North Jersey Highlands Historical Society, founded in 1954.
North Jersey Highlands Historical Society

Great Chain on the Hudson River, 1777.



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Robert Erskine, 1735-1780

Life in the late 18th Century was not as it is now. Today we drive our cars to Ringwood Manor, park in the large lot and, in our comfortable shoes, stroll down the old road to the graveyard where Robert Erskine lies under a brick tomb. We know that when we are done, we will find heat, hot water and food waiting for us. For Erskine, these things were a luxury. Not that he lived a primitive life, but he immigrated to a wild country and immediately got caught up in a war.

There are some things that make his experience typical of most Americans. Most of us moved here from another place, giving up everything we knew to enter the unknown, often living a harder life because of it. He did that too. His life in London was not easy, but his life in the New World was tumultuous. He left the certainty of slowly growing professional respect to try to rescue a business in distress and then he was caught up in the Revolution. The tumult never ended - it caught him, midway in his life, when he died serving the Continental Army at age 45.

But let’s start with what we know. As the fifth living son of a Scottish Clergyman, he was not in line to inherit money or position. He was born in 1735 and attended the University of Edinburgh at two different times, after which he entered a business proposition with a partner that ended in bankruptcy. This bankruptcy was a powerful influence in his life and may have helped to propel him to the New World. Even in his will he states his intention to pay back his creditors.

Erskine was also an engineer and an inventor. After bankruptcy, he invented the “Continual Stream Pump” and “Platometer,” a centrifugal hydraulic engine, and experimented with other hydraulic systems. He became active in civic issues and increasingly gained the respect of his community. In 1771 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which increased his standing in his homeland.

Heusser writes in his biography that it was probably Erskine’s “professional work in the neighborhood of London, his private commissions for various men of nobility, and his published communications to the newspapers regarding civic improvements” that led the “American Company” to hire him to take over the failing Ringwood Ironworks. On Erskine's side, it was probably his desire to make good on his bankruptcy that led him to leave a life where he was beginning to know professional respect for an uncertain economic enterprise in a strange land.

Erskine married while still in England. Not much is known about his wife, except that they had a daughter who died of whooping-cough before her second birthday. They never had another child. Elizabeth Erskine accompanied him to the New World and made a home in the comparative wilderness of Northern New Jersey.

The Erskines arrived in Ringwood in 1771. Erskine described Ringwood thus: "The country…was pleasant and well peopled, and the Roads in general pretty good till within a few miles of the Works." There he found that the stony and steep roads in need of repair. Overall, "The situation of Ringwood is tollerable, but has nothing about it enchanting, the Mansion house has been patched together at different times, which makes it a very acquard [awkward] piece of architecture." There were no places of worship in the area. Horses were stolen from the barn several times and later the Manor House was robbed. Ringwood was an outpost in a rugged land.

The ironworks, though extensive, were not operating at a profit. After Hasenclever left, they had been in the hands of Mr. Faesch, who was not happy at the appearance of an overseer who was charged with making the industry profitable. Erskine was seen as a "disagreeable visitor" (his own words) and, in fact, the goal of making the ironworks profitable was nearly impossible. As time went on, Erskine wrote that Hasenclever had been a "schemer" with "mad projects" and "manufactured books." The English stockholders ceased sending money to America, and Erskine was left to find income to run the ironworks as best he could. He left extensive records of his honest and honorable (if somewhat naïve) business dealings, and continued trying to make the company profitable until the Revolution could no longer be avoided.

As the relations between England and America worsened, Erskine foresaw that all communications would be cut off. According to Mrs. Elizabeth Doland, in an interview before her death in 1851, Erskine collected a large stock of goods and provisions before the Revolution and sold them at a profit. However, the editor of the recent version of the Heusser biography guesses that she was referring not to Ringwood Manor, but to the store that Erskine owned near the present-day intersection of Routes 87, 287, and 17. That area is a natural pass and one of the two routes from New York City to the north. Still, the rumor has persisted to this day that Erskine hoarded supplies and also brought treasure to Ringwood Manor to hide it from the invading armies.

As war became more imminent, Erskine organized one of the first militias in New Jersey. On August 17, 1775 he received an official commission as captain of his own regiment. There were probably about 60 men, most of whom worked at the ironworks. Later, when Erskine was commissioned Surveyor General, the men joined Joseph Board's company.

Washington commissioned Erskine as Geographer and Surveyor-General to the American Army July 27, 1777. He had met him first in Pompton and they had discussed it there. However, August 1st Erskine responded that his first obligation was to continue his work at the Ironworks and he could only devote half his time to the task. Erskine did not work full-time as Surveyor-General until June, 1778. The house was robbed in 1778. By February 1779, Washington wrote to Erskine to tell him that he was "much exposed" at Ringwood and he required that Erskine move closer to the army. Maps were very important to the war effort because the land was wild and no one knew how to get from one place to another. A knowledge of the land could win a battle.

Erskine wrote that he had to "leave a beloved wife a prey to cares, anxieties and Banditti, under which she could by no means subsist…" He didn't want to leave Ringwood and travel with the army, who were heading South. So, although he may have travelled with the Army for a little while, Ringwood remained his base.

On September 18, 1780, Erskine caught a cold taking surveys in the Hudson Highlands. Unlike today, he did not have heat and hot water to return to or antibiotics to fight the disease. He died Oct. 2 and is buried next to Robert Monteath, his clerk who had died two years previously.

Albert Heusser wrote the only biography of Erskine, which was published in 1928. Heusser tends to glorify Erskine, so it is difficult to get a sense of him as a real human being. The time is ripe for a scholar to read Erskine's letters and papers with fresh insight.

This essay was written by Dr. Carol Siri Johnson in 2002. The information was taken from "George Washington's Map Maker: A Biography of Robert Erskine" by Albert H. Heusser, edited by Hubert G. Schmidt, 1966.

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