The possibility of growing tender plants in greenhouses had fascinated early Americans at least since the 1st half of the 18C in colonial America. But the price of glass in colonial & early America remained high until nearly the middle of the 19C, making greenhouses available only to those with extra disposable income.
Mount Vernon's Greenhouse
As British America was being colonized in the 17th-century, English garden writers were focusing on greenshouses which needed glass to allow the sun to reach the growing plants. Glass was becoming more affordable & glass no longer needed to be hand-blown. In England, in 1664, diarist & gardener John Evelyn (1620-1706) advised, "Set your...Windows and Doors of the Green-houses and Conservatories open." And in his diary on 30 October 1683, he mentioned, "Greene houses for oranges and mirtles." Born in Surrey into a family that owned the monopoly on the manufacture of gunpowder in England, Evelyn was able to devote his life to intellectual pursuits. In addition to translating noted French gardening books, Evelyn was the author of Kalendarium Hortense. His Diary is full of references to gardens, & to his own famous garden at Sayes Court. In 1691, the London Gazette mentioned another "new Conservatory or Green-House" in a house-for-sale ad.
Detail John Evelyn (1620-1706) by Hendrick van der Borcht, 1641.
In early 18th century England, J. James' 1712 translation of Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond's (1679-1719) The Theory and Practice of Gardening; ; wherein is fully handled all that relates to fine gardening, commonly called pleasure gardens explained that, "Green-houses are large Piles of Building like Galleries...for preserving Orange-Trees, and other Plants...during the Winter." Le Blond was a French architect & garden designer who became the chief architect of Saint Petersburg in 1716, just 3 years before his death. He had derived his gardening expertise from André Le Nôtre (1613-1700), and he illustrated & helped write Dezallier d'Argenville's (1680-1765) seminal work on the principles of French formal garden design. In England, Phillip Miller had published a plan for a greenhouse in his 1754 Gardener's Dictionary, which was owned & read in the British American colonies.
Much like today, the 18th century colonial greenhouse was a glass-windowed structure of wood or brick or stone in which tender plants were reared & preserved. Revolutionaly iron & glass greenhouses would appear in the first half of the 19th-century allowing more light into the structures.
Virginian William Byrd II (1674-1768) painted by Hans Hysing 1724
Early in 18th-century Pennsylvania, botanist John Bartram (1699-1777) wrote to English botanist Peter Collinson (1674-1768), on July 18, 1740, about Colonel William Byrd's (1674-1744) grounds at Westover in Virginia. "Colonel Byrd is very prodigalle...new Gates, gravel Walks, hedges, and cedars finely twined and a little green house with two or three orange trees...he hath the finest seat in Virginia."
Twenty years later, John Bartram wrote to Peter Collinson in 1760, "I am going to build a green-house. Stone is got...to put some pretty flowering winter shrubs, and plants for winter's diversion, not to be crowded with orange trees."
Peter Collinson 1694-1768
John Bartram was much more than just a commentator on the homes of colonial gentry, but he certainly would have been intrigued by the possibilities of Byrd's early greenhouse. Born in Darby, Pensylvania, son a Quaker farmer, Bartram was the most important botanist in the colonies. His son William Bartram (1739-1823) helped him collect, replant, & ship his specimens. In 1728, John Bartram established a botanic garden at Kingsessing on the west bank of the Schuylkill, near Philadelphia, where he collected & grew native plants. His correspondence with Peter Collinson, led to the introduction of many American trees & plants into Europe.
Charles Willson Peale's 1808 William Bartram
Greenhouses in Europe filled with Bartram's Boxes of American plants. His plant specimens & seeds traveled across the Atlantic to the gardens & greenhouses of Philip Miller, Linnaeus, German botanist Dillenius (1687-1747), & Dutch botanist Gronovius (1686-1762); and he assisted Linnaeus' student Swedish Pehr Kalm (1716-1779) during his collecting trip to North America in 1748-1750. Although Bartram never visited Britain, in 1765, he was appointed Botanist to King George III. Linnaeus called him "the worlds greatest botanist." Bartram traveled from Lake Ontario in the north, to Florida in the south and the Ohio River in the west. His Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, a trip taken from July 1, 1765, to April 10, 1766, was published. His son William accompanied his father documenting plants, animals, birds, & native peoples of North & South Carolina, Georgia & Florida. William published Travels, writings with his own illustrations in 1791, which impacted the 19th century romantic movement as well as natural history.
Not far from Bartram's nursery just outside of Philadelphia, John Smith described the plantation owned by the family of William Penn at Springettesbury Manor in 1745, "On our way thither we stopped to view the proprietor's greeen-house, which at this season is an agreeable sight; the oranges, lemons and citrons were some green, some ripe, some in blossom." Springettesbury Manor had been named in honor of William Penn's first ie, Gulielma Maria Springett (1644–1694).
Ten years later, Daniel Fisher also described the Proprietor's greenhouse, "What to me surpassed every thing of the kind I had seen in America was a pretty bricked Green House, out of which was disposed very properly in the Pleasure Garden, a good many Orange, Lemon, and Citrous Trees, in great profusion loaded with abundance of Fruit and some of each sort seemingly ripe then."Bartram traveled South in the colonies through Charleston several times, where greenhouses were used to entice real estate buyers.
In the South Carolina Gazette, November 14, 1748, a house for sale advertisement noted, "TO BE SOLD...Dwelling-house...also a large Garden, with two neat Green Houses for sheltering exotic Fruit Trees, and Grape-Vines."
Exotic plants captured the fancy of colonials early in the century; and by the end of the 18th-century, formal botanical gardens dotted the Atlantic coast. These were both outdoor and indoor, public and private garden areas, where proud collectors displayed a variety of curious plants for purposes of science, education, status, and art.
By 1760, Rhode Islander Abraham Redwood Jr was writing to his farm manager, "I desire that you put up in Durt one dozen of Small orange Trees...four young figg trees and some Guavas roots, to put in my greenhouse...twenty two feet long, Twelve feet wide, and Twelve feet high." In 1743, Abraham Redwood purchased 140 acres farmland near Newport, Rhode Island, where he built a country estate that was considered one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in North America, which grew plants & trees imported from all over the world.
Abraham Redwood 1709-1788
Josiah Quincy (1744-1775), who kept a journal as he traveled South from Boston for his health in 1773, was also impressed with a greenhouse, when he visited Philadelphia on May 3, 1773, and noted, "Dined with the celebrated Pennsylvania Farmer, John Dickenson Esqr, at his country seat about two and one-half miles from town...his gardens, green-house, bathing-house, grotto, study, fish pond...vista, through which is distant prospect of Delaware River." John Dickinson (1732-1808), who was actually an attorney trained at Middle Temple, had married Mary Norris, daughter of Isaac Norris, Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and moved to the Norris estate of Fairhill, near Germantown. There he wrote, under the pseudonym "A Farmer,"12 essays against the Stamp Acts.
1773 Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Mary Norris (Mrs. John Dickinson) with their daughter Sally.
In 1787, clergyman, merchant, & lawyer Manasseh Cutler (1742-1823), wrote of the greenhouse at Gray's Tavern, in Philadelphia. "(The Greenhouse) is a very large stone bulding, three stories in the front and two in the rear. The one-half of the house is divided lengthwise, and the front part is appropriated to a green-house, and has no chamber floors. It is finished in the completest manner for the purpose of arranging trees and plants in the most beautiful order. The windows are enormous. I believe some of them to be twenty feet in length, and proportionably wide...We then took a view of the contents of the green-house, beautifully arranged in the open air on the south of the garden. Here were most of the trees and fruits that grow in the hottest climates. Oranges, lemons, etc., in every stage from blossoms to ripe fruit; pine-apples in bloom, and those were fully ripe."
Visiting English agricultural writer Richard Parkinson (1748-1815) stopped at John O'Donnell's (1743-1805) estate named Canton near Baltimore, in 1798. Irishman John O'Donnell had grown wealthy by sending the first ship into China in 1785, for trade goods to sell in America. Parkinson wrote that O'Donnell had, "a very handsome garden in great order, a most beautiful greenhouse and hot house...a very magnificent place for that country."
1787 Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Sarah Chew Elliott (Mrs. John O'Donnell) in her garden in front of a curving wall with urns used as finials.
In 1793 Massachusetts, Boston merchant Joseph Barrell (1739-1804) was ordering plants & a gardener from Britain for his new Pleasant Hill greenhouse, "I want a person that understands green house plants...you will send the trees by the same opportunity the gardener comes that he may attend them on the passage."
John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) Joseph Barrell c 1767
Wishing for more land outside of Boston to try new gardening styles & modern farming techniques, Barrell purchased 211 acres of land across the Charles River in Charlestown, where he created a ferme ornée. Charles Bulfinch designed the house & grounds, one of his 1st commissions.
John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) Hannah Fitch (Mrs Joseph Barrell) c 1771
In Deborah Logan's journal, she mentioned that in 1799 Philadelphia,William Logan had a "Green house in town, as well as a good one (at Stenton). He had many rare and beautiful plants: indeed the large and fine orange and lemon trees which now ornament Pratt's greenhouses at Lemon Hill were originally of his raising."
William Logan (1717–1776) was the son of William Penn's secretary James Logan who became a Philadelphia Mayor & Supreme Court Justice. William inherited Stenton in 1751, and he used it as his country seat, while living in Philadelphia.
In the same year, English born seedsman and nursery owner William Booth of Baltimore advertised in the Federal Gazette and Baltimore Advertiser:" To Botanists, Gardeners and Florists, and to all other gentlemen, curious in ornamental, rare exotic or foreign plants and flowers, cultivated in the greenhouse, hot-house, or stove, and in the open ground. A large and numerous variety of such rarities is now offered for sale...After reserving a general and suitable stock, he had to spare a well assorted and great variety of those things comprising a beautiful collection, sufficient to decorate, furnish, and ornament a spacious or handsome greenhouse at once... The whole is a truly valuable collection such as is very rarely to be met with for sale on this side of the Atlantic -- indeed a moiety of them would comprise a very desirable and exclusive variety, consisting of many or most of the tropical fruits, and other rare and curious finely ornamental trees, scrubs and plants; with a numerous and abundant assortment of choice bulbous, tubrous, and fibrous rooted flowering and ornamental plants in mixtures... please apply to John Cummings, at the alms-house, Messrs. David and Cuthbert Landreth, gardeners and nursery-men... Now is as good time and proper season to build a green-house, and to remove plants."
Many of Booth's clients and contemporaries in the Chesapeake were becoming excited about collecting and displaying non-native varieties of plants. In his diary, silversmith, clockmaker, & gardener William Faris (1728-1804) noted in Annapolis that his neighbor Dr. Upton Scott (1722-1814) was, "fond of botany and has a number of rare plants and shrubs in his greenhouse and garden." The practical Faris used his cellar as his greenhouse.
Some gardeners & plant collectors were obsessed with showing off their unusual plant collections to visitors. In November of 1803, Manasseh Cutler (1722-1823) wrote to Mrs. Torrey about his visit to William Hamilton's (1745-1813) Woodlands, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, "We then took a turn to the garden and greenhouses...ornamented with almost all the flowers and vegtables the earth affords...The greenhouses which occupy a large space of ground, I cannot pretend to describe. Every part was crowded with trees and plants, from the hot climates, and such as I had never seen...He assured us, there was not a rare plant in Europe, Asia, Africa, from China and the islands in the South Sea, of which he had any account, which he had not procured...When we turned to rare and superb plants, one of the gardeners would be called, and sent with a lantern to the green house to fetch me a specimen to compare with it. This was done perhaps twenty times."
Benjamin West (American-born painter, 1738–1820) William Hamilton (1745-1813) of Woodlands with His Neice
Authors Joseph Dennie & John Elihu Hall reported on the greenhouse at the Woodlands in their 1809 Portfolio II, "The front, including the hot-house on each side, measures one hundred and forty feet, and it contains nearly ten thousand plants, out of which number may be reckoned between five and six thousand of different species, procured at much trouble and expense, from many remote parts of the globe, from South America, the Cape of Good Hope, the Brazils, Botany Bay, Japan, the East and West Indies, &c. &c. This collection, for the beauty and rich variety of its exotics, surpasses any thing of the kind on this continent; and, among many other rare productions to be seen, are the bread-fruit tree, cinnamon, allspice, pepper; mangoes, different sorts, sago, coffee from Bengal, Arabia, and the West-Indies, tea, green and bohea, mahogany, magnolias, Japan rose, rose apples, eherimolia, one of the most esteemed fruits of Mexico, bamboo, Indian god tree, iron tree of China, ginger, olea fragrans, and several varieties of the sugar cane, five species of which are from Otaheite. To this green-house, so richly stored, too much praise can hardly be given. The curious person views it with delight, and the naturalist quits it with regret."
On Christmas day in 1803, in Prince George's County, Maryland, Rosalie Stier Calvert (1795-1821) wrote to her father who had returned to Europe, "I am also going to have a small greenhouse built where you planned it--at the wash-house. The cellar makes a very good orangerie." In another letter to her father in 3 years later, she mentioned that the cellar would no longer serve as the greenhouse, "We also have to build a small house, a smoke house, a sairy, and an orangerie."
Gilbert Stuart (Early Americn artist, 1755-1828). Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778 -1821) in 1804
I can find only one other reference to an orangery or orangerie in early America beside those of Rosalie Stier Calvert, leaving me to suspect that the term orangery became popular in America in the 19th century when refering to greenhouses, old and new.
There are earlier references in England, where John Evelyn wrote in his diary on 4 July 1664, "The orangerie and aviarie handsome, and a very large plantation about it." Another reference appears in the 1705 London Gazette, "The Mansion-House, called Belsize, ...with...a fine Orangarie, is to Lett."
In America in 1790, Thomas Lee Shippen, describing Stratford Hall in Virginia, to his father reported, "It was with great difficulty that my Uncles, who accompanied me, could persuade me to leave the hall to look at the gardens, vineyards, orangeries and lawns which surround the house."
By the time Englishman John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) wrote his 1822 Encyclopedia of Gardening, the orangery had fallen out of favor. He wrote, "The orangery is the green-house of the last century, the object of which was to preserve large plants of exotic evergreens during winter, such as the orange tribe, myrtles, sweet bays, pomegranates, and a few others. Geraniums, heaths, fuchsias, and other delicate plants requiring much light, were then unknown. The orangery was generally placed near to or adjoining the house, and its elevation corresponded in architectural design with that of the mansion. From this last circumstance has arisen a prejudice highly unfavorable to the culture of ornamental exotcis, namely, that every plant-habitation attached to a mansion should be an architectural object, and consist of windows between stone piers or columns, with a regular cornice and entablature. By this mode of design, these buildings are rendered so gloomy as never to present a vigorous vegetation, and vivid glowing colors within ; and as they are thus unfit for the purpose for which they are intended, it does not appear to us...that they can possibly be in good taste."
In Maryland, Rosalie Calvert grew plants in pots that could be brought outside in warm weather or ornament the interior of Riversdale house in winter. In 1803, she wrote, “I have arranged all the orange trees and geraniums in pots along the north wall of the house, where they make a very pretty effect, and the geraniums, being shaded, bear many more blossoms and are growing well.”
By 1809, she had added several more types of potted plants, and wrote that they were “a marvelous source of entertainment for me—geraniums, heliotropes, jasmines, China rose bushes, etc. I don’t have any aloes or any of those other plants whose only recommendation is their rarity and which lack beauty.” Heliotropes, she wrote, would be transplanted “outdoors in the summertime with the geraniums, jasmine, rose bushes, etc.” While we do not have a painting of Rosalie Calvert's indoor parlor plant arrangement, we do have this painting from Connecticut in 1816,
George Freeman (Connecticut artist, 1787-1837) Widow Elizabeth Fenimor Cooper 1816
Rosalie Calvert's orangerie never materialized. Instead, she used a central room of the house, her “grand salon,” with three large south-facing triple-hung windows, as her conservatory. She bragged to her father in 1813 about “my lemon trees. I have four superb specimens which in winter we place in the four corners of the salon, where they make a lovely effect. Last November one of them produced 87 large lemons.”
American diplomat David Bailie Warden visited Riversdale and described Rosalie's salon, "The hall is ornamented with lemon-trees, geraniums, polianthusses, heliptropes, and other plants, which in the summer evenings, invite the humming-birds to taste of their sweetness; and afterwards struggling to escape, they fly incessantly backwards and forwards near the ceiling, until from fatigue they perch on a stick or rod, when they are easily taken by the hand."
Another nurseryman living in Philadelphia was also promoting plants and pleasure gardens. In 1806, Irish American horticulturalist, seedsman, & writer Bernard M'Mahon (1775-1816), whose book would be read by gardeners in America for the next 50 years, explained the difference between the greenhouse and a conservatory,
"A Green house is a garden building fronted with glass, serving as a winter residence, for tender plants from the warmer parts of the world, which require no more artificial heat than what is barely sufficient to keep off the front...A greenhouse should generally stand in a pleasure ground and if possible, upon a somewhat elevated and dry spot fronting the south...the building ought to be of brick or stone, having the front almost wholly of glassowrk, ranging lengthwise east to west, and constructed upon an ornamental plan...
"The Greenhouse and Conservatory have been generally considered as synonimous; their essential difference is this: in the greenhouse, the trees and plants are either in tubs or pots, and are planted on stands or stages during the winter, till they are removed into some suitable situation abroad in summer.
"In the conservatory, the ground plan is laid out in beds and borders, made up of the best compositions of soils that can be procured, three or four inches deep. In these the trees or plants, taken out of their tubs or pots are regularly planted, in the same manner as the plants in the open air.
"This house is roofed, as well as fronted with glass-work, and instead of taking out the plants in summer, as in the Greenhouse, the whole of the glass roof is taken off, and the plants are exposed to open air."
Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826).
Thomas Jefferson, who was always experimenting and adding onto his property, was interested in a greenhouse as well. On August 2, 1807, from Albemarle County, Virginia, even Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) received a letter listing sizes of glass he would need for a "green house."
1799 Artist Lambert ? Bouche. Ann Ogle (Mrs. John Tayloe III) and daughters Rebecca and Henrietta.
The Minute Book of John Tayloe III (1770-1828) noted on August 2, 1812 at his country seat Mount Airy in Richmond County, Virginia, "Gardeners attending to the Greenhouse at Mt. Airy." Tayloe's city residence was Octogon House in Washinton D. C.
Wye House (18th-century greenhouse with hot air duct system, still owned by descendants of Edward Lloyd) Copperville, Talbot County, Maryland. Photo by Janet Blyberg.
By the early 19th century in the new republic, men & womenemen were building greenhouses, conservatories, orangeries, hot houses, pineries, and stove houses to grow tender plants for their food value and to impress their neighbors. Some even had their portraits painted holding their favorite plants.
1801 Rembrant Peale (1778-1860) Rubens Peale with Geranium
Monday, April 28, 2014
1790s Christian Gullager (1759-1826). George Washington (1732-1799).
One of the most intriguing greenhouse stories involves Virginian George Washington & Margaret Tilghman Carroll of Maryland.
In her 1770 description of the gardens Charles Carroll the Barrister's home called Mount Clare in Baltimore, Maryland, visiting Virginia widow Mary Ambler mentioned, "there is a Green House with a good many Orange & Lemon Trees just ready to bear." Widow & mother Mary Ambler had traveled to Baltimore from Belvoir in Fauquier County, Virginia, with her 2 children to be innoculated against smallpox.
At Mount Clare, as in many 18th century households, the wife supervised the greenhouse activities, while the husband oversaw the design of the gardens and grounds. Margaret Tilghman Carroll (1743-1817) was renowned for her orange & lemon trees. After her husband Charles Carroll (1723-1783) died in 1783, she devoted much of her time to growing plants in her greenhouse.
1765 John Hesselius (1728-1778). Margaret Tilghman Carroll Mrs Charles Carroll the Barrister.
In addition to her greenhouse, Margaret Carroll also had a 39' by 24' brick structure at Mount Clare, which she called a Stove House, with an intricate hot air heating system for growing plants, such as pineapples, indoors yearound.
Her reputation & skill as a horticulturalist had impressed George Washington (1732-1799) who wrote a letter to her cousin Col. Tench Tilghman in August of 1784, "I shall essay the finishing of my greenhouse this fall, but find that neither myself, nor any person about me is so well skilled in the internal constructions as to proceed without a probability at least of running into errors. Shall I for this reason, ask the favor of you to give me a short description of the Green-house at Mrs. Carrolls? I am persuaded, now that I planned mine on too contracted a scale. My house is (of Brick) 40 feet by 24, in the outer dimensions."
It is believed that Washington built his greenhouse copying Margaret Carrolls' building, which no longer exists. And in April the following spring Washington noted in his diary, "Planted and sowed in boxes placed in front of the Green House."
In 1788, Lt. John Enys (1757-1818) stopped at Mount Vernon noting that, "The front by which we entered had a Gras plot before it with a road round it for Carriages planted on each side with a number of different kinds of Trees among the rest some Weeping Willows which seem to flourish very well. One the one side of this stands the Garden, green house &c." Enys had come to America during the Revolution and recorded his notes after he returned to England and retired from the British army.
Early in 1789, Congregational clergyman & geographer Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826) was also impressed with Washinton's garden & described Mount Vernon in his American Geography, "the green-house, school-house, offices and servants halls, when seen from the land side, bears a resemblance to a rural village --especially as the lands in that side are laid out somewhat in the form of English gardens, in meadows and grass grounds, ornamented with little copcies, circular clumps and single trees."
Greenhouse at Mount Vernon
Wishing to make a present of some of her prized greenhouse specimens to George Washington, including one grafted tree that produced both lemons and oranges, on 29 October 1789, Margaret Carroll sent by boat 20 pots of lemon & orange trees plus 5 boxes of assorted other greenhouse plants to Washington at the harbor in Alexandria.
Apparently Margaret Carroll had spoken about the financial possibilities of erecting greenhouses & stovehouses to George Washington; because the gift of Mount Clare's mistress was in response to a letter that Washington had sent her from New York, on September 16th 1789.
A Person having been lately sent to me from Europe in the capacity of a Gardner, who professes a knowledge in the culture of rare plants and care of a Green-House, I am desirous to profit of the very obliging offer you were pleased some time ago to make me.
"In availing myself of your goodness I am far from desiring that it should induce any inconvenience to yourself—but, reconciling your disposition to oblige, with your convenience, I shall be happy to receive such aids as you can well spare, and as will not impair your collection.
"Trusting that this will be the rule of your bounty, I have requested General Williams to give you notice, when an opportunity offers to transport the trees or plants in the freshest state to Mount Vernon, and to pay any expence which may be incurred in fitting them for transportation, and to receive them from your Gardner for that purpose.
"I have the honor to be, most respectfully, Madam, Your obliged and obedient Servant,
Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Margaret Tilghman (Mrs Charles Carroll the Barrister) This painting depicts Margaret Carroll standing next to the closed or lidded Lidded Campana Urn on a Classical Pedestal which stood on the grounds at Mount Clare in Baltimore.
Several years later, in 1792, French visitor Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville (1754-1793) wrote, "I hastened to arrive at Mount Vernon...after having passed over two hills, you discover a country house of an elegant and majestic simplicity. It is preceded by grass-plats; on the one side of the avenue are the stables, on the other the green-house, and houses of a number of negro mechanics." Brissot was a vocal supporter of the 1789 French Revolution.
This flurry of activity around the greenhouses of Margaret Carroll and George Washington was not new in America. The possibilites of growing tender plants in greenhouses had fascinated Americans since the 1st half of the century in colonial America.
Monday, April 14, 2014
London printmakers published hundreds of popular & satirical mezzotints between 1760 and 1800, many of which quickly found their way to the British American colonies and later to the new republic.
These 1767 calendar prints published by Carington Bowles & Robert Sayer in London, give a glimpse into the everyday life of gentlewomen in the larger British world which is seldom found in more formal art. They depict clothing changes across the seasons as well as outdoor activities.
Monday, April 7, 2014
Slave Revolt of 1712
In the early 1700s, New York had one of the largest slave populations of any of England’s colonies. Nearly one out of every five New York residents was enslaved. Slavery in New York differed from some of the Southern colonies because there were no large plantations in the crowded city. Many of the enslaved Africans were skilled workers, carpenters, stone masons, fishermen, & boat builders. Enslaved women mostly worked indoors as domestic labor, whereas men spent most of their day outdoors bringing goods to & fro from the docks, & doing other skilled & unskilled jobs throughout the city.
In 1712, Manhattan's population was about 6,000 living in an area twenty blocks long by 10 blocks wide; over 15% of those inhabitants were enslaved Africans. Within this small area, slaves lived with their masters & worked along side white servants & other slaves. These slaves lived & worked next to free & indentured whites, & some intermarried when they got their freedom.
The stage was set for an uprising. First, the city had a large population of black slaves -- the result of many years of trade with the West Indies. Secondly, communication & meeting among enslaved persons was relatively easy, since the New York City's inhabitants lived in a small area on the southern tip of Manhattan. Thirdly, living in such a densely populated area also meant that slaves worked in close proximity to free men.
No one knows for certain what caused the revolt that happened the night of April 6, 1712, but this much is known: More than 20 armed Africans, perhaps both men & women, set fire to a building. Perhaps after meeting in a tavern, blacks gathered in an orchard on Maiden Lane on the night of April 6, 1712. It was midnight. Armed with guns, hatchets, & swords, the men set fire to a building in the middle of town. The fire spread. While white colonists gathered to extinguish the blaze, the slaves attacked, then ran off. At least nine whites had been shot, stabbed, or beaten to death; another eight were wounded.
Militia units from Westchester & the fort in lower New York put down the insurrection. Seventy slaves & free blacks were jailed. Forty-three slaves were tried in the Court of Quarter Sessions. Eighteen were acquitted & 25 convicted, resulting in 20 being hanged & three burned at the stake.
The details of this revolt are provided by Robert Hunter, who was the governor of New York & New Jersey from 1710 to 1719. In a letter to the Lords of Trade in London written three months after the insurrection, Gov. Hunter describes the slave revolt.
A Letter from Governor Robert Hunter (1664-1734), June 23, 1712:
I must now give your Lordships an account of a bloody conspiracy of some of the slaves of this place, to destroy as many of the inhabitants as they could....when they had resolved to revenge themselves, for some hard usage they apprehended to have received from their masters (for I can find no other cause) they agreed to meet in the orchard of Mr. Crook in the middle of the town, some provided with fire arms, some with swords & others with knives & hatchets. This was the sixth day of April, the time of the meeting was about twelve or one clock in the night, when about three & twenty of them were got together. One...slave to one Vantilburgh set fire to [a shed] of his masters, & then repairing to his place where the rest were, they all sallyed out together with their arms & marched to the fire. By this time, the noise of the fire spreading through the town, the people began to flock to it. Upon the approach of several, the slaves fired & killed them. The noise of the guns gave the alarm, & some escaping, their shot soon published the cause of the fire, which was the reason that nine Christians were killed, & about five or six wounded. Upon the first notice, which was very against them, but the slaves made their retreat into the woods, by the favour of the night. Having ordered the day following, the militia of this town & the country of West Chester to drive [to] the Island, & by this means & strict searches in the town, we found all that put the design in execution, six of these having first laid violent hands upon themselves [committed suicide], the rest were forthwith brought to their tryal before ye Justices of this place....In that court were twenty seven condemned, whereof twenty one were executed, one being a woman with a child, her execution by than means suspended. Some were burnt, others hanged, one broke on the wheel, & one hung alive in chains in the town, so that there has been the most exemplary punishment inflicted that could be possibily thought of.
(E. B. Callaghan, ed. (1885) Documents relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York. Vol. V, p.341-345)
Within months of the revolt, the General Assembly passed a law allowing slave masters to punish slaves at their discretion & effectively made impossible the freeing of slaves. White New Yorkers had been apprehensive before the revolt of April 6; now they were spurred into action. No longer could more than three black slaves meet. A master could punish his slaves as he saw fit (even for no reason at all), as long as the slave did not lose his or her life or limb. Any slave handling a firearm would receive twenty lashes. Anyone caught gambling would be whipped in public. Involvement in a conspiracy to kill would result in execution, as would a rape. There was even a law that discouraged masters from freeing a slave: The master could free a slave, but only after posting a bond of 200 [pounds]. This money would be paid to the freed slave if that slave couldn't support himself or herself.
Berlin, Ira & Harris, Leslie (2005), Slavery in New York, New York: New Press, ISBN 1-56584-997-3.
Horton, James & Horton, Lois (2005), Slavery and the Making of America, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-517903-X.
Katz, William Loren (1997), Black Legacy, A History of New York's African Americans, New York: Atheneum, ISBN 0-689-31913-4.