Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Romans, Bernard

ROMANS, BERNARD (1720?–1784?), engineer and author, was born in Holland about 1720. He was educated in England, and about 1755 was sent to North America by the British government in the capacity of civil engineer. Between 1760 and 1771 he was living near the town of St. Augustine in East Florida, and was described as ‘draughtsman.’ He was also government botanist, and claimed to be the first surveyor settled in the state, then under Spanish rule. In 1775 he stated that during the preceding fourteen years he had been ‘sometimes employed as a commodore in the king's service, sometimes at the head of large bodies of men in the woods, and at the worst of times master of a merchantman fitted in a warlike manner’ (Force, American Archives, 4th ser. iii. 1367). He received a pension of 50l. for his services.

On the outbreak of the revolution he joined the provincials, and in the autumn of 1775 was engaged by the New York committee of safety, it is said, on the recommendation of Washington, to construct the fortifications at Fort Constitution, opposite West Point on the Hudson river. On 8 Nov. he reported that ‘the plan we at present pursue is a very lame one’ (Force). A week later he sent in a petition and memorial to the New York provincial congress, complaining that his promised commission as engineer and colonel had not been forwarded, and that his orders had been contradicted and overruled. He also prayed for an assistant, as his office was ‘a very exercising one, keeping body and mind constantly employed together’ (ib. iii. 1363). The commission never seems to have been granted, though in some of his letters Romans calls himself ‘colonel.’

On 8 Feb. 1776, however, he was appointed captain of the Pennsylvania artillery, which was serving at Ticonderoga during the greater part of the year (Saffell, Records of the Revolutionary War, pp. 178–81). On 18 March he applied to the New York committee of safety for the fulfilment of a resolution of the continental congress at Philadelphia to the effect that he should be paid up to the date of his new commission, adding that want of money prevented his appearing at the head of his company (Force, v. 405). On 10 May General Schuyler wrote to Washington that as ‘a string of complaints’ had been lodged against Romans, he had sent for him to be tried at Albany (ib. vi. 413); and five days later Benedict Arnold told Samuel Chase that ‘Mr. Romans's conduct by all accounts has been very extraordinary’ (ib. p. 581). The charges, which seem to have had reference to connivance at depredations by his men, were not sustained, and Romans after his acquittal by the court-martial served for three years afterwards in the ‘continental’ army. In 1779 he was captured by the British, probably at Stoney Point on the Hudson, and was sent to England. His exchange was refused, and after the peace he again practised in England as an engineer. In 1784 he sailed for New York, carrying with him a large sum of money, and, as he was never heard of again, is supposed to have been murdered during the passage. Romans is said to have been introduced by Washington to Elizabeth Whiting, who became his wife; she died at New York on 12 May 1848.

Romans was the author of the ‘Concise Natural History of East and West Florida,’ New York, 1775. In spite of typographical errors and some pretentiousness of style, it contains highly valuable information. It has twelve copperplates, etched by the author, and an engraved dedication to John Ellis (1710?–1776) [q. v.], the naturalist. Only the first volume seems to have been issued. The work is now very rare. A copy, dated 1776, is in the British Museum.

Another of Romans's works, also unfinished, is said to have been the earliest book printed at Hartford. This was his ‘Annals of the Troubles in the Netherlands from the Accession of Charles V,’ published in 1778. It is a compilation from ‘the most approved historians,’ and was designed as ‘a proper and seasonable Mirror for the present Americans.’ Romans also published ‘A Map of the Seat of Civil War in America,’ 1775, 12mo; and ‘The Compleat Pilot for the Gulf Passage,’ 1779, which seems to be identical with the appendix to the ‘Natural History of Florida.’ He also contributed in August 1773 a paper on improvements in the mariner's compass to the American Philosophical Society (Trans. Amer. Philos. Soc. ii. 396), which he joined in 1771.

[Force's Amer. Archives, 4th ser. vols. iii. v. vi. passim; Duyckinck's Cycl. Amer. Lit. i. 317, 318; Wynne's Private Libraries of New York, pp. 345–6; Rich's Bibl. Americ. Nova, i. 467; Fairbanks's Hist. of St. Augustine.]

G. Le G. N.