Originally Called Mespat.
Some of Its Fine Houses Still Inhabited by the Descendants of the Old Time Owners
(Special to the Eagle)
Newtown, L.I., August 11 – In the struggle for establishment and existence through the first hundred years of its life the village of Newtown is without a parallel among the towns of Long Island. Newtown – or as it was called by its Indians at the time of the discovery of this section of the country by Hendrick Hudson in 1609, “Mespat” – was part of the New Netherlands, the trade from which was exclusively granted by the states general of Holland in 1621 to the organization known as the West India Company. Valuable cargoes of beaver and other skins were annually shipped from here. The population up to 1638 numbered only a few individuals in the employ of the company; but in that year the monopoly was abolished and trade with New Netherlands opened to all.
This was the commencement of Newtown. The general Indian appellation for the large tract of land which contained the township of Newtown was Wandowenock, the town, Mespat. The territory was owned by the Rockaway tribe, and a small tribe at the head of Newtown Creek called the Mespat tribe, from which Mespat village and creek derived their name. The tribes were governed by the Sachem Chegonoe, the first sachem known to the Dutch. Scarce two centuries had passed since Newtown – or Mespat – was the undisputed domain of the red man. The Indians here as elsewhere on Long Island were friendly to the white settler, but no sooner did the colonists become established on the Indian land, when man’s inhumanity to man became the prevailing spirit. Indian presents, to ratify a treaty of peace, were embezzled by the Governor of New Amsterdam, and under various pretexts defenseless Indians were butchered, their crops stolen and many barbarities inflicted by the so called civilized whites.
The Indians became inflamed with anger and revenge, and, from warm friends, became implacable enemies. They burned the new settlement of Mespat and murdered the inhabitants. This was the commencement of the Indian war, waged with untiring pertinacity many years, until the Indian title to the land was finally relinquished. Mespat slowly arose from the ashes, and was again built by English and Dutch settlers, who lived for a time peaceably until the Rev. Francis Doughty, who for “conscience sake” had followed the Mayflower, had granted him a patent for a tract of land of 13,000 acres; he regarded himself as with the powers and privileges of a patron, which claim was resisted by the other patentees, and much intestine trouble arose, which resulted in the expulsion of the would-be patroon.
After the settlement of this trouble new life came to the little town, a larger group of cottages was built, the place named Middleburgh by the Dutch, and the summer of 1652 witnessed the gathering in of the first harvest.
A collection of farms lying along the East River were taken by another group of settlers, and these farms called Outer Plantations. They extended to the section now known as Astoria. One of the farms was owned by Dominie Bogardus, the first minister to New Amsterdam. Dominie’s Hook, at the entrance of Newtown Creek, took its name from him in 1643, the name still being used. Hallet’s Cove was the first name of Astoria. The name originated from its first owner, William Hallet, an English settler.
An extensive farm here was under the charge of the Dutch Church of New Amsterdam, for the benefit of the poor. It was called Poor Bowery or Poor Farm, which name still clings to that section. Constantly harassed by Indians, they had still a more formidable foe in the wild animals, especially wolves, for which bounties were offered. Another enemy, still more insidious, was intemperance, which increased to such an alarming extent restrictions had to be severely enforced.
The inhabitants of the devoted little town now experienced the disadvantage of having no town patent. Failing to procure one from the nominal Dutch owners, they turned to the Indians, the genuine owners, and obtained on the consideration of one shilling per acre a deed from the Sachems Rowerowesteo and Pomnankon, assigning their right to the great thrift, which made it uncongenial to the savages. Most of them left their hunting grounds to seek more congenial surroundings in distant forests. A few remained in wigwams at the head of Mespat Kills, Newtowne Creek, but the memory of those has long since perished, and the only existing mementoes are the collection of their rude implements. The farmers now gave increased attention to their lands. Their produce was wheat, peas, rye, corn, flax, hemp and tobacco. Many fruit trees were grown, among which was the far-famed Newtown pippin. Mills sprang up by every stream. The first one was built in 1657 by John Coe. In 1722 the first country store appeared and later to the crops of vegetables was added the valuable potato, until then unknown.
Wheat was sold at three shillings a bushel, and labor was three shillings a day. Coarse woolen and linen cloth was made, every family owning its spinning wheel and loom. Trade was carried on by barter, as money was scarce. A person gave for a house six hundred weight of tobacco, a thousand clapboards and half a vat of strong beer. Furniture was scarce and carpets unknown. The tables were set with pewter end carthenware – now dishes. China and silver plate were rare. Few ate with forks, most ate with their fingers.
The introduction of slavery commenced with the town. Not only the Negro, but the free born Indian was brought from the South. In 1711 a census of the town was showed the population at 1,003, of whom 164 were slaves. The first physician of the town was James Clark of Mespat Kills. The period between 1720 and 1755 was of much social enterprise. School houses were built, in various parts of the township. The first was at Hallets Cove, taught by William Rudge of England. At the beginning of the Revolution the inhabitants were divided into two parties upon the means of obtaining redress for over-taxation, but both parties, but both parties continued loyal to the crown, and Newtown was a Tory village, so the few Whig families were compelled to leave. In the winter of 1776 Newtown presented an animated appearance. Washington was expected to make an attack on New York and Sir Henry Clinton sent all vessels not in service to Newtown Creek. General Howe made the town his headquarters, warmly welcomed by the Tory residents.
After the injurious effects of the Revolution on agriculture and trade had been overcome, Newtown, at last free from harassing influences, entered upon a long season of peace and prosperity, which has continued to the present day. There still stand within the town limits the old homesteads of its first prominent families, worn and weather beaten structures, but in good preservation. The quaint homestead of the first minister of New Amsterdam and Newtown, the Rev. John Moore, is still occupied by his descendants. It stands on the old shell road a short distance from Newtown station. It was built in 1660. The same hall door, in two sections of solid oak, and secured by the original strong hinges, bolts and locks, and with the ponderous brass knocker, is an interesting feature of the house. One portion is built of stone with dormer windows. The old dog-legged stairway leading to the upper chambers, is as firm as if it had not responded to the tread of many generations. The ancient beams are still in the ceiling, uncovered by plaster, and the low ceiled rooms with ample fireplaces tell the story of the quaint Dutch architecture of that distant time. The great well in the door yard requires but a glance down its massy, fern-covered stones to realize its antiquity. It has a long sweep with bucket at the end. This house was the center of the British camp during the seven years occupancy of Newtown by the British troops.
Another old house belonging to another branch of the Moore family is still occupied by the descendents of the colonial ancestor. It contains among other interesting relics an ancient wooden cradle, in which its colonial owner traveled in from Nova Scotia. A storm came up and their little vessel was thrown on her beam ends. The cradle floated about the deluged cabin, with the sleeping child, and all was given up as lost, when the vessel righted and all were saved.
The quaint old Burroughs house is memorable with association with General Howe, as it became his headquarters, and the massive mahogany desk at which he wrote, the bedroom furnishings where he slept, the curious blue and white china of the frisking lamb pattern, off which he ate, are carefully preserved by the present owner and occupant, a descendant of the colonial owner – William Burroughs, who named his son William Howe Burroughs, in honor of the general. So persistent was the adherence to the mother country by this noted family that not until the present generation did any member celebrate the Fourth of July.
Modern Newtown can scarcely be described, as there seems to be little of modern life in the spirit of the old village. Everyone is perforce an antiquarian, the town holding the oldest records in the state. The society is learned and cultivated, few new ideas have penetrated the scholastic calm of its houses.
The ultra up-to-date actor settlement of Elmhurst, which has sprung up within its gates, is as far apart and unknown to the old town as if oceans separated them, and the unbroken atmosphere of peaceful quietude remains unchanged.