Travelling Back in Time to the New York City of 1767-1768 via the Ratzen Map

There’s just something about old maps – some ineffable quality that draws the attention and makes one stop and bend closer to see what is there……and what’s not there.  Has the landscape changed?  Are towns missing or are towns shown that no longer exist?  Is it engraved or is it a manuscript map?  Are there images around the borders that show a time long gone, and what is going on in those images?  What is familiar to us and what isn’t?

I recently had this experience when I encountered a map known as the “Ratzen Map”.  Located within the holdings of the Cartographic Branch, filed under RG 77: Civil Works Maps File (D-70, in two sections), this map illustrates the Plan of the City of New York: Surveyed in the Years 1766 & 1767, intended for delivery “To His Excellency Sir Henry Moore, Bart.: Captain General and Governor in Chief, In and Over His Majesty’s Province of New York and the Territories depending thereon in America, Chancellor and Vice Admiral of the Same”.  This map, created by Lt. Bernard Ratzer, a soldier serving in the 60th Regiment of Foot (or Royal American Foot) in the British Army, was both a continuation and improvement upon previous mapping done by  Lt. John Montresore.  According to W.P. Cumming, in Imago Mundi[i],:

“Ratzer was an experienced surveyor and fine draftsman.  Several of the officers in the Royal American Regiment had been recruited from able and well-trained European army engineers; among these, few if any were equal in mapmaking or skill to Ratzer…..”

Top half of the Ratzen Map of New York City. NAID 102279209


Bottom half of the Ratzen Map of New York City. NAID 102279209

As you may have noticed, there is also an interesting discrepancy in the name of the map.  While the mapmaker’s name is “Ratzer”, the map is referred to as the “Ratzen” map, an oddity that Cumming also explains, saying that, “Upon completing his Plan of New York, Ratzer sent it to London, where it was engraved by Thomas Kitchen, Hydrographer to the Duke of York and later to the King, who misspelled Bernard Ratzen’s name as Ratzer, causing some later confusion.[ii]

Looking closely at the section of this map that covers lower Manhattan (the lower middle section of the upper half of the map), you will see that some of the street names look familiar and haven’t really changed general locations overmuch in the 200 plus years since this area was mapped.  If you click on the above image and zoom in, you can see that Greenwich Street, Broadway Street, Vesey, Warren, and Murray Streets are all still there to this day, though the street names are no longer in plural (or possessive, maybe) in form in some cases.  Murray Street, for example, was originally Murrays Street on the map and Vesey was Veseys.  Hanover Square, Maiden Lane, and Beekman Street are still present, as well.

Shifting your view to the lower part of the bottom half of the map, you are treated to a glimpse of life in the 1700s.  Against a backdrop of Long Island that can be seen in the far off distance, there is what appears to be a lady out for a stroll with a parasol behind two gentlemen and, nearer to the foreground, two more gentlemen with a dog.  A variety of boats of all sizes and types are on display, one of which appears to be on capsized and on fire.  So great is the detail on this map that there are even seashells littering the beach, if you zoom in just a bit.

Sometimes a map is just a map, a mere tool to get one from point A to point B.  Other times, you run across something special that draws you in and invites you on a journey to another time and place.  For me, this was one of those maps.  I hope it was for you, too!

[i] Cumming, W.P.  Imago Mundi,  The Montresor-Ratzer-Sauthier Sequence of Maps of New York City, 1766-76 vol. 31 (1979) pp. 57.

[ii] Cumming, W.P.  Imago Mundi,  The Montresor-Ratzer-Sauthier Sequence of Maps of New York City, 1766-76 vol. 31 (1979) pp. 57.

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