan–although it does not come together in a neat cross as in the above maps.  This is another British map from the revolution and it is even more abstract and lacking in detail.

    The mill pond is not even depicted here but the paths and roads are discernable and labelled below.

    100 years after the revolution, that intersection is still clearly visible in the below snippet from an 1872 Department of Public Parks map.

    Annotated version:

    Over 100 years later in today’s park–in roughly the same location as that old intersection–you see this:

    The view is looking north just north of “Tibbett’s Wetland.”  While this might not be in the exact same spot as that old intersection, it is very close.  The path veering off to the left in the photo roughly follows the path of the Albany Post Road.  The pool in today’s park prevents this path from continuing to Broadway.  If you were to take the path to the right, you would be heading east below the south edge of Van Cortlandt Lake in roughly the same direction and location as the old Mile Square Road.  If you were to continue straight ahead north (like the two kids in the photo), you would be travelling along the old path to Vault Hill.  As you walk that path toward Vault Hill you will notice a stone wall on your right (pictured below), which gives it the look of an old colonial road.  Although I cannot say how old that stone wall is, that path certainly seems to be in the same place and have the same trajectory as the old path that lead to Vault Hill in the 18th century.

    If we take another look at the 1781 Clinton map, this path continued straight (over today’s Parade Ground) to the base of Vault Hill, where it forked into two smaller paths.  The left fork connected to the Albany Post Road and the right fork headed north along the west bank of Tibbett’s Brook all the way to about where the Cross County Parkway is today.  In other words, it generally follows the path of today’s Saw Mill River Parkway.  In colonial times, it was only a path but it would have been important to the families that lived along the western banks of Tibbett’s Brook (the Posts and Oakleys).
    Another curious feature of the Van Cortlandt property is depicted on the 1781 Clinton map.  As the path to Vault Hill traverses the modern-day Parade Ground, the map shows that it is bordered by regularly-spaced objects on both sides (by the arrows).   It seems like this must have been a tree-lined path.  Another possibility is that it was some kind of elevated boardwalk to get over the field, which could get marshy at times.  A tree-lined path seems likelier however.

    The Mile Square Road was a well-traversed lane as it offered residents of Mile Square (and parts of Eastchester via Hunt’s Bridge) the most direct route to Manhattan by land.  Mile Square was a settlement, of about 1 square mile, composed of 7 farms that, notably, were not part of Philipsburg Manor.  During the revolution, both armies occupied, fortified, and fought in Mile Square and the road was patrolled regularly by light troops and irregular cavalry that were based in the Kingsbridge area.

    That pretty much covers the roads, paths, and trails around the Van Cortlandt House at that time.  Coming up are posts about the watercourses, the buildings, the Van Cortlandts, and their neighbors.

     

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