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The Old Betts House

Brooklyn Eagle, April 25, 1880

The Betts homestead, formerly located on 58th Street

Newtown still retains two relics of the old Dutch Government, in the form of what is called the old Betts houses. One was the abode of Richard Betts, the founder of the Betts family. It stands on the road between Calvary Cemetery and Maurice Avenue. For sixty years, Richard Betts was prominent in all the affairs of the town, and through a period of fifty years his name is to be found on almost every page of the town records. He was, according to local history, a most remarkable man. At the age of one hundred, he digged his own grave, within sight of his bedroom window, and was interred therein in 1713. In the little cemetery on the farm the deceased members of the different branches of the family, for many years, lie buried. No stone distinguishes the particular grave of the founder of the family. The reason for this neglect was that his sons embraced the Quaker form of worship and the Society abhorred monuments. He came from England with a colony of Puritans, in 1651, to found the Village of Newtown and settle the "English Kills." As time passed, bitter enmity grew between him and the Dutch Governor, Stuyvesant, but he always seems to have been able to carry his point, and this fact probably intensified the Governor's hate of him. In the quarrel between Bushwick and Newtown, as to jurisdiction, Stuyvesant was arrayed against the latter settlement, but his antagonist, Betts, outwitted him. Stuyvesant permitted the English to plant their ground, but steadily refused them a patent. The quick witted Betts purchased the whole of Newtown from the Indians, for 68 pounds, 16 shillings and 4 d's and made the additional allowance of 76 pounds, 9 shillings to the Sachems, Pomwankon and Rowerowestco for their life right, and received a deed thereafter, July 9, 1666. The land was divided between his fifty followers according to their means, and all had great farms. His residence was built in the same year. The old house is still tenanted. One of the treasured heirlooms is a great chair in which he used to sit and transact business late in life. The broad window sills served for desks and secretaries. The house contains twelve rooms, each with a family history. The back door is opened by a heavy wrought iron latch. Curious old closets and cupboard abound in every part. Square hewn beams support the floors, the boards in which are 16 inches wide. Occasionally a curiously formed nail lifts its head and is drawn out. Three-fourths of its long length from the point is formed somewhat like a screw. Interments in the ancient cemetery close to the house come down to as late a date as 1877. Some rude slabs bear the dates 1757, 1759, 1762 marking the graves of Daniel, Mary and Daniel Betts, Jr. The wife of this last person survived him seventy-six years, dying at the extraordinary age of 109. The old well on the farm is the same which supplied Father Richard with water, and the flagstones surrounding it are the same on which the British soldiers washed their rations. When the English Governor Andross assumed office in 1674, the people replied to his proclamation through the town clerk, John Burroughs, reciting their grievances in language which greatly offended him. He directed Captain Betts to "make inquiry, examine and report to him whether the act was of the town or some particular persons." The Governor was reaching out after the scalp of Burroughs. Betts was in a dilemma. He desired to save Burroughs from the disgrace which he felt sure the Governor would inflict. He finally called a town meeting, and a resolution was passed reciting that the act was the act of the town, but the sentiments were not the sentiments of the town. Burroughs was a man of ability and courage, and did not wish to shirk the responsibility and be thought a coward. He wrote a second and more offensive letter to the Governor, for which he was speedily arrested and committed to prison in New York. On the 18th day of January, 1675, he was tied to the whipping post at what is now the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, with this sign across his breast: "For signing seditious letters in the name of the Town of Newtown, against the government and the court of Assizes." He was kept there for one hour to be jeered at by the populace.

From: HISTORY OF QUEENS COUNTY – with illustrations, Portraits & Sketches of Prominent Families and Individuals; New York: W.W. Munsell & Co.; 1882.

Captain Richard Betts, whose public services appear for fifty years on every page of Newtown's history, came in 1648 to New England, but soon after to Newtown, where he acquired great influence. In the revolution of 1663 he bore a zealous part, and after the conquest of New Netherlands' by the English was a member from Newtown of the provincial Assembly held at Hempstead in 1665. In 1678 he was commissioned high sheriff of "Yorkshire upon Long Island," and he retained the position until 1681. He became a bitter opponent to Director Pieter Stuyvesant and the little town of Bushwick, which he had founded. Under leave from the governor the English settlers had planted their town, but were refused the usual patent, and in 1656 Richard Betts administered a severe blow to Stuyvesant by purchasing the land for himself and 55 associates, from the red men, at the rate of one shilling per acre. The total cost amounted to £68 16s. 4d., which, with the sum of £76 9s. paid to the sachems Pomwaukon and Rowerowestco, extinguished the Indian title to Newtown. For a long series of years Betts was a magistrate. During this time he was more than once a member of the high court of assize, then the supreme power in the province. He became an extensive landholder at the English Kills. His residence was here, in what is still known as "the old Betts house." It is further said that here within sight of his bedroom he dug his own grave, in his 100th year, and from the former to the latter he was carried in 1713. No headstone marks the grave, but its absence may be accounted for by the fact that his sons had become Quakers and abjured headstones. The old house which we may enter by lifting the wrought iron latch of heavy construction, worn by the hands of many generations; the polished flags around the old deep well, where the soldiers were wont to wash down their rations, are still as the British left them on their last march through Maspeth. This house is but one of several most ancient farm houses still carefully preserved for their antiquity, on the old Newtown road, between Calvary Cemetery and Maurice avenue. These venerable companions have witnessed many changes, and now enjoy a green old age, respected by the community in which they stand.