A rare copy of what is widely regarded as the first credible map of Lower Manhattan was recently sold at auction for $150,000.
This was an edition of the “Ratzer Plan,” created in the late 1760s by British Army surveyor and cartographer Bernard Ratzer, who was ordered by General Thomas Gage to compile a detailed chart of New York in the years leading up to the American Revolution.
At the time, Gage (who was the English governor of all of North America) was concerned that British troops might soon be called upon to fight in Lower Manhattan, but realized that they would be nearly blind without a proper outline of the street grid. Gage first turned to another surveyor, John Montresor, who cobbled together a rudimentary sketch as quickly as he could. But Montresor (who then owned what is now Randalls Island, and was later present at the execution of Nathan Hale, where City Hall is located today) was primarily an engineer, and his map-making skills were less than proficient.
So Gage commissioned Ratzer to execute a more detailed survey. The result was a minutely specific enumeration of not only streets, but property lines (along with the names of owners for each estate and farm), and individual wharves along the shorefront, plus prominent landmarks and geographical features. It was as exhaustive and accurate as any contemporary map of London, which was an astonishing accomplishment.
Ratzer’s map was republished in 1776, just as war was breaking out between Britain and the colonies. But, while a vitally important tool for the English Army, it was not a commercial success. As a result, fewer than a dozen copies are known to survive. One was given as a gift to King George III, and now resides in the collection of the British Library. Two others belong to the New York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Historical Society, respectively. A fourth went missing decades ago from the archive of Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library.
A few other copies have surfaced in the hands of private collectors in recent years. One of these was sold in 1991 for $8,000. Another was auction in 2006 for $80,000. In 2014, Christie’s auctioned another for $106,000. The copy that went on sale at Doyle’s auction house on April 25 was conservatively estimated to fetch between $80,000 and $100,000. Instead, it went for half again as much as the maximum estimate.
Ratzer’s map will, in some respects, be familiar to residents of modern Downtown: streets with names like Broad, Wall, Pearl, Stone, William, and Beaver (along with “Broad Way” and “Bowry Lane”) will ring familiar in contemporary ears. But other aspects of the landscape will also be terra incognita for today’s inhabitants. Broadway is one block from the Hudson River, and a canal flows up Broad Street. Most of all, Chambers Street marks the northern edge of the City, with little more than farms and estates lying on the far side of this boundary.
In “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad writes, “when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.'”
In some ways, New York, in its infancy must have been like Conrad’s boyhood recollection of himself, pointing to the wilds beyond what is now Tribeca, and promising itself, “when I grow up I will go there.”
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