From Gouverneur Morris
Morrissania 20th April 1776
I take the Liberty of addressing your Excellency upon a Subject so much out of my own Line, that I must be entirely in your Equity, as to the Charge of Impertinence. I hope to be acquitted.
The Committee of Safety have ordered, that the sick Soldiery should be transported to an Island called little Barn Island; which was, and perhaps still is, the Property of Captn John Montresor, an Engineer in the ministerial Army.1 The choice of this particular Spot for that Purpose, induces me to suspect, that they were actuated in some Measure by those illiberal Prejudices, which have great Weight in little Souls. For certainly it must be rather inconvenient, to place the Sick upon an Island, at nine Miles Distance from the Army. It seems to be rather more rational, to erect Buildings for their Reception, on the high Grounds near Hudson’s River to the Westward of Harlem; a Situation at once healthy and easy of Access. Or if an insular Position is indispensibly necessary; then Behenna’s, and especially Blackwell’s Island, will be found much better adapted to the Purpose, being nearer to the City, and a convenient Ferriage to either from the Fort at Hoerns Hook.2 And the Proprietors of those Islands, would I beleive gladly let any Houses they can spare for that Use.
My Reason for troubling your Excellency on this Occasion is, that when Mr Montresor went to Boston, the Island was put in the Possession of (I beleive conveyed to) John Tudor Esqr., and of his Majesty’s Council for the Bermuda Islands, who came hither in the Pursuit of Health. He has found it where he now is, and thinks it inhospitable to the Stranger, to turn him out instead of taking him in—The lower Orders of Mankind, blessed in the Bluntness of their Perceptions, may receive a pecuniary Compensation for any Inconvenience, but your Excellency best knows, how precious are the Feelings of a Gentleman: public Money can neither purchase or alleviate them. If we banish this pauvre Maladé, it is worth while to consider how much his Tale will be repeated against us. The uncharitable will say it was a Pique, because he holds a Feather under the King. The mildest Judges will discover some harsh Features in the Piece.
I trespass too much Sir upon your Patience—I have no other Excuse, but that Mr Tudor requested me to mention this Matter to your Excellency; let me add that I receive Pleasure in furnishing the Occasion for that Happiness which you receive in doing Good. With the greatest Respect I have the Honor to be your Excellency’s most obedient and humble Servant
Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816), a member by birth of New York’s landed aristocracy, was a cultured young lawyer with a successful practice in New York City. Before 1775 Morris favored compromise with Great Britain, but in the spring of that year, he joined his half brother Lewis Morris in actively supporting the American cause. Gouverneur Morris served several terms in the provincial congress between 1775 and 1777 and was a member of the Continental Congress from 1778 to 1779. In 1781, a year after losing his left leg in a carriage accident, Morris was made assistant superintendent of finance under Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, to whom he was not related. He held that position until 1785 and later became a prominent diplomat. Morrisania, the extensive family manor where Morris lived in 1776 with his Loyalist mother, lay on the east side of the Harlem River in Westchester County, an area that is now part of the Bronx. The estate was bordered on the south by the East River, and the two-story manor house, which stood on an elevation near that river, had a commanding view of much of the surrounding area including Montresor’s Island.
1. On 11 April the New York committee of safety authorized Dr. Malachi Treat, his assistants, and any smallpox physicians appointed by the Continental commander at New York to use the house and other buildings on Montresor’s Island for a smallpox hospital (N.Y. Prov. Congress Journals description begins Journals of the Provincial Congress, Provincial Convention, Committee of Safety, and Council of Safety of the State of New-York, 1775–1776–1777. 2 vols. Albany, 1842. (Microfilm Collection of Early State Records). description ends , 1:401). Montresor’s Island was also known as Little Barn or Little Barent Island in the eighteenth century. For GW’s order posting a guard at the hospital on Montresor’s Island, see General Orders, 19 April 1776.
2. Horn’s Hook, a point of land on the east side of Manhattan Island at the entrance to the strategically important Hell Gate portion of the East River, was fortified in February 1776 by order of Gen. Charles Lee (see Lee to GW, 5–6, 14, 19 Feb. 1776; see also Lee’s report on the defense of New York, March 1776, in Lee Papers description begins [Charles Lee]. The Lee Papers. 4 vols. New York, 1872-75. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 4–7. description ends , 1:354–57). The fort stood on the site of the present-day Gracie Mansion, on the south side of 89th Street and East End Avenue. “Behenna’s” Island is Ward’s Island which lies in the East River immediately south of Randall’s (Montresor’s) Island. Before 1783 it was variously known as Bahanna’s, Tenkena’s, Buchanan’s, and Great Barn (Great Barent) Island. Blackwell’s Island (now called Welfare Island) is a long narrow island in the East River south of Ward’s Island.