1661: Why?

Why 1661?

How Staten Island became a Refuge for
“All the Nations Under Heaven.”  

Huguenot Settlement on Staten Island, F. Stahr Mural at SI Borough Hall (1940), www.nypl.org


In 1707, a local schoolteacher on Staten Island observed that the population represented "All the Nations Under Heaven."  Since its origins, Staten Island has benefitted from peoples, products and ideas drawn from throughout the world.  These global connections have shaped its economic, political, cultural and military history to the present times.  But when and how did it all begin?   
    The first permanent European settlement of Staten Island began with a petition written in Dutch on August 22, 1661, to the Council of New Amsterdam for “Ground Briefs” or land grants.  Nineteen families of French, Belgian and Dutch nationalities, seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity, united to establish a new community on our shores.  The leader of this group, Pierre Billiou, was a refugee.   A French-speaking Protestant from Belgium (a group known as Walloons), Billiou arrived with his wife and four children the previous year on the ship St John the Baptist.  He became the first sherriff and magistrate.  Indeed, his house known as the Billiou-Stillwell-Perine house stands today at 1476 Richmond Road.  Walraven Luten, Hans Chistofel, Thys Barentsen and David Desmarest joined him in building their homes in what became known as “Oude Dorp” or “Old Town” near present-day South Beach.  The colonial government of New Netherland provided them with a garrison of six soldiers for protection.  At Borough Hall today stands a mural depicting the arrival of Pierre Billiou and the other Huguenot (French Calvinist or Protestant) settlers. 
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They encountered the Lenni-Lenape, a diverse group of Raritan, Hackensack and Canarsie tribes with contacts throughout the region.  The Lenape had inhabited Staten Island, which they called "Aquehonga," the Algonquin term meaning "place of high sandy banks," for over five hundred years.  They farmed the island's lands, hunted geese, fished its waters, and buried their dead on its shores. They established trade routes through its interior waterways and "ferries" which were linked to a complex trade networks with tribes in New Jersey and on Long Island.    
Director-General Stuyvesant surrendered New Netherland to an English naval expedition in September 1664. The English renamed the colony "New York" in honor of King Charles II's brother James, the duke of York, who organized the expedition. Oude Dorp became known as Dover. In 1683, Staten Island was renamed Richmond County for the Duke of Richmond, the son of Charles II.
Economic activity in the late 1600s and 1700s connected Staten Island to Manhattan Island, to Perth Amboy and indeed to ports around the world.  Timber, milled products (such as flour), oysters as well as fruits and vegetables from Staten Island were shipped to these transatlantic markets.  In turn, local residents purchased manufactured  goods and commodities, such as china from England, sugar and molasses from the West Indies and wine from the Madiera Islands (off the coast of Northwest Africa). 
By the late 1600s, the island's population increased gradually with the arrival of English, Scots, and Irish colonists as well as enslaved Africans and Afro-Caribbean peoples.   In 1680, Governor Lovelace had signed a treaty prohibiting the use of Native Americans as slaves.  Colonists turned increasingly from indentured servants to enslaved Africans for labor.  A substantial number of these laborers were brought over from the Caribbean Island of Curaco, where Peter Stuyvesant had once served as governor.  Scholars estimate the Island's slave population quickly grew from 10% to 20%, where it remained until emancipation in 1827.  They were essential for farming the land.
Religion was important to Staten Islanders.  The Rev. Samuel Drisius frequently journeyed from Manhattan Island to “administer the Lord’s Supper.”  Other ministers came to the Island from New Jersey.  In these years, the Voorleezer (Dutch lay preacher and schoolteacher) led services and taught children at the Vorleezer House, Richmondtown, the oldest extant schoolroom in America.  In 1693, Rev. David de Bonrepos, who migrated to Staten Island from New Richelle, aided congregants to build the first church on the Island in present-day Greenridge known as the "French Church."  By 1706, St. Andrew's Anglican Church had been established.
Visitors to the Island occasionally praised its landscape and natural resources.  A contemporary writer noted: “most of it is very good land, full of timber…there is very great marshes….There grows black walnut and locust as there doth in Virginia, with might tall straight timber.”  Later, during the American Revolution, a Hessian officer wrote to a friend back in Germany that Staten Island’s “climate and soil are without exception, the lovliest, healthiest, and most agreeable on the face of the globe.” 
During the American Revolution, 32, 000 British and Hessian troops occupied the Island.  They chose to stay here not only because of its strategic significance near the Narrows but also its abundant farm produce and livestock were used to supply the army.  They were joined by loyalist refugees fro the surrounding area, notaly, African-Americans.  African-American soldiers were enticed by Lord Dunmore's offer of freedom in exchange for fighting on the British side.   Some Hessian soldiers stayed after the war.  Among the Loyalists, some fled or were exiled to London and Nova Scotia.  Some former loyalists were later involved in the colonization of Sierra Leone, on the West Coast of Africa. 
Throughout the nineteenth century, examples of global exchange continued.  Large numers of immigrants arrived from Ireland and Germany, then from Spain, Cuba, Poland, Russia and Norway.  They were attracted by employment opportunities in new factories that produced linoleum and bricks, the Island's burgeoning breweries and in its shipyards, which produced vessels that sailed around the globe.  Like the earlier settlers, these new immigrants, struggled to build new places of worship, including the Island's first Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues.  Beginning with the civil war, men and women drawn from all of these new immirant groups served courageously in numerous military conflicts or demonstrated their desire for peace. 
At the turn of the twentieth century, Staten Island, like the rest of the region, was undergoing many economic, political and cultural changes.  Most significantly, in 1898, Staten Island became part of New York City.  New waves of immigrants came to its shores, notaly Italians, Greeks and Chinese populations, turning neighorhoods like Stapleton, Port Richmond and New Dorp into virant commercial districts.  In the 1920s, the automobile age necessitated the construction of three bridges that gradually, but never completely, replaced the ferries  And, from the early 1960s to the present day, along with post-World War II waves of Italian, Polish and Greek immigrants, Koreans, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Egyptians, Syrians, Liberians, Russians, Mexicans and so many others also settled here.  Some of these groups, like our first settlers, were refugees.  Interestingly, the Dutch and French languages were reintroduced to the borough by French-speaking West Africans and Haitians and by those of the Dutch Caribbean Islands.  Like our earliest settlers, their faith and hard work have generated new organizations, places of worship, business netwoks and cultural creativity.  As in 1707, Staten Island's populations continue to represent "All the Nations Under Heaven."
Not only its peoples, but ideas and products are part of regional and global networks.  Today goods from throughout the world pass through the Container Port and trucks carrying products made in American use the Island's bridges and expressways.  The SI Ferry, the NYC Marathon, local museums and performances, stores and business conferences and annual Staten Island Film Festival are but a few of the reasons tourists find their way to our borough from around the world.
Staten Island has evolved in its own unique way but its past and present are integrally linked to the rest of New York City, oft-descried as the global capital of the world.  Residents and visitors to Staten Island today experience a rich, diverse and vibrant community that sprang up over the years from the seeds planted by its first Native American, European and African settlers. 
-- by Lori Weintrob and Phillip Papas    

Early Map of New York region, showing plantations of
the Dutch, French and English on Staten Island

Billiou-Stillwell-Perine House