This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
Fictional works—movies, most memorably—depict characters like Forrest Gump or Woody Allen’s Zelig who manage to turn up at every major historical event alongside the world’s movers and shakers. A nominee for such a real-life character in 18th-century America would be John Montresor.
Unlike his fictional counterparts, Montresor was not mentally or emotionally challenged. As a confident engineer with the British army in America, he was merely doing his job. He first appears to American history enthusiasts in 1755 when he was wounded at the British disaster known as Braddock’s Defeat, the engagement at modern-day Pittsburgh that also featured the young George Washington. John Montresor would continue to be seemingly everywhere during the French and Indian Wars: serving under Jeffrey Amherst at the capture of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island and later through the besieging of Detroit during Pontiac’s Rebellion. While stationed at Quebec in 1759, Montresor drew a sketch of General James Wolfe, no doubt the last depiction of this officer before he met his hero’s death two weeks later on the plains of Abraham.
In New York City during the violent opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765, Montresor’s hurried construction of temporary defenses around Fort George at the tip of Manhattan Island saved the hated stamps from destruction by the rioting colonists. Within this volatile situation, Montresor was assigned to sketch a “Plan of this Place on a large Scale.” The result was Montresor’s attractive 1766 plan of New York City and environs, produced, he claimed “Sub Rosa as observations might endanger ones house and effects if not ones life.”
At the same time, Montresor was appointed barrackmaster for North America, pitting him against the Sons of Liberty in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia in their years-long campaign against the quartering of British troops in colonial cities.
On April 19, 1775 Montresor found himself securing the bridge over the Cambridge River for the redcoats as they advanced toward Lexington, Massachusetts; this was followed by action at Bunker Hill. Evacuating Boston with the British, he hovered around patriot-controlled New York City long enough to make it his business to recover the leaden head of George III: When the equestrian statue of the reigning monarch was torn down by New Yorkers as news of the Declaration of Independence reached them on July 9, 1776, the statue was famously melted into bullets for the colonists’ cause. A few pieces survive, the largest among them in the collections of the New-York Historical Society. George III’s now-disfigured gilded head, however, was stolen at Montresor’s behest from a Yankee tavern in upper Manhattan, hidden, buried, then recovered by him and sent to England “to convince them of the infamous disposition of the ungrateful people of this distressed country.” (it was last seen there in 1777).
Now named Chief Engineer in America, Montresor also served as General William Howe’s aide-de-camp at the Battle of Brooklyn, from where he suggested Kip’s Bay as a beachhead for the successful British landing on Manhattan. His next task was to bring up artillery to the Battle of Harlem Heights. With Manhattan thus secured for the British, Montresor was stationed near Howe’s headquarters where he took pity on a young American, captured as a spy and about to be hanged. The prisoner was denied access to a clergyman or Bible, and Montresor invited him into his tent to spend his final moments, supplying him with pen and paper to write his last letters. When American officers came on two visits under a formal flag of truce to speak of other matters, Montresor related to them the circumstance of the capture, death and last words of Nathan Hale. Years later, one of the American officers and a friend of Hale, William Hull, would cite John Montresor as the witness to Hale’s “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
The following year, Montresor was in Pennsylvania participating in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown. In occupied Philadelphia he constructed fortifications but also had charge of the fireworks and ballroom decorations for the “Meschianza” (Italian for “medley”), the extravagant farewell fête for his commander William Howe. His fellow party planner was John André, the urbane British officer whose life would end by noose when captured as an accomplice of Benedict Arnold in 1780. When the British abandoned Philadelphia in the sweltering June days of 1778, Montresor, bothered by his old wound, chose to travel with the fleet to New York rather than march with the Army, and thus—for once—missed the Battle of Monmouth in central New Jersey.
John Montresor had married a native New Yorker, Frances Tucker, and they and their ten children had country quarters on Montresor’s Island, the East River feature now known as Randall’s Island. They would return to England in late 1778 where he resigned his commission. He spent much of his remaining years seeking reimbursement for expenses incurred during military service that he characterized as “Eighteen actions and Thirty-two voyages.” He died in 1799, overburdened by debts and unresolved claims, leaving his sons to restore his reputation.
Montresor’s many adventures also included the amorous variety; through one of his liaisons he is said to be the father of Ethan Allen’s second wife. Montresor’s first cousin, Susanna Rowson, earned fame for her wildly popular 1791 novel, Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, that features a “Lieutenant John Montraville” who seduces Charlotte Temple and brings her to New York, only to abandon her, ill and pregnant. Rowson manages, however, not to make the remorseful officer the villain of the novel.
Given his movements on fields of battle, six loses of luggage, and multiple fires, John Montresor’s papers had a difficult time surviving. The partial writings that remain were published by the New-York Historical Society in 1882 while the charred papers themselves remain in family hands. He is still awaiting a full-length biography.