A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
British military presence first began in Manhattan as a result of the ongoing conflict with the French to the north. Soldiers arrived in large numbers starting in 1756, arriving from Oswego on Lake Ontario's south shore, when the French forced them out of the region. Their original camps filled quickly and many soldiers were billeted in private homes. This soon became unacceptable to the homeowners. In response, the Common Council of New York City approved the construction of barracks on the Commons.
During the mid-eighteenth century, the continuing presence of hundreds of military and naval personnel and the increasing civilian population fueled a construction boom. Housing was at a premium and food prices rose 800 percent. The market for luxury goods and artisans such as carvers, gilders, watchmakers, furniture makers, painters, potters, silversmiths also rose, along with the need for contractors. The taverns did a good business catering to the thousands of soldiers and seamen quartered throughout the city.
Many of the British soldiers were mercenaries from the German states and Scottish Highlands and were often trailed by numerous dependents and camp followers. The soldiers would supplement their income by working as tradesmen or laborers for local businessmen. During this time, local indentured servants and slaves were promised freedom on the condition that they join the British army and support the Crown. Many did, serving as soldiers, couriers, or laborers.
After 1782, patriots returned to the city and began to seize Tory property. General Carleton of the British army determined that he would stay until all Tories who wanted to leave New York City had done so. In 1783 he began the British withdrawal from New York and City Hall Park no longer housed an occupying army.
The British Barracks
The British Barracks are still a mystery. Were its residents officers, enlisted men, or Hessian mercenaries? Did they buy their own ceramics? Did the kitchen supply them? Who worked in the kitchen? Who fed them? What can we learn from/of their material possessions?
These initial questions bring up deeper issues. Were there really officers staying in the Barracks? Unlikely, but if not, how could the enlisted men display the degree of material wealth evidenced in the assemblage? We are now considering whether officers and enlisted men both made use of the same trash deposit.