The park was the site of the American Revolutionary War Battle of Fort Washington, fought on November 16, 1776, between 2,900 American soldiers and 8,000 invading Hessian troops hired by Great Britain. Margaret Corbin became the first woman to fight in the war and was wounded during the battle. After the British won, the fortification was named after Sir William Tryon, the last British Governor of the New York colony.
Later it became the private residence of a succession of wealthy owners, including Dr. Samuel Watkins, founder of Watkins Glen, General Daniel Butterfield, Boss Tweed and C. K. G. Billings. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased the Billings estate in 1917. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., son of the designer of Central Park, to plan a park that he would give to the city. The park was constructed during the Great Depression, providing many jobs. The project included the 190th Street subway station on the IND Eighth Avenue Line (which is the closest station to the park). The park was completed in 1935. Olmstead included extensive flower plantings, including a Heather Garden that was restored in the 1980s. Besides the gardens and the Cloisters, the park has extensive walking paths and meadows, with views of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers.
The park is built on a formation of Manhattan schist and contains interesting examples of igneous intrusions and of glacial striations from the last Ice Age. The lower lying regions to the east and north of the park are built on Inwood marble.