Richard Mather Bayles.

History of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York from its discovery to the present time online

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from the land to the vessels, both in New York and on Staten
Island. When all was ready, they passed through the Narrows
silently ; not a sound was heard save the rattling of the cordage.
"We stood," he said, "on the heights at the Narrows, and
looked down upon the decks of their ships as they passed. We
were very boisterous in our demonstrations of joy ; we shouted,
we clapped our hands, we waved our hats, we sprang into the
air, and some few, who had brought muskets with them, fired a
feu-dejoie. A few others, in the exuberance of their gladness,
indulged in gestures, which, though very expressive, were
neither polite nor judicious. The British could not look upon
the scene without making some demonstration of resentment.
A large seventy-four, as she was passing, fired a shot which
struck the bank a few feet beneath the spot upon which we
were standing. If we had had a cannon, we would have re-
turned it, but as we had none, we ran away as fast as we could.
A few rods from us stood another group, composed of men and
women,- who gazed silently, and some tearfully, upon the pass-
ing ships, for some of the females had lovers, and some
husbands on board of them, who were leaving them behind,
never, probably, to see them again. It was long after dark
when the last ship passed through the Narrows."

But they did not all go ; many of the soldiers, especially
Hessians, who had no home attractions across the water, when
they learned that peace had been declared, and that the army
would shortly leave the country, deserted, and sought places of
concealment, from which they emerged when the power to arrest
them had departed. Many had formed attachments which they
were unwilling to sunder. But many more were detained by
admiration of the country, and a desire to make for themselves
a new home in a new world. From some of these have descend-
ed men whose names are written in the country's history.

Let us turn now for a brief space to review the period of the
war and its general effect upon the people. If the history of
the sufferings of the people of Staten Island during the war
could be written, it would present a picture too dreadful to
contemplate. Neither age, sex nor condition were exempt from
insults and outrages of the grossest character; no home was too
sacred to protect its inmates from injury; the rights of prop-
erty were not recognized, if the invader coveted it; even the



218 HISTORY OF RICHMOND COUNTY.

temples of God were desecrated; the law of might alone pre-
vailed. Proclamations and professions of good will and protec-
tion were repeatedly promulgated, but those who relied on
them usually reaped disappointment. It was useless to appeal
to those high in authority, for the complaints of the people
were unheeded, and redress of injuries, except under pecu-
liar circumstances, could not be obtained. If a British officer's
horse was in need of hay or oats, a h'le of soldiers was sent
to any farmer who was known to have a supply, to sieze and
take away what was wanted. If the officer himself needed a
horse, the same method was adopted to procure one. Money,
provisions and even bedding and household furniture, were
taken by force; sometimes promises of payment were made, but
these were seldom fulfilled. The course adopted by the British
while in possession of the island, effectually alienated many of
the friends of the royal cause, and hence it was that so many
of them, at the close of the war, eagerly took the oath of al-
legiance to the new government, and so few adhered to the
cause of the king, and followed its fortune.

Numerous instances of suffering are preserved in the tradi-
tions of some of the old families of the island. There was
one man of local notoriety whose name is still remembered and
mentioned by the descendants of those whose misfortune it
was to suffer at his hands; his name was Nathaniel Robbins;
he resided at what is now known as New Springville, but
the house which he occupied was demolished many years
ago. It stood near the corner of the roads leading to Rich-
mond and Port Richmond, fronting on the former. He was
an Englishman by birth, dissolute in his habits, and the terror
not only of those who dwelt in his neighborhood, but of the
whole county. His wife was a native of Staten Island, and a
daughter of the widow Mary Merrill. The opinion which his
wife's mother entertained of him may be inferred from a
clause in her will, which was dated January loth, 1789, and
in which she bequeaths to her daughter Mary Robbins the
sum of 40, " so as never to be in the power or at the command
of Nathaniel Robbins, her present husband." His depreda-
tions were generally committed under some disguise, which
he supposed effectually concealed his identity, though he was
often betrayed by his voice or some other tell-tale circumstance.



HISTORY OF RICHMOND COUNTY. 219

He had his associates it is true, who were also well known, but
Robbins was regarded as the leader and soul of the gang.

Those families residing near the sound, or "the lines," as it
was called, suffered more from marauders than those who
dwelt in the interior, because the opportunities for approach
and escape there were more convenient. As part of the local
history of the island, authenticated chiefly by family tradi-
tions, which are accepted as reliable, several instances are
subjoined.

At or near Chelsea dwelt several families of the name of
Prall,someof whose descendants are among the most respectable
of our citizens at the present day. Among them were two
brothers, Abraham and Peter, both prosperous farmers and
men of substance. The house in which the former resided has
since been considerably modernized, on the Chelsea road, at no
great distance from the Richmond turnpike. The Chelsea road
at that time was little better than a private lane leading to
these residences from the main r<>ad, and passing through
dense woods. Oh one occasion a man who was indebted to
Abraham Prall called on him and paid him a considerable sum
in gold. The next evening the family were surprised by the
approach of two men, who were evidently disguised. Their
errand was at once suspected, and the old man had just time
enough to take the money he had received out of the cupboard
in which he had deposited it, and put it into his pockets.
When the strangers entered one of them presented a pistol at
him and said, "Prall, we know you have money, so deliver it
up at once." He was very much alarmed, and his wife, per-
ceiving his agitation, said, "Father, don't be alarmed, these
men are our neighbors." She had detected the speaker by his
voice, and knew him to be the same person who had paid the
money the previous evening, and had seen it deposited in the
cupboard. " Do you suppose," said the old man, "that I am
so unwise as to keep any large sum of money in my house in
times like these I You are welcome to any money you may
rind in the house." They took him at his word, and the cup-
board was the first place visited.

The rest of the house was also searched, but without success.
They then turned to go, but directed the old man to go before
them through the lane to the public road. The path through
the woods was intensely dark, and he managed, as he went



220 HISTORY OF RICHMOND COUNTY.

along, to drop his guineas, one by one, upon the ground, until
by the time they had reached the highway he had none remain-
ing in his pockets. Here another effort was made to compel
him to tell what he had done with it, but all the reply they
could extort from him was, "The money I had in my house
yesterday is not now in my possession." He was then searched,
and made to solemnly swear that he would never divulge the
circumstances of their visit, nor mention any names he might
suspect. The oath, though by no means obligatory, he scrupu-
lously kept. The next morning he retraced his steps of the pre-
vious night, and picked up every piece of his money.

A younger member of one of these families, while on his way
homeward, at a late hour, on horseback, near the corner of the
Port Richmond and Signs roads, New Springville, was suddenly
stopped by a man, who rushed out of the bushes, seized his
horse by the bridle, and ordered him to "deliver up." The
horse was very spirited, and with a touch of the rider's spur
suddenly sprang forward, throwing his assailant violently to
the ground. Then, at the utmost of his speed, he made for
home, springing over every fence or other obstacle, until he
reached his stable door in safety.

At another time, two young men took a sleigh ride to the
south side of the island. When they returned, before remov-
ing the harness from their beasts, they ran into the house for a
moment to warm their hands, when one of the family came run-
ning into the room saying that somebody was taking their
horses away. Rushing out together, they saw two men in their
sleighs driving rapidly in the direction of the sound. As pursuit
was useless they stood still, and saw the thieves cross the sound
on the ice, until they reached the Jersey shore, and then dis-
appear in the country. They never saw their horses afterward.

Mr. John Bodine, who then lived on the present poor house
farm, having received a considerable sum of money, suspected
that the fact was known, and if so, that an attempt would be
made to rob him. He therefore buried it under the step-stone
at his back door. His suspicions proved to be well founded.
His expected visitors made their appearance the following even-
ing and demanded all the money he had in the house. It was
in vain that he protested that there was no money in the house.
They insisted on searching for it, but before doing so bound
him hand and foot, and then proceeded with their villainous



HISTORY OF RICHMOND COUNTY. 221

work. Nothing, however, was found. But they were not dis-
couraged. If the money was not in the house he had concealed
it, and must reveal the place. He concluded that if prevarica-
tion was ever justifiable it was under j*ust such circumstances
as those in which he was then placed, so he persisted in his de-
nial of having any or having concealed any. They threatened
to shoot him. He told them to shoot away, he could not give
them what he had not. Perceiving that the fear of death did
not intimidate him, they resorted to torture. They heated a
shovel, and proceeded to burn him on various parts of his body,
but all in vain ; he persisted in his denial, and they finally de-
sisted, supposing it to be improbable, if not impossible, for any
man to endure so much agony for any amount of money.

It was not only money that excited the rapacity of these
thieves. Household furniture, clothing, linen, anything that
had value in their eyes was ruthlessly parried away. One family
had a vault constructed under the floor of a cider mill in which
beds, bedding and other articles, except some of the most com-
mon description, and in constant use, were concealed. Several
years after the war a man who resided near " the lines," being
on business in New Jersey, discovered in one house a mirror
and several pictures belonging to himself, of which his house
had been robbed during the war.

We are indebted for the following incident to a man who
died more than a quarter of a century ago, then in his ninetieth
year.

One afternoon, late in the fall, two British officers on horse
back rode into his barn-yard, and having dismounted, entered
the barn, and seeing two horses in their stalls, peremptorily
ordered him to take them out and put theirs in. They then
directed him to see that their beasts were well fed and other-
wise cared for. From the barn they went into the house, and
ordered the mistress to show them her best room. This being
done, they proceeded to the upper part of the house, and after
having examined every apartment, selected one, and directed
her to prepare two beds in that room, and to see to it that they
were clean and comfortable in all respects, and that the best
room was furnished with everything suitable for the accommo-
dation of gentlemen. They then descended into the cellar, and
examined the family stores there and in the out-houses. Hav-
ing ascertained the conveniences of the place, they ordered their



222 HISTORY OF RICHMOND COUNTY.

supper to be prepared and served in the best room, informing
her that they intended to reside there for some time, a.nd ex-
pected to have their meals served regularly every day when
they were at home. They brought no luggage with them except
what was contained in two large valises strapped to their
saddles.

They remained in that house until spring. Their clothes
were thrown out every week to be washed, and by their order a
supply of fire-wood was constantly ready at their door. They
did not always take the trouble to put the wood on their
own lire, frequently calling on some one of the family to do
it for them. One of them was a tory officer from Amboy, the
other was an Englishman. Said the old man, "They lorded it
over our house for that whole winter, and all we had to do was
to obey them. There was no use in complaining or remonstrat-
ing. If we had done so, we would have been requited with a
curse and a blow of their swords. I felt like poisoning them,
and verily believe I should have done so if it had not been for
fear of the consequences. They left us as unceremoniously as
they came, without even a ' thank you ' or a ' good-bye.' '

It is related of a young woman, the daughter of a farmer residing
in the vicinity of the Fresh kills, while engaged one morning in
boiling soap, two soldiers entered the kitchen and ordered her
to prepare breakfast for them ; she declined to do so, as she
was otherwise engaged, and could not leave her employment to
oblige anybody. This reply excited their wrath, and one of
them approached her with an intention of striking her. Seizing
a large dipper, she filled it with the boiling liquid and dashed
it at him. Perceiving her intention, he wheeled suddenly
around and thus saved his face, but received the whole charge
upon the back of his head and neck. His companion, fearing
a similar reception, escaped as quickly as possible, but the
scalded ruffian, in endeavoring to remove the hot soap, took all
the hair off with it, which never grew again, but left the back
of his head bald ever after.

Another farmer in the same vicinity, while he and one of his
sons were engaged in the barn one morning, was suddenly
alarmed by a cry for help from the house. Each seizing a hay-
fork, the farmer and his son ran in and found three soldiers in
the house, one of whom was holding one of the young women
by the arm. They both rushed at him, first one stabbed him



HISTORY OF RICIOIOND COUNTY. 223

in the shoulder, and the other in the thigh, disabling him at
once. With the same weapons they attacked the other two,
driving them all before them out of the house, and pursuing
them for some distance down the road.

The following romantic incident, though traditional, is well
authenticated :

Forty years ago or more there stood an old stone house nearly
on the site later occupied by the residence of Capt. R. Chris-
topher, in West New Brighton. For many years before it was
demolished it was owned and occupied by the late Nathaniel
Brit ton, Jr., but the name of the occupant during the early
years of the revolution had entirely escaped the memory of the
narrator. He was, however, a prominent tory, and the father
of a daughter said to have possessed more than an ordinary de-
gree of personal attractions. Before the commencement of the
war she was affianced to a young man named Mersereau, who
resided at or near Holland's Hook. A young British lieuten-
ant saw and admired her, and probably from the outset marked
her for a victim. He succeeded in becoming acquainted with
her, and to the gratification of her father, became very assid-
uous in his attentions. She, however, rejected his advances.
After several months, finding he had utterly failed in impress-
ing her with a sense of the honor of his alliance, he resolved to
possess himself of her person, at all hazards. The same young
tory who, on another occasion, betrayed Colonel Mersereau' s
presence with his family, and who, it would appear, was some-
what noted for his unscrupulousness, was applied to by the
lieutenant. The plot agreed upon between them was carried
into execution, with results as follows :

Almost directly opposite the junction of the road from Gar-
retson's station with the old Richmond road, then called the
King's highway, there is a deep ravine, penetrating some dis-
tance into Todt hill, at the farthest extremity of which there is
a spring of water. Near this, before the war commenced, a
solitary individual had built a rude cabin, in which he dwelt
for several years, but when hostilities began he disappeared,
leaving the cabin vacant. The approach to it was by a foot
path through the dense forest which lined the hills on either
side of the ravine. One evening the young tory called at the
residence of the young lady, and informed her that he had been
sent to convey her to the residence of her aunt, near Richmond,



224 HISTORY OF RICHMOND COUNTY.

who had been taken suddenly ill, and had requested her to
come to her. Suspecting no evil, and being much attached to
her relative, she was soon ready to accompany him. Springing
into the wagon which he had brought, she was rapidly driven
away. When they reached the entrance to the ravine, two men
rushed out of the bushes, seized the horse by the bridle, and
ordered the occupants of the wagon to alight. One of them
pretended to take possession of the driver, while the other led
the young lady up the foot-path into the ravine, cautioning her
that her safety depended upon her silence.

So far the plot had been carried out successfully, but there
was an avenger nearer than they suspected. They had taken
but a few steps in the direction of the cabin, when several men
rushed out of the bushes and seized the lieutenant, for it was
he who had possession of the young lady. One of them took
her hand, assuring her that they were her protectors, and that
she need be under no apprehensions. Though they were all
disguised, she at once recognized Mersereau by his voice. Those
who had possession of the lieutenant proceeded to tie his hands,
informing him that they intended to do no further harm than
the infliction of a severe flogging ; and if he attempted to cry
out they would gag him. A bundle of supple rods was at hand,
and two of them, one after the other, inflicted the chastisement
which they had promised. Having punished him to their hearts'
content, they released him, with the warning that if, after the
expiration of a week, he was found on the island, they would
capture him again and cut off his ears. The young lady 'was
safely returned to her home by the same conveyance, but not
the same driver, for he had, by some means, disappeared. The
lieutenant also saved his ears by departure before the week ex-
pired. How the villainous plot was discovered was never posi-
tively known, but it was shrewedly suspected that the young
tory had played a double part, and for a consideration had be-
trayed his military employer. The horse and wagon remained
in the possession of Mersereau unclaimed for several weeks,
but was finally stolen one night, and never heard of after.

There is an instance of extraordinary self-possession and
prompt decision related of a young man named Houstnan,
which probably saved his life. He resided in the vicinity of
the Four Corners, and one morning, after a slight fall of snow
during the night, he went out with his gun in quest of rabbits.



HISTORY OF RICHMOND COUNTY. 225

Though the people of the island, during its occupany by the
British, were prohibited from keeping tire-arms of any descrip-
tion in their houses, some few had succeeded in concealing guns,
which, from the associations connected with them, or for some
other reasons, were valuable to them. Such was the gun car-
ried by young Ilousman on this occasion. While tramping
through the woods, a sudden turn in the path brought him in
sight of two soldiers, who were probably out on the same er-
rand. They saw each other simultaneously, and each party
stopped. The young hunter thought of the loss of his gun, and
probably of his life also, but suddenly turning his back to the
soldiers, he waved his hand as if beckoning to some other per-
sons as he stepped back round the turn, and shouted out,
"Hurry up, here are two Britishers; three of you go round to
the right, and three to the left, and the rest of you follow me ;
hurry up, before they run away." What the "Britishers"
had to fear we know not, but hearing these directions, and fear-
ing there might be a small army about to surround them, they
turned and fled, throwing away their arms to facilitate their
flight. What report they made when they reached their quar-
ters is not known, but a detachment was sent out to capture the
young man and his army. Their surprise and mortification
must have been extreme, when at the turn in the path they
could only find the tracks of a single individual in the snow.

A farmer, whose name has passed into oblivion, residing " in
the Clove," left home late one day, leaving only his wife and
a lad of seventeen years at home. It was after dark before the
boy completed his work about the barn, but just as he was
coming out he saw a soldier enter the house with a musket in
hand. Before he had time to reach the house he heard his
mother shrieking for help. He rushed forward, and as he
entered saw the soldier holding his mother by the throat with
his left hand, while his right was drawn back to strike her.
When he entered, the soldier had placed his musket by the side
of the door in the passage ; the son seized it, and at the risk of
shooting his mother, levelled it at the ruffian's head and sent
a ball crashing through his brain, killing him on the spot. But
there was still cause for alarm. If the shot had been heard,
and should attract any person to the spot, an exposure must
necessarily follow and the lad would be executed, for no cir-
cumstances would be admitted as justification for killing a
15



226 HISTORY OF RICHMOND COUNTY.

soldier. Fortunately, however, the noise had not been heard,
or at least had attracted no attention. All that could now be
done was to conceal the body until the return of the husband
and father in the morning. This was done by dragging it under
the stairs, where it was not likely to be seen by any person but
themselves. The next morning, when the farmer returned, he
removed a part of his barn floor, under which he dug a grave;
and after dark the evening following the body was thrown
into it, and the musket also, and buried, and there they prob-
ably remain to this day. The family kept their own secret until
after the close of the war, and the evacuation of the island by
the British.

A man named Cole, residffig in Southfield, was the proprietor
of a remarkably fine gray horse. Several of the officers of the
army had offered to purchase him, but he declined to part with
him at any price. He had before sold a horse to an officer, who
had promised to pay for him within two months, but two years
had passed, and the debt was not yet discharged. At another
time a Hessian officer, who had been quartered upon him for a
short time, when he left, forcibly took away another horse, and
Cole had repeatedly vowed that no other officer should have
another horse of his unless he stole him ; he would shoot him
fii-st the horse, not the officer. Early one bright winter even-
ing he heard a commotion in his stable, and, always on the
alert, he thrust two pistols in his pockets and hastened out.
At the stable door he saw two soldiers attempting to put a
halter on the head of his favorite horse. "Hi, there," he
cried, " what are you going to do with that horse?" "Going
to take him away," replied one of them; " Colonel -
wants him, and sent us to get' him." " Well," said Cole, "you
just make up you minds that neither you nor the colonel shall
take that horse away without my consent." "Stand aside,
you d d rebel," said one of them, as Cole attempted to take
the horse from them, at the same time pointing a bayonet at
him, "or I'll make a hole through your heart." Without far-
ther reply, he drew one of his pistols and shot the horse
through the head ; "There, you infernal thieves," he exclaimed
as he threw the pistol down, "now you may take him." For
a moment the soldiers were amazed as they gazed on the



Online LibraryRichard Mather BaylesHistory of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York from its discovery to the present time → online text (page 22 of 72)