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Fascinating map of the Collect Pond, Canal Street, and Tribeca by one of New York's most eccentric mapmakers.

Superb large format, separately issued map of part of Tribeca in Manhattan, by one of New York's most fascinating mapmakers, John Bute Holmes.

This map is bounded by Center Street in the east, Reade Street in the south, Hudson Street in the west, and Canal Street in the north.

The map covers the area of the Calk Hook Farm, a marshy property that now forms the center of Tribeca in lower Manhattan. The 18th-century farm was parcelled off throughout the 19th century.

This is the greatest antiquarian map for mapping the relationship between the Collect Pond and modern-day Tribeca. It notes streams and canals that ran between the ponds, and the one arched Stone Bridge that crossed the water.

African American Burial Ground

This is one of the few historic maps to show the African American Burial Ground, noted here as 'Negroes Burying Ground' located between Duane and Reade Streets in Manhattan. Known today as the African Burial Ground National Monument, the excavation of this site was called the 'most important historic urban archeological project in the United States.' In the 17th and 18th centuries, some 15,000 African Americans were buried here, making it the largest and earliest known African American cemetery in the United States. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993 and a National Monument in 2006 by President George W. Bush.

The Collect Pond

This map is significant as being one of the best depictions of the Collect Pond and its western feeder streams. The original Collect Pond extended, roughly, from modern-day Franklin to Duane Street and to the east of Broadway. The pond was a natural depression with artesian springs and drainage area that filled with water seasonally. Eighteenth-century engravings show picnickers enjoying the view from the nearby Potter's Hill, noted here at bottom right. In the early 19th century Fitch tested one of the first steamboats on the Collect Pond. At the time, he would have been surrounded by slaughterhouses, tanneries, gunpowder storage, bogs and prisons, not exactly a pretty place for an afternoon boat ride. Around 1811, Potter's Hill was dismantled, and the debris used fill in the Collect Pond, over which residential buildings and a major 5-way intersection were constructed. Unfortunately, the artesian springs remained active, causing the new buildings to flood and sag, transforming the area into the notorious and poverty-stricken 'Five Points' district, one of the most desperate slums in American urban history.

The Lotting of Manhattan

In the early 19th century most of Manhattan was undeveloped farmlands, the property of wealthy landowners with claims dating to the Dutch period of New York's history. The northern 2/3rd Manhattan was dotted with farmlands and sprawling gentlemanly estates, many with great manor houses overlooking the Hudson River. The Commissioner's Plan of 1811 and the 1807 Commission Law, laid the street grid through many of these properties and gave the city the right to claim these lands under eminent domain, providing due compensation to the landowners. While this work occurred early in lower Manhattan, central and upper Manhattan were not formally acquired by the city until the mid-19th century.

What Holmes Did and Why

Holmes became fascinated by the early history of Manhattan real estate ownership, recognizing the wealth to be accrued by accurately understanding the history of city land ownership, division, and inheritance. Moreover, Holmes allied himself with the corrupt Tweed administration, assuring himself and his allies even greater wealth and political power from the eminent domain seizure of old Manhattan estates. Holmes created a series of maps, reminiscent of John Randall's 'Farm Maps', overlaid with property data, showing the borders of old estates, and notating the breakup of the lands among various heirs. The complex work of compiling the maps earned Holmes a fortune, with one newspaper suggesting on his death in 1887 that some of his individual maps were worth more than 30,000 USD. There is no complete cartobibliography of Holmes' maps, but we believe there to be at least 50 maps, possibly more.

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.