Little is known about long-lived David Grim (1737-1826) outside of the brief personal account of his life held by the New-York Historical Society Library. What can be said is that his memory was sound. A tavern keeper, merchant, and owner of Hessian’s Coffee House from 1767 to 1789, Grim sought to leave behind more than an amalgam of facts about his life: he preserved the city of his youth for posterity through various maps, building sketches, and notes.
Born to parents who were natives of Bavaria, Grim arrived to America as an infant, and the small but already bustling New York City was the first home he knew. “A Plan of the City and Environs of New York as they were in the years 1742, 1743, 1744,” or the Grim Plan, is a manuscript map drawn by a 76-year-old Grim recalling the Manhattan of his boyhood. Grim would have been five-years-old in 1742.
The spectacularly minute detail of the Grim Plan depicts New York City as it was before the 1776 Great Fire of New York. After the British occupied the city, one-third of Manhattan (nearly 500 houses and buildings) were destroyed. It is uncertain if the fires were set intentionally, and if so, by whom.
In 1744, however, the city was smaller by a third. According to David Grim’s notes, where he relates his many recollections, there were 1,141 houses. He explains he used the Ratzer Map as his guide, “knowing the same to be correct.” The map’s key lists the government and community buildings, the homes and farms of notable families, and landmarks that are familiar today, such as Bowling Green (no. 59) and Old Trinity Church (no. 11). Grim depicted many of these important buildings across the top of his map; those for the synagogue of the country’s first Jewish congregation, the Quaker and Baptist Meeting Houses, and the poorhouse, are the only known illustrations to survive.
Grim also remembers the Great Negro Plot of 1741, when a supposed uprising of slaves set a series of fires in the city. Like the Great Fire of 1776, the validity of these accusations is dubious, but the fear and fervor of New York’s residents were not. A sixteen-year-old indentured servant, Mary Burton, accused her white master, John Hughson, prostitute Margaret “Peggy” Kerry, and a number of slaves of planning to kill all the wealthy, white families and raze their dwellings.
. . . the talk now in town is about the Negroes conspiracy . . . two of the Conspirators [sic] one was the Philips’s Cuff & the other the Negro of Rosevelts they confesst their setting the Fort on fire . . . I think no death can be too bad for [Hughson] he is prov’d to be a most vile wicked Wretch . . . a Negro of Pecks cut his throat last night I suppose he knew himself guilty & did it to prevent a kinder death.”
According to Grim’s notes, Hughson was the “perpetrator of this horned plot,” along with a slave named Caesar. Both were executed. In the end, 152 slaves were imprisoned (one committed suicide), 30 men were executed, and 84 men and women were deported and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. Depicted on the Grim Plan are the locations (nos. 55-57) in which the supposed perpetrators were put to death, some hanged and some burned at the stake.
David Grim’s written recollections continue, recounting the building of Manhattan’s palisades, the visit of the Mohawk and Oneida Native Americans from Albany during the French and Indian War, and a few end notes regarding the history of New York City’s slips, “Having spare paper here in order to fill that part.” These notes add a personal vitality to the corresponding Grim Plan, but the gravity of the map speaks for itself in its exquisite detail. It is a true treasure, which in keeping with Grim’s own dedication to the preservation of history, was presented to the New-York Historical Society by the man himself.
This post is by Crystal Toscano, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.