1807 U. S. Flag at Fort Jay in New York Harbor

The following rare receipt for the making of a garrison flag to fly over Fort Jay was commissioned by Captain Richard Whiley (1767-1847)—a native of London, England, who came to the United States in the 1780s. He served under General Anthony Wayne in the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795) and received a commission as a lieutenant of artillery in 1796. By 1803, he was a captain of artillery, and commanded Fort Jay on Governors Island in New York Harbor from 1804 to 1806. In the spring of 1806, with tensions rising between the U. S. and England, the U. S. Congress appropriated funds to partially demolish the fort which was described as “in a state of absolute ruin,”—its sodded ramparts eroded by wind and rain. Beginning in July 1806 and for the next two years, it was enlarged, rebuilt, and recommissioned as Fort Columbus. Capt. Whiley then commanded the fort until 1809 and then retired from the military in June 1811. Afterwards, he lived for several years on the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie. He served as president of the North River Insurance Company for many years.

Capt. Richard Whiley (1767-1847)

The receipt itself conveys important information. It reveals the flag’s prescribed dimensions, the quantity and cost of the materials used to make it, and the name of the flag’s maker. The order for the flag was placed in February 1807 during the aforementioned construction period when the fort transitioned from “Fort Jay” to “Fort Columbus.” The total cost of the flag was $103.30.

The official U. S. flag at this time contained 15 alternating red and white stripes, and 15 stars on a field of blue. It was the same pattern flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 which inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner.” That flag was commissioned by Major George Armistead in 1813 and its dimensions were 42 x 30 feet. Each star was about two feet in diameter and each stripe about 24 inches wide. The field of blue was 20 x 16 feet.

By comparison, the “Jay Fort” flag commissioned by Capt. Whiley in 1807 was 44 x 25 feet—slighter longer and considerably narrower. The field of blue only 14 x 12 feet, correspondingly smaller. What is most unusual, however, is the specification calling for 17 stripes instead of the 15 stars and 15 stripes prescribed by the second Flag Act on 1794.

To aid in the visualization of the difference in dimensions between the Fort McHenry flag (“Star Spangled Banner”) of 1813 and the Fort Jay flag of 1807, I’ve depicted the dimensions on a grid. Each grid square represents 1 square foot.

The receipt also reveals to us that the order for making the Fort Jay flag was placed in 1807 with Simon Schermerhorn whom I believe to be the same Simon Schermerhorn (1748-1818) described as a New York City merchant and ship’s chandler in city and census records. His parents, I believe, were John Shermerhorn and Sara Canon.

A view of New York City from the rebuilt ramparts of Fort Columbus (formerly Fort Jay) on Governors Island (1815)

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