AT THE EDGE OF THE MANHATTAN ” NEUTRAL GROUND”
In 1699 Jacobus Van Cortlandt bought the first fifty acres of the ground now included in Van Cortlandt Park, New York City, and for one hundred and ninety years the property remained in the Van Cortlandt family. Until fifty-three years before the first of the Van Cortlandts acquired it, the Indians were the undisputed possessors of the plot.
Adriaen Van der Donck, the first settler to acquire title, lived until his death in the bouwerie or farm-house, which he built on the shore of a brook. When Jacobus Van Cortlandt built his bouwerie by the side of the same brook, he dammed the water to make a mill-pond, which is to-day the beautiful Van Cortlandt lake. There he built a grist mill which remained in use until 1889. Early visitors to the lake delighted to study the ancient structure to which, during the Revolution, both British and patriot soldiers resorted with their grain. The mill was struck by lightning and destroyed in 1901.
The third house on the estate was built in 1748 by Frederick the son of Jacobus, who acquired by the will of his father the ” farm, situate, lying, and being in a place commonly called and known by the name of Little or Lower Yonkers.” This house, which was modelled after the Philipse Manor House at Yonkers, is still in a fine state of preservation. Since 1897, it has been used as a public museum, in charge of the Colonial Dames of the State of New York.
The room fitted up as a museum was occupied by General Washington on the occasion of his visit to the house in 1783. This room is also pointed out as the scene of the death of Captain Rowe of the Hessian jaegers, who was severely wounded near the house. When he realised that he could not recover, he sent in haste for the young woman who had promised to marry him, and he died in her arms.
Other famous visitors were Rochambeau, Admiral Digby, and William Henry, Duke of Clarence, who became King William IV of England. Admiral Digby, after his departure, sent to Augustus Van Cortlandt, the owner of the house, two wooden vultures, which he had captured from a Spanish privateer. These vultures are now in the museum.
The old house was the centre of important military operations during the Revolution. Washington fortified eight strategic spots in the vicinity of Kingsbridge, and when he withdrew before the British occupied the fortification, a number of Hessian jaegers were quartered in the Van Cortlandt House. To the north of the house was the neutral ground for which the two armies continually struggled for possession. In 1781, when Washington was about to withdraw his army to York-town, he directed that camp-fires be lit on Vault Hill, the site of the Van Cortlandt family vault. By this stratagem he succeeded for a time in deceiving the enemy as to his movements.
Since the building of the Broadway subway Van Cortlandt Park has been so easy of access that the number of visitors to the historic spot has rapidly increased.