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A rare and highly detailed separate issue 1869 John Bute Holmes map of the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. The map covers from the Hudson River to 7th Avenue and from 19th to 29th street. Like all of Holmes' important neighborhood maps, the present map focuses on the mid-19th century breakup of the great Manhattan estates into property lots. In the present example the focuses on the estates of Franklin, Robinson, heiress Janet de Kay (1802 - 1854), shipbuilder Henry Eckford (1775 - 1832), heiress Mary Clarke, and the academic and heir Clement Clarke Moore (1779 - 1863).

The Chelsea Farm

Retired British Army Captain Thomas Clarke acquired a large 94 acre country estate in Manhattan (as odd as that sounds) in 1750. The deed, which was quoted in the New York Times, describes it as:

all that farm or plantation in the Bassau Bowery on the West side of Manhattan Island, bounded on the west by the Hudson River, on the east by land of John Horn, on the north by the land of Widow Cowenhoven and Brandt Schuyer, on the south by land of Sir Peter Warren and Yellis Mandeville.

In modern terms, the approximate extant of the estate was from 8th Avenue to the Hudson River from 21st to 24th streets. Here, Clarke built a grand mansion which he named Chelsea, referencing London's Chelsea Hospital, a home for aged veterans, which he in fact was. The lands were eventually broken up among his heirs until the mid-19th century, when the estates were fully broken up and broken into smaller lots to accommodate the Manhattan grid system and rapid urban growth of the city.

A 19th Century Description of the Map

We cannot resist quoting this overwrought 1878 description of Holmes' map issued in Historical Magazine (Page 268):

The estates described in this map, extend along the exterior line, on the North-river, from Nineteenth to Twenty-eighth Streets; thence along the latter Street to the Tenth Avenue; thence to Ninth Avenue seventy-five feet North of Twenty-eighth Street; thence southerly about two hundred feet; thence to the old Fitzroy Road - Twenty-seventh Street near Eighth Avenue; thence, along that old road, nearly to Twenty-ninth Street; thence, easterly, to Twenty-ninth Street, about two hundred feet easterly from the Seventh Avenue; thence nearly parallel with the Seventh Avenue, to Twenty-first Street; thence along the latter Street to the Fitzroy Road near the Eighth Avenue; thence along the Fitzroy Road to Nineteenth Street; and thence, along the latter Street. to the place beginning.

Quite the long winded description!

Condition Description
Very good. Minor tallow stains to the left side. Original linen backing and edging.
OCLC 50450966.
John Bute Holmes Biography

City Surveyor John Bute Holmes (ca.1820-1887) was a compelling figure, as much for his scandalous personal life, as for his ingenious maps.

The details of his early personal life are difficult to trace, partially as he constantly changed his version of his biography. At one point he claimed to have been born on the Island of Mauritius in 1822, and to have moved from there to Cork, Ireland; according to his account, he moved from Cork to the United States in 1838. He held the position of City Surveyor in New York in the 1860s through 1880s and eventually settled on a farm in New Jersey, where he died.

According to the cataloging of Lindsay Turley, of the Museum of the City of New York:

John Bute Holmes was married to at least four women during his life, sued by a fifth for "impeaching her chastity" as a result of "breach of promise of marriage," known to have lived with another "as husband and wife," and was reputed to have killed a policeman with whose wife he was involved. Some of these relationships appear to have overlapped, and most of the wives were unaware of the previous wives, even when the unions had been dissolved legally. It wasn't until Holmes's death in 1887 that the four legal (or at least to their knowledge) wives came face to face in an attempt to claim their inheritance. The dual nature of Holmes's maps strangely seems to reflect the duplicitous nature of Holmes's life...

A few different accounts in the New York Times attempt to sort it out, and briefly, this is what I've come away with:

  • Wife # 1: Anna Maria Clear, married Cork Ireland 1838. Holmes left her in 1856, Anna filed for divorce in 1875. One daughter.
  • Living as husband and wife: Ida Kerr, dates unknown.
  • Wife #2: Hannah Wright Williamson (also his half-sister), marriage date unknown. Three children.
  • Sued for breach of marriage promise: May Chamberlayne, 1874.
  • Wife#3: Mary Sullivan Browning, marriage date unknown. One son.
  • Wife#4: Katie Meadows, married ca. 1886.

See the MCNY blog entry on John Bute Holmes here:

Holmes is thought to have produced a total of 21 maps of between the 1860s and the 1880s. We have not completed a total census of all map titles from Holmes' series, but we have handled over a dozen from one collection only.

"Farm Maps"

Although it is now hard to believe, Manhattan, as recently as the early 19th century, was largely covered in open farmland. As the city rapidly developed during the 19th century, all hints of its previous bucolic state fell away. In the 1860s, this transformation became a fascination for City Surveyor John Bute Holmes (about whom, more later).

Holmes began gathering old surveys and documents that related to Manhattan's previous land use and landowners, transposing new lot and street detail over the previous geography.

There was a long history of mapping Manhattan's farms, both during the actual agricultural era and thereafter. One of the greatest cartographic feats was Randel's Farm Maps which are reminiscent of Holmes' without the "modern" overlay.