Revolutionary War: New York City – McGowan’s Pass & Black Horse Tavern.

Old New York City


McGowan's Pass and Post Road at the start of the British Occupation, 1776
McGowan’s Pass and Post Road at the start of the British Occupation, 1776

McGowan’s pass was once a prominent feature in the lives of those who traveled beyond New York City’s frontier to the New York Highlands and the colonies of New England. During the colonial period, three main routes were open to one leaving New York City bound for northern destinations. Two were by water and one by land. Ships frequently sailed up the North River, or Hudson’s River as the British preferred to call it, and put into port towns all along the Highlands to Albany. One could also board ship and sail up the East River and into Long Island Sound, skirting the coast up to Boston. Or travelers could cut west across town and head north onto the Bowery Lane, bowrie meaning farm in Dutch. This was the main highway for all traffic north.

After two miles on the Bowery, passing cultivated fields and forests, the road divided. Turn left, heading northeast and the lane became what historian Goodwin described as “wound along the picturesque region of hills and vales known by the beautiful descriptive name of Bloomingdale.” Turning right brought you onto the King’s Bridge Road or Boston Post Road, more commonly known then as the Post Road.

Another four miles over flat and rolling hills, beyond wealthy country estates and a section of forest to the east called the wilderness, one came to a rise that cut between two rock outcrops located on either side of the Post Road. Here the road descended steeply in a series of switchbacks. This was McGowan’s pass, present day northern border of Central Park around 106th Street. At its base the Post Road forded Harlem Creek onto a flat and ancient river bed called Harlem Plains. The road curved another two miles northeast across the plain before skirting north along a prominence labeled Harlem Heights. After another mile, the lane turned northeast again and slowly ascended onto the Heights. The road continued north for another five miles before descending to the Kings Bridge that crossed a fast flowing river called the Sputten Duyvil, Dutch for ‘spouting devil’ which gained its name for the strong tidal currents. Here one left Manhattan Island and crossed to Westchester County.

Harlem & Harlem Creek 1765
Harlem 1765

Along the southern edge of Harlem Plains, also called The Flats, ran Harlem Creek. It was a small stream that drained the hills to the east and passed through McGowan’s Pass. It turned west in front of the Post Road at a shallow ford. Another stream crossed the Harlem Plains from the east and the two streams merged forming Harlem Creek. Here Harlem Creek became a substantial body of water, twenty feet deep and one hundred feet wide at the point it emptied into the East River at Hell’s Gate, a treacherous series of islands and tidal waters where the East River converged with the Long Island Sound and the Harlem River.

What was once the Boston Post Road, ran in a general line along present 3rd Avenue and bore west of 5th Avenue in a crooked line through McGowans’ Pass. Today, McGowan’s pass is a topographical feature of northern Central Park just west of 5th Avenue and north of 102nd Street. It became part of the park’s East Drive since the early 1860’s. It remains to this day a steep hill descending through a series of curves and is popular among bikers and runners training for competitive sports.

Early History

Native American Village
Native American Village

From the time the first Dutch settlers arrived on southern Manhattan, the northern expansion of the island was part of the “commons” land administered by New Amsterdam and later Nieuw (Dutch for new) Haarlem. Manhattan was changed repeatedly from a Dutch possession to British. It was not until the Treaty of Westminster in November, 1674, that the city was handed over to the English for good. They named it “New York” after the Duke of York, later King James II. The area north of the city remained a common until it was sold off in 1712.

McGowan Pass during the war.

Most of the land north of the city was purchased by the extensive families of Benson and Dyckman. Jan Dyckman arrived in New Amsterdam in 1662 and traveled up the East River to the new settlement of Haarlem. Four years later, he earned enough to purchase Simon De Ruine’s farm. Through marriage, he was able to join estates and continued to purchase land in the vicinity of Kings Bridge. Meanwhile, over the years, his sons had been successful in expanding the family’s estates, purchasing land and farms throughout northern Manhattan.   Dirck Benson came to New Amsterdam in 1649. He married Catalina Berck. They had three sons and two daughters. The sons prospered by joined estates through marriage and purchasing large tracts of land in New Jersey and upper New York. Their children inherited the father’s wealth and expanded their family’s holdings.   Both these families’ offspring would continue to own land throughout northern Manhattan until the 1800’s.

Black Horse Tavern
Black Horse Tavern

In 1740, Jacob Dyckman, Jr., grandson of Jan Dyckman, bought the land that included McGowan’s Pass from his uncle William Dyckman, who had inherited the Dyckman estate. Jacob was married to Catalyn Benson and together they had eleven children. He soon built a house and outbuildings and planted orchards. He also constructed a public house; “At the Sign of the Black Horse.” The tavern and inn was frequently attended by travelers to and from the city. In 1752 a yellow fever epidemic forced the New York Colonial Assembly to find ‘healthier’ accommodations. Like most of the wealthy of the city, they moved to the countryside of northern Manhattan. The assemblymen lodged at the farm of Benjamin Benson, Jacob Dyckman’s cousin, and conducted their meetings at the Black Horse Tavern.

Harlem Plains 1814
Harlem Plains 1814

In 1756, Dyckman moved north to be near his immediate family that had settled in the Spuyten Duyvil area. He built a new tavern at Inwood on Marble Hill near the King’s Bridge which he managed until his death by falling from a horse in 1774.   Jacob had put his tavern and 10 acres surrounding McGowan’s Pass up for sale.   Within days, he sold the farm and tavern to one of his brother-in-laws, Daniel McGowan (also spelt McGown) and his wife, widow Catherine Benson Shourd. The McGowans ran the tavern along with their son Andrew. Interesting that The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, published in 1917, states emphatically on page 257, volume 15, that Jacob Dyckman had sold the tavern and ten acres of land now constituting Central Part to the widow of Daniel McGowan. Henry Johnston’s most comprehensive text on the Battles of Kip’s Bay and Harlem Heights, fought in and around McGowan’s pass in 1776, writes on page 41, “…Leaving the Park at a Hollow in the Hills known as McGowan’s Pass, just above the house of Andrew McGowan…”   There is no mention of Daniel as proprietor of the tavern. However, this writer is convinced that Daniel was alive when the land was sold and the confusion resulted in the fact that Catherine, at the time, was a widow, but of her former husband, and not Daniel.

1776 Map of McGowan's Pass, Harlem Plains, and Harlem Heights
1776 Map of McGowan’s Pass, Harlem Plains, and Harlem Heights

The McGowans, along with their son Andrew, would be proprietors of the Black Horse tavern until after the Revolutionary War. The tavern remained a popular resting stop for travelers and was soon popularly referred to as ‘McGowan’s’. The McGowan family would continue to own the tavern and land for another ninety years.

Revolutionary War

In early 1776, after the British evacuated Boston in March for Halifax, the Continental Army, under Supreme Commander General George Washington, moved south to New York City, the anticipated destination of the British Fleet. Though most of the American troops were transferred by water after a quick march from Boston to southern Connecticut, the Post Road was busy with curriers and troops repositioning defenses all along Manhattan Island. It was early September when Congress gave its blessing and allowed Washington’s army to evacuate New York City after their August 27th devastating loss to the British on Long Island. General Heath commanded a division stationed at Kings Bridge and Westchester County, General Putnam’s division remained in New York City to complete the evacuation, and the rest of Washington’s troops, under Connecticut General Joseph Spencer (who commanded in Nathaniel Greene’s place until the Rhode Island general was well), dug defensive positions along Harlem Ridge just north of McGowan’s Pass.

Battle of Harlem Heights September 16, 1776
Battle of Harlem Heights September 16, 1776

On September 15th, 1776, Supreme Commander of His Majesty’s Ministerial Forces in America, Lt. General William Howe, invaded Manhattan. He landed a division of nearly ten thousand men under the command of Major General Henry Clinton at Kip’s Bay along the East River, about eight miles north of the city (present day 34th Street) and southeast of McGowan’s Pass. Washington’s Headquarters was at Point of Rock along the first defensive line at Harlem Heights. He heard the fierce bombardment by five British frigates and bomb ketches (vessels which fired large mortars). When he received word of the morning invasion, he and his staff galloped south through McGowan’s pass. After having failed to stop his troops stationed along the East River from a frenzied rout, (commands under Douglass, Fellows, Parsons, and Wadsworth), he raced back through the pass to see to his army’s defenses.

General Clinton, eager to take advantage of the morning’s success, pressed for an immediate attack, however General Howe made it clear that he would wait until all his forces had landed before pressing any attack.   He also wished to secure New York City first to assure winter quarters for the army. Howe did allow Clinton to probe the American line to see what resistance they would give.

British 17th regiment encampment
British 17th regiment encampment

When Washington arrived back at the Heights, he dispatched a strong detachment to Harlem Plains. The move was two fold; to offer aide to Colonels Sargent and Chester’s regiments stationed at Hell’s Gate and to block the Boston Post Road from any further advance by the British. Colonel Smallwood’s Marylanders where chosen to position themselves at McGowan’s pass. The regiment proved their mettle at Gowanus, Long Island when they held back Generals Cornwallis and Grant, allowing Stirling’s division to escape to Brooklyn Heights. Though at a severe price when nearly half of the force was killed or taken prisoner.   When Clinton’s forces arrived, the two sides volleyed until it was clear to Clinton that it would take a major action to dislodge the stubborn southerners. That evening, General Cornwallis made his headquarters at the Black Horse Tavern (present 109th St. & 6th Ave.).

Storming Fort Washington by the Hessians
Storming Fort Washington by the Hessians

After Fort Washington fell to the British on November 16th, 1776, the area around McGowan’s Pass became a German Hessian encampment. Fortifications were constructed at the pass to offer an additional defense against American aggression to the north and to control the influx of civilian traffic. It remained such until 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3rd ending the war. British the British evacuated New York City on November 25th and later that day General Henry Knox lead his men through the pass to officially liberate New York City. He was soon followed by a triumphant George Washington.

After the American Revolutionary War

            Author Martha Lamb writes that “the favorite drive for the New-Yorker of 1790 was what Washington styled ‘the fourteen miles round,’ the route being over the ‘Old Boston Road,’ on the line of Third Avenue, crossing Murray Hill [site of Mrs. Murry famed luncheon/distraction with British generals while American General Putnam frantically pressed his division north to Harlem Heights to avoid capture] that was nearly on the line of Lexington Avenue, and bearing westward to McGowan’s Pass, thence to the Bloomingdale region,” which took one back sout to the Post Road and the Bowery Lane.

Sketch of proposed fortification
Sketch of proposed fortification

Daniel and Catherine continued to manage the Black Horse Tavern until around 1786 when they leased it to John Leggett and his family. The Leggetts ran the public house as ‘Leggets Half Way Tavern’ for the next fifteen years. The McGowan family continued to hold the property until the 1840’s, however the original tavern had burned down earlier in the century. The Christopher Colle’s 1789 map of the region around McGowan’s Pass identifies the tavern as Leggetts. It is south of the McGowan house at the midpoint between the seven and eight mile stones from New York City [the mile stones were measured off by the Postal Service under Benjamin Franklin so he could accurately determine the time it would take to post a letter to a specific destination].

European conflicts spilled onto the high seas and embroiled the United States still in its infancy.   Residents of New York feared a British invasion. In August and September, 1814, American volunteers spent six weeks rebuilding the old fortifications thrown up by the British during the Revolution. They constructed a barrier wall, gatehouse, and a blockhouse called no. 1 that was supported by cannon.   The fortifications also included a network of forts named Fort Clinton, (named for DeWitt Clinton), Nutter’s Battery, and Fort Fish (named after Major Nicholas Fish – father of New York senator Hamilton Fish. Nutter’s battery’s title did not have any political clout behind its selection as the other two redoubts. It was named for a local farmer who owned the land upon which it was built.

Fort Clinton at McGowans Pass
Fort Clinton at McGowans Pass

Little remains of these forts which never saw action during the War of 1812. Of Nutter’s Battery, a stone ledge is apparent and nearby sits the Block House, its stone face remains somewhat solid. The Block House was intact when designers of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) decided to include it in their plans for the park. They considered the stone structure as a ‘picturesque ruin’ that was draped in vines. The gate house that straddled the Post Road at McGowan’s Pass, just east of present day Lasker Pool, near 107th Street and Sixth Ave (where East Drive drops down to a switchback), was built over during the 1860’s construction of the East Drive.

Mt. St. Vincent Academy
Mt. St. Vincent Academy

In 1847, the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul settled in northern Manhattan and opened the Academy of St. Vincent, a school and convent. A large structure marked the site of the old McGowan homestead.   Until 1881 when it was destroyed by fire, the chapel of Mount St. Vincent’s Academy was built over the ruins of the McGowan house (it was not constructed over the site of the old tavern that was on the other side of the old Post Road). Frederick Olmsted (landscaper of Central Park) lived with his family in the Mount St. Vincent’s buildings from 1859 to 1863. Mount St. Vincent became the United States General Hospital or St. Joseph’s Military Hospital during the American Civil War from 1862 to 1865.   When the building became a hospital, the Academy moved north to its present campus in Riverdale.

Kingsbury or Boston Post Road
Kingsbury or Boston Post Road

After the Civil War, the Park Commission leased out the old school grounds as a sculpture museum and tavern. The now Mt. St. Vincent’s Hotel ran from 1866 until early 1881 when most of it burned down. A ‘refreshment house’ was rebuilt on the old McGovern house and convent ruins, retaining the St. Vincent’s name.   It was constructed in a ‘carpenter gothic’ style and remained such until 1915. After 1890, the refreshment house was renamed the McGowan’s Pass Tavern because of the confusion between the St. Vincent’s Academy and St. Vincent the saloon. The tavern was torn down in 1917.

Though McGowan’s Pass Tavern was razed, its driveways and foundations remain. The Central Park Conservancy uses the old lanes to provide easy access to a composting area called “The Mount”.

McGowans Pass Tavern late 1800's
McGowans Pass Tavern late 1800’s

In 1906, a plaque commemorating the McGowan family and McGowan Pass was placed at the Fort Clinton memorial. A pile of rocky rubble in Central Park’s Bridle Path at McGowan’s pass is the approximate location of the old McGowan Tavern.

Of Interest

Andrew McGowan, grandson of Daniel McGowan for whom McGowan Pass was named, was reported in the March 5th, 1870 New York Herald that he had been killed while crossing railroad tracks. Andrew was 85 years old and nearly deaf at the time which explains why he did not hear the train approaching. Tragically, fifteen years earlier, his son Benson (named for the McGowan’s distant relatives) was crushed to death while driving an express wagon at Third Avenue and 83rd Street. Andrew was born at the original Black Horse tavern in 1785 and was one year old when the McGowan’s moved and the house and land was leased to the Leggetts family. Part of the report on Andrew McGowan’s death refers to the family’s history and McGowan’s pass: “Mr. Andrew McGown was born in this city nearly eighty-five years ago, as were also his father and his grandfather. It was after the elder McGown that “McGown’s Pass,” located in the rocks about 100th Street and Third avenue, and well remembered by the oldest inhabitants, was named. The McGowns were among the first settlers of Manhattan Island, and were well known to the old Knickerbocker families.”

McGowans Pass in Central Park
McGowans Pass in Central Park

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Cook, Clarence. A Description of the New York Central Park. 1869: F. J. Huntington & Company, New York, NY.

Goodwin, Maud Wilder & Royce, Alice & Putnam, Ruth. Historic New York. 1899: G. P. Putnam Sons, New York, NY.

Johnston, Henry. The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn. 1878: Published by the Long Island Historical Society, Brooklyn, NY.

Kelly, Frank Bergen. Historical Guide to the City of New York. 1909: Frederick A. Stokes Publishers, New York, NY.

Lamb, Martha J. History of the City of New York, Its Origin, Rise, and Progress, Vol. 2. 1877: A. S. Barns & Company, New York, NY.

Murray, Thomas Hamilton & Thomas Bonaventure Lawler Editors. The Journal of the American-Irish Historical Society, Volume 15. 1917: Published by the American-Irish Historical Society, New York, NY.

Riker, James. Revised History of Harlem (City of New York): Its Origin and Early Annals. 1904: New Harlem Publishers, Harlem, NY.

Romer, Dorothea H., Helen B. Hartman. Jan Dyckman of Harlem and his descendants. 1981: A. Thompson Publisher, New York, NY.

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