The Apthorpe or Apthorp mansion (both names are in common use – the family vault uses Apthorp) carved its place in American history early in the Revolutionary War. In the estate’s elaborate living room, General George Washington devised the plan that would send Nathan Hale to spy on the British on Long Island. It was a desperate scheme that would ultimately lead to the young captain/scholar’s death. “Washington took supper on Saturday night [September 14, 1776] at the Apthorpe mansion where, at a late hour, the expedition of Nathan Hale into the enemy’s camp for trustworthy information was planned…” The very next day, before the steps of the mansion, a third of Washington’s army that was on a desperate trek to evacuate New York, barely escaped capture by General Howe’s encroaching forces. The Apthorpe mansion served as headquarters to the commanding generals of both opposing armies including General Cornwallis and General William Howe’s replacement, General Henry Clinton.
Charles Ward Apthorpe
Eighteenth century wealthy merchants and men of thriving business kept elaborate homes in New York City. However, it was fashionable and, in times of pestilent outbreaks, healthier to retain a country estate on Manhattan Island north of the city where lush forests and vibrant farms dotted the landscape. Charles Ward Apthorpe purchased 115 acres from Dennis Hicks in 1772 and a year later acquired another 153 acres from leading New York politician and socialite, Oliver de Lancey. He paid a total of fifteen thousand dollars and by 1764 he had built a mansion that showcased his social status as a highly successful merchant.
Charles Ward Apthorpe (1726 – 1797) was one of eighteen children. A stout loyalist, he was born in Boston, he was the eldest son of Charles Apthorp (1698 – 1758) and Grizzel Eastwick (1708 – 1796), daughter of John Eastwick. Grizzel was born in Jamaica and came to Boston in 1716. Apthorpe senior was born in England and educated at Eton. After his father’s sudden death, Apthorpe came to America and settled in Boston where he ran an import business from Merchants Row. He was considered the richest man in Boston. . He dealt in European goods and acted for the British government. Among his many services offered his customers, his most distasteful role in history was as a slaver. In fact, one of the most profitable slavers among the colonies; importing, selling, and returning slave runaways to their masters – for a fee. His business listed his son, Charles Ward, as partner. Charles senior died suddenly at the age of sixty.
Charles Ward was married to Mary McEvers on the 27th of February, 1755 at the Trinity Parish Church in New York which indicates he had resettled in New York by the mid-century, however he retained the family’s vast holdings including land in Maine, Boston, Brookline, and Roxbury, all which was confiscated at the end of the Revolutionary War. He and Mary had three sons and three daughters. Charlotte Augusta married John Cornelius Vanden Heuvel (wealthy Dutch statesman) and Maria Eliza, the eldest daughter, married John C. Hamilton, son of the celebrated Alexander Hamilton.
Charles and Mary enjoyed the social status of New York’s elite, moving among the highest circles of influential figures both in the city and throughout the colonies. Charles was a member of the Council of New York in 1773 and served until the British abandoned New York in 1783. Therefore, when it came time for Charles to construct his ‘country estate’, he poured some of his family’s enormous wealth, obtained from his merchant and slave business, to build Elmwood; among the grandest mansion on Manhattan Island.
The 268 acre estate was more often referred to as the Apthorpe Mansion. The land sat on a rise from which one could see the Hudson River and palisades on the opposite shore while enjoying the cool summer breeze that flowed up from the river. Valentine’s 1917 guide book to old New York best details the elaborate home that nestled among the elm, white pine, and towering tulip threes that graced the pristine eighteenth century setting.
“The mansion was remarkable for its magnificence, among the many beautiful places of Bloomingdale. It was originally two stories high with a gable roof and the walls were of solid stone. As bricks nine inches square were found when the building was razed, it has been thought that they came from Holland. The front stoop, which faced the Bloomingdale Road, was reached by four brown stone steps and at the porch entrance, stood four white columns of white cedar hewn from logs of trees grown on the estate. The first floor rested on great beams of black oak from which the bark only had been removed. To make them uniform in thickness the whole length, and to overcome the natural taper of the tree, the small ends were built up with a series of wedges. All the laths were split, now sawed and the nails and hinges handmade. The flooring was of maple, in pieces twenty two inches wide and two inches thick.
“As one entered the house, he was confronted with a wide graceful staircase, the steps of which were low and broad, with turned and carved balustrade of colonial type. The main floor had a broad arched central hall twenty fee wide paved with marble slabs which in its later days, had been cut off to form another room. A drawing room opened into this hallway on one side and opposite was located a lofty dining room. The upper floor had four large rooms and over these in the gable were sleeping apartments. Fine fireplaces and handsomely carved mantels embellished many of these rooms. The tiling around them was composed of squares having on each a Scriptural subject. Heavy window sashes, solid inside shutters, window seats and carved cornices and moldings added to the interior evidence of antiquity. The small square panes of the Dutch type gave stress to this fine example of early architecture.”
Among the three large rooms that made up the ground floor, the most stunning was the mahogany paneled dining room. So to alleviate any doubt as to Charles’ allegiance in the strife that was brewing between England and her colonies, a carved mahogany mantelpiece included the head of a crowned king. Above the second floor and family sleeping quarters, in the roomy dormer attic, were nine additional rooms; accommodation for numerous domestics and perhaps ‘poorer relations,’ as suggested in an article in the New York Times a century later.
On September 15th , 1776, the Apthorpe mansion’s location played a key role during the summer’s battles for New York. To better understand why the opposing British and rebel forces met on the Apthorpe estate that early evening, historian Lamb describes the roads that lead north from New York City. ““Two roads intersected Manhattan lengthwise; of which the ‘Old Boston Road’ on the general line of [present day] 3rd Ave, and bearing west of 5th Ave. by a crooked way through McGowan’s Pass, was the grand highway.. The Bloomingdale road, a continuation of Broadway, leaned towards the Hudson after reaching [present day] 16th street, and wound along the picturesque region of hills and vales known by [as]… Bloomingdale, past the Apthorpe mansion, terminating as a legal highway at Adam Hoagland’s house, about [present] 115th street. It continued through his estate as a farm road to Manhattanville. It was connected with the Old Boston or Kingsbridge Road by a narrow public way from Hoagland’s house, running nearly at right angles. These two chief thoroughfares were intersected at various points by local roads, private avenues to property and farmer’s lanes.”
After the devastating defeat on Long Island on August 27, 1776, a British invasion of Manhattan Island was expected. General Washington kept a third of his army and most of his cannon, under Colonel Henry Knox, in New York while he stationed the rest of his army in defensive positions all along the East River. The morning of September 15th, General Howe’s forces landed and attacked mid-island at Kips Bay routing the American troops who confronted him. The prospect of a large British detachment cutting across the island and thereby bottling up the 3,500 men still in New York seemed certain. General Silliman and Colonel Knox were resolved to battle the encroaching British forces. However General Putnam, commander of the division stationed in the city, ordered his troops to form in column for a desperate flight to the American line now stretched along Harlem Heights, thirteen miles to the north. Major Aaron Burr, Putnam’s adjunct, reassured his superiors that he could guide the American forces to safety through back roads and forested lanes. This frenzied trek led Putnam’s division to the Apthorpe estate where it barely slipped past a strong British detachment.
Colonel Humphrey, of Silliman’s brigade wrote, “So critical indeed was our situation and so narrow the gap by which we escaped, that the instant we [the division and cannon in column] had passed, the enemy closed it by extending their line from river to river.” Colonel Silliman, acting brigade commander, was bringing up the rear with three hundred men, including a company of New York cannon under Captain Alexander Hamilton, when they ran into a strong British detachment. Silliman’s men, including Hamilton’s cannon, held off the British until the entire tired column had safely passed the Apthorpe mansion. The Americans sustained only one casualty. The last to leave was one of Hamilton’s cannon. “Sergeant Hoyt, in charge of the extreme rear gun, dragged it to the eminence by the roadside and fired it continuously until the whole train had safely rounded the point of danger.”
When word reached Washington that Putnam’s column had reached the Apthorpe estate and were passing on towards Harlem Heights, he rode to the mansion. “Washington remained at the Apthorpe Mansion, striving to cover his anxiety under an aspect of stoical serenity, even as the enemy were in sight.” He was among the last to leave as the British took control of the estate grounds. Within hours, General Howe arrived and made the mansion his headquarters, remaining through the fighting of the Battle of Harlem Heights. Washington’s headquarters became the Morris House, just three and a half miles north of the Apthorpe mansion.
Charles Ward Apthorpe remained in New York during the long British occupation. He was given the sinecure appointment of second assistant manager of the Court of Police in 1777 with a salary of 200 pounds. He was also appointed to the King’s Council for the Province of New York which vehemently opposed open rebellion and pledged allegiance to the crown. When the British vacated New York, Apthorpe was arrested and tried for high treason. Either for political or financial reasons, it was never documented, he was released and permitted to keep his holdings in New York including the Elmwood estate. His vast holdings in Massachusetts and Maine were confiscated.
Fate of the Apthorpe Mansion
Festivities returned to the mansion as Charles’ daughter Maria married Congressional Delegate Hugh Williamson. Charles Ward Apthorpe died in 1797 and was buried in the family vault at Trinity Church, New York. Williamson bought out the other children’s claims to the property in a forced sale to recover a $1,500 mortgage. This began a centuries old legal battle revolving around the wording of Charles’ will. As siblings married into other moneyed families, lawyers bandied arguments back and forth until it was settled in 1910. By then the family holdings amounted to 125 million dollars. During the nineteenth century, a growing city began encroaching on the Apthorpe property. Though the mansion retained some of its charm, neglect and decay took its toll. By the mid 1800’s, the mansion became the centerpiece of a picnic ground known as Elm Park. A period historian noted that the “once beautiful Apthorpe mansion now houses a beer and dance saloon.”
An event took place on July 12, 1870 that history recorded as the Orangeman Riots. Three thousand Irish Protestants were enjoying a picnic outing at Elm Park. A mob of Irish Catholic laborers entered the park. They killed five picnickers and seriously wounded hundreds.
By 1890, historians at the time called for the mansion to be preserved, however such actions were in their infancy. In 1891, the city announced that the Apthorpe mansion would be razed for the extension of 91st Street north. One journalist lamented that yet another timeless treasure was lost to a stretch of asphalt.
Notes: The correct spelling is Apthorp, not Apthorpe as many later texts and postings on the internet indicate. Period texts and first person accounts through letters, etc., give the name as Apthrop. The Apthorp family vault at Trinity Church in NY City, dated 1801, in which Charles Ward Apthorp is interred, lists the family name without an e at the end.  Lamb, vol. 2, pg. 122  Loyalists were those who remained loyal to the British Crown during the Revolutionary War. They were also labeled as innimicals and even “cowboys”, the title given to lawless bands of loyalists from Westchester County, New York.  At war’s end, those loyalists who chose to remain in America were, in many cases, forced to turn over their property to the state for sale. Apthorpe lost his large estates in New England, but was able to retain his holdings in New York.  Bloomingdale extended north from the city along the Hudson River.  Manhattanville was a small town on upper Manhattan Island, NY, in the 18th century. It is a tiny, low-lying area that presently occupies a small valley between Morningside Heights to the south and Hamilton Heights to the north, considered western Harlem; in the area of 125th & 133rd Street.  Lamb, vol. 2, pg. 122.  East River in the east and the North or Hudson’s River to the west. Lamb, vol. 2, pg. 127  Hamilton became Washington’s chief aide and was instrumental in drafting the Constitution including filing the role as Secretary of the Treasury during Washington’s presidency. He died from wounds inflicted during the renowned duel with then vice president Aaron Burr.  A train is a battery or company of artillery.  In Washington’s daring escape from Brooklyn to New York after the Battle of Long Island, Sergeant Hoyt was in the last boat that was fired upon by the British. He was chosen to bring up the rear of Putnam’s column for his unflinching nerve under fire.  Lamb, vol. 2, pg. 127.  Confiscated lands in Boston were on Wings Lane North., Hassam, pg. 11. Land in Boston bounded by Docks Square and Cooper’s Alley, Hassam, pg. 19.
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