Vive Staten Island !: Huguenot settlers and other French connections
Please do not cite without permission. This is a work in progress. Further research on the Huguenot history of Staten Island has been commissioned by the New York Geneological and Biographical Society and will be available on their website in late 2013. A Special thanks to Peter Kerr for his support and encouragement of this research project.
Lori R. Weintrob, Professor and Chair, History Department Wagner College, Staten Island LRWeintro@wagner.edu 718-390-3309
The poet Henry David Thoreau, who lived for a time on Staten Island, wrote imaginatively of the Huguenots’ early settlement two centuries earlier:
The hills in the interior of [Staten] Island, though comparatively low, are penetrated in various directions by sloping valleys,…gradually narrowing and rising in the centre, and at the head of these the Huguenots, who were the first settlers, placed their houses quite within the land, in rural and sheltered places, in leafy recesses…from which …they looked out through a widening vista, over miles of forest and stretching salt marsh…
Similarly, in 1862, the Continental monthly printed a short article on French connections to Staten Island from the 17th century:
“STATEN ISLAND, that enchanting seagirt spot in the beautiful Bay of New York, early became a favorite resort with the French Protestants. It should be called the Huguenot Island; and for fine scenery, inland and water, natural beauties, hill, dale, and streams, with a bracing, healthful climate, it strongly reminds the traveler of some regions in France. No wonder that Frenchmen should select such a spot in a new land,for their quiet homes…”
See Continental Monthly, Vol. I, Issue 6 (1862) at http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/ncps:@field(DOCID+@lit(ABR1802-0001-145))::
In fact, French connections to Staten Island predate even the first permanent settlement of French and Dutch families in 1661. Over a century earlier, in 1524, the King of France Francis I hired the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazano, who, on his ship The Dolphin (named for the prince or Dauphin?), was the first modern explorer to sail into the Narrows. Verrazano regretted leaving a region “So commodious and delightful.” Over the next decade, records indicate that other skippers, including several who were French, had gone up the “River of Steep Hills.” Then in 1609, Henry Hudson claimed it for the Dutch and named it to honor the Staaten or States-General of Holland.
The Dutch West India Company (founded 1621) transported the first settlers to New Netherlands in 1623. Lured by the fur trade, land and trading rights, Michael Pauw, a wealthy director of the Company and Lord of Achitienhoven, attained the attained the patroon (dutch for “head of company”)for Staten Island from 1630-1637. Staten Island was plentiful in oysters, fish and game and the cultivation of maize and pigs. Troubles with Raritan Indians and other Leni-Lanapes, plagued Pauw and his successors David Pieterszen De Vries and Cornelius Melyn at their colony in the “Watering Place.” In 1655, the sixteen farms were destroyed in wars with Native Americans, although one or more Dutch families continued to live on the Island.
Huguenot Settlement on Staten Island, F. Stahr Mural at SI Borough Hall (1940), www.nypl.org.
Then, on August 22, 1661, a petition for “Ground Briefs” or land grants on Staten Island was presented to the Council of New Amsterdam by Pierre Billiou, a Walloon (French-speaking Calvinist from Belgium) and a recent arrival, along with Walraven Luten. Pierre Bielliou (sic) arrived with his wife and four children the previous year on the ship St John the Baptist. (ref. 924.747M). Nineteen families were indicated of Dutch, French, Belgian and English nationalities, unified by the common purpose of enjoying religious freedom. The year 1661 has been proclaimed the year of Staten Island’s first settlement.
The Colonial Period (1661-1776): Founders and Politics
As Governor Peter Stuyvesant wrote in a report to the Dutch West India Company in April 1664: “A hamlet, not yet named, was begun on Staten Island about two years ago and has now gone from twelve to fourteen families of Dutch and French from the Palatinate; it lies about half an hour’s walk from the Narrows, there being no more convenient place for a village nearer the water…” Descendants of these early settlers are still living on Staten Island, according to Holden’s Staten Island, including Gerit Mannaat, Manee family and David D’Amareu, Demarest family (Dickenson, 18). Demarest arrived from Picardy with his wife and four children on the Spotted Cow ship April 1663 (Ref. 924.747M).
Many of the so-called Dutch were from the Belgic or southern part of the Netherlands. They were either Flemings who spoke Dutch or Walloons who spoke French. Walloons from Belgium and Huguenots from France in their religious lives were as one. The Island offers evidence that this was true: Pierre Billiou, David D’Amareu (Demarest), Jacques Casier, Jacques Corteliau (Cortelyou), Nicholas DuPoi (DePuy) being prime examples. French and Dutch were spoken by more Staten Islanders than was English well into the Eighteenth Century. And one hundred years later, sermons were still being preached in Dutch while the elderly members of Huguenot families clung to the use of the French of their forebearers. (Smith, 22-23).
Ten soldiers on duty to provide protection in Oude Dorp or old village, failed to defeat the English squadron in August 1664 which made good on the King’s claims to all Dutch possessions. Local families became subjects of Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York. Staten Island became part of “West Riding,” one of three divisions in the shire of Yorkshire. Nicholas Stillwell was elected Constable with the power to and determine civil matters “under ye value of five pounds.” Above that amount there was recourse to the court across the water at Gravesend. Oude Dorp became Dover. Governor Francis Lovelace replaced Nicholls in 1668 and negotiated a final purchase of Staten Island from the Indians. Then, again, in 1673, for fifteen months, the Dutch recaptured New York, long enough for Pierre Billiou to be appointed Schout Scheppen (Sheriff and Magistrate) and to embroil himself with several of his neighbors (Smith, 23).
When the Duke of York ascended the throne in 1685 as James II, New York became a royal rather than a proprietary province. The new King harbored religious intolerance but Governor Donogan, also a Roman Catholic, was noted for his tolerance. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, followed by the severe persecution of Protestants in France, alarmed all Protestants in New York and on Staten Island. In the following months there were rumors of Papist plots that so alarmed the Island’s French inhabitants—many of whom had suffered religious persecution in their own home—that some fled to their boats anchored offshore for safety so as to escape any night attacks (Smith, 32).
Religion and Education
In his report to the Classis in Amsterdam, prior to the first English conquest, the Reverend Samuel Drisius wrote: The French on Staten Island would also gladly have a preacher, but their families are few in number and poor so that they cannot contribute much to the support of the Gospel and as such our support here is unpunctual and small, there is no probability that they will settle a preacher. In the meantime that they may not be wholly destitute, Governor Stuyvesant at their request, has permitted me to go and preach there every two months and administer the Lord’s Supper…” (Smith, 23).
In 1679, two Dutch Labadists Jasper Dankers and Peter Sluyter visited the Island, searching for a place to start a community based on the teachings of Jean de Labadie, French mystic and former Roman Catholic priest. On the second day, October 12, after visiting both Oude and Nieu Dorp (Old Town and New Town), Dankers wrote: “We had no more villages to go to.” Henceforth they were to go “from one plantation to another, for the most part belonging to the French, who showed us every kindness because we conversed with them in French.” They found wild turkey, geese, snipe and wood-hens. They moved from one “farm to another, French, Dutch and a few English.” Late in the afternoon they came to the plantation of a Frenchman called “Le Chaudronnier” (The Coppersmith), who had served as a soldier under Prince of Orange. On the Third day they came to a plantation of Pierre Gardinier, who had been in the service of Prince of Orange and knew him well. “He was so glad to see strangers that conversed with him in the French language that he leaped with joy.” The Labadists noted “They have neither church nor minister…The French and Dutch are very desirous and eager for one, for they spoke of it wherever we went. The French are good reformed church-men and some of them are Walloons” (Cited by Smith, 26-27). In 1679, the number of French and Dutch was about equal, the English inhabitants were in the minority. (Smith, 27)
Finally, in 1693, members who had met for thirty-five years for religious services in churches and barns were honored by the arrival of a resident minister. Reverend David de Bonrepos preached to a congregation of 36 French, 40 English and 44 Dutch settlers (HIS, 22, look for original source 39). In 1698 this group received a deed to land at Greenridge and a French Huguenot Church was built there. The site of this church, the first built on Staten Island, is indicated by a state historical marker on Arthur Kill Road, north of Richmond Avenue (look up State records). Historian Dr. Henry G. Steinmeyer suggests that de Bonrepos preached from 1695-8 in the house of the Voorlezer. (Smith, 34).
Reverend Aeneas Mackenzie held services at the French Church from 1705-12, until the Protestant Episcopal Church of St. Andrew was built. Mr. Mackenzie reported a kindly reception: The French had a church, he wrote, “where they allow me to preach in the afternoons, the English having no church…There are not many rigid dissenters. But some few Quakers and Anabaptists. The French minister and such of the French and Dutch who understood English hear me preach…”(cited by Smith, 36). MacKenzie’s efforts were more successful that those of the Reverend Morgan Jones a few years earlier. Annoyed at being ordered to pay a tax to support a minister, the French inhabitants protested strongly, giving as a reason Mr. Jones “ill life and conversation.” To this Justice Stillwell replied that the English cleric was unable to preach in Dutch and French to Islanders who understood only that tongue (Smith, 36).
In 1707 two schoolteachers were brought in. Adam Brown taught on the South Side “where there is a mixture of all nations under heaven.” The thirty-year old Drewit taught in the Fresh Killls “about the center of the Island about a mile from where we are building our church and where most of the inhabitants are French.”(Smith, 37).
Population, including slavery
By 1695 the population on the Island was divided evenly amongst the French-speaking people, the English and the Dutch (HSI, 20). By 1698 the population of the entire Island was 727, including about 70 slaves, growing steadily to 1, 279 (1712), then 2, 073 (1746) to reach 3,000 at the time of the American Revolution. Jacques Guyon received a large grant of land now known as Oakwood on which he built a home that stood until 1925. The name is perpetuated in Guyon Avenue. Large land grants were also made to Lovelace’s two brothers, Dudley and Thomas. After brief disputes over Dutch recapturing New York, by 1679 100 tracts of land (about 80 acres each) had been granted by the new Governor Sir Edmund Andros. An unusually large patent was granted to Christopher Billop.
The French and Dutch continued to build the stone or brick house while the English preferred the frame house (HSI, 26). Near the Church of St. Andrew’s in Richmondtown, the county seat, was the Treasure House (still standing) built in 1700 by Samuel Grosset, a French Huguenot, who lived there and carried on his trade as a tanner by the adjacent creek (HSI, 29). The origin of the name is traced to a story that the owner found seven thousand of dollars of British coins in the walls in 1860. The tanner was important to the community as leather was needed for shoes, harnesses and many other purposes.(HSI, 30).
Now referred to as the Billou-Stillwell-Perine House, built with additions 1663, 1680, 1790, 1830. For further information see, The Staten Island Historian, Vol. XX, No. 3 (July-Sept. 1959).
Some French family names and street names can be traced to early settlers. Among these are Androvette, Cortelyou, Crocheron, Du Bois, De Puy, Guyon, Joline, Journeay, LaForge, Latourette, Manee, Mercereau, Perine, Poillon, Seguine. (HSI, 36, see original source 25): Joshua Mersereau’s Ferry was one of ten during the colonial period. It was begun in 1774 to go across Kill van Kull.
Image of Crocheron House, c. 1819
On the eve of the French Revolution, the percentage of slaves on Staten Island was about 20% of the population. Various documents provide clues to the lives of slaves owned by Huguenot families. For example, in an article in the SI Historian on run-away slaves we learn that Jack, who spoke “good English and Dutch and is a weaver by trade, ran away from Jacob Mersereau on May 26, 1757, according to the New York Gazette. Slaveholder John Mersereau wrote in the New York Gazette on August 14, 1767 that his slave Prime “was seen coming out of the mouth of the Kills in a canoe on Sunday morning last, with the intention of coming to New York, in order to get on board some vessel.”
An even more important source on the treatment of slaves are wills, which demonstrate whether slaves were freed (rarely) or slave families divided among heirs, without regard to family bonds (often). Many Huguenot families seem to have four slaves each, who are then divided among heirs. Click “list of slaves” for a link to an on-line list of slaves based on family wills and look for individual Huguenot family names. This information is drawn from www.nypl.org, Staten Island Colonial Slaves.
The American Revolution
During the American Revolution: Alan Cortelyou and Paul Michau were sent as delegates to the First Provincial Congress meeting in New York, May 22, 1775, a little over a month after the shots heard round the world began the American Revolution (Smith, 57). John, Joshua, Jacob (Colonel) and John LaGrange Mersereau, along with Paul Latourette, were part of General George Washington’s espionage network (Smith, 72-3). In the winter of 1776-77, John André whp had recently purchased a captaincy in the 26th Foot was on duty, according to British Army Records (Smith, 87).
In 1790, the French accounted for 15% of the population of Staten Island. On Staten Island, the Dubois and Fontaine family names were frequent among heads of households. At the end of the Eighteenth Century, the Island’s population was composed almost entirely of Protestants (Smith, 39).
Notes on the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
The Church of the Huguenots was organized in 1849 in Bloomingview (now Huguenot). Two years later the “liitle brown church” as it was known, was built on the property given by the Hon. Benjamin P. Prall who was a direct descendant of Pierre Billiou, leader of the 1661 settlement. This little church stood until 1918 when sparks from a train engine set fire to the roof. The present church was erected in 1924 and is known as the Huguenot Reformed Church. (HSI, 60). In 1924 it was dedicated as a national memorial to the Huguenot settlers of our country. Memorial pillars and windows in the church commemorate Pierre Billiou and other early settlers of Staten Island (HSI, 170).
In the Post-Civil War era, a period of economic expansion, certain nationalities develop little communities, such as the French in Grant City-or is this an error and it is New Paris until Civil War(HSI, 110).
David H. Cortelyou was among the incorporators of the SI Historical Society in 1900 (its first incorporation being in 1856). Also part of Historic Richmondtown (est. 1935) is the Guyon-Lake Tyson house built circa 1740 (with additions c. 1820/1840), a superb Colonial style house erected in the New Dorp-Oakwood area and moved to Richmondtown in 1962. The gambrel roof, spring eaves and front porch are especially notable (HIS, 339). The David Latourette house dating back to 1836, was taken over by the city in 1927 as the clubhouse of Latourette golf course (HSI, 172, see source 48).
Look for work by Randall Brown on Early history of SI in SI Historian.
Martlett Family geneology http://members.aol.com/NKnechtel/Marlette/marlette.htm