Newtown Queens, Long Island’s Westernmost Town

    By Kathleen Lonetto

           In the year 1683, the Colonial Assembly officially designated the western portion of Long
    Island as Queens County. This area included towns that are presently in Nassau County as well as
    the three original townships of today’s Queens County, Newtown, Flushing and Jamaica.
           At that time, there were approximately 90 families residing in the Newtown township. That
    number appears absurd when considering the current population and industrial saturation of this
    section of Queens. However, when considering the origins and history of Newtown, it is almost
    impossible to imagine the wilderness that was transformed into a thriving commercial center.
    During the time of the Dutch occupation, Long Island was an untamed and almost uncharted tract of
    land. The Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan was the center of the
    Colony. There were windmills, thatched-roof cottages, tall-masted sailing ships that towered over the
    Indian canoes that drifted near the harbor. Large tracts of land called boweries were granted to
           Canals were dug in the city. A five point fort was erected and a thriving colony com- posed
    primarily of merchants existed. Eventually, the Manhattan settlement poured out into other
    acquisitions, into the Bronx up to Albany in the north, south to the Delaware River Valley, west into
    New Jersey and to a rich land filled with deer, beaver, wolves and all manner of exotic birds. The
    western land, Long Island, was separated from Manhattan by the East River. Adrian Block, founder
    of Block Island, named a stretch of this River “Hellgate.”
           The Dutch had secured this 1and from the Algonquin nation, a people composed of many tribes
    with mixed attitudes about their strange intruders. On August 1, 1638, the Council of New
    Netherland obtained a tract of land on Long Island for the West India Company. The Indians called
    this land “Mespachtes,” meaning a swampy land, usually that which surrounded a creek. And so it
    was, a swampy, water bogged area that was blessed with a substantial waterway which flowed into the
    East River. Eventually, the Indian name “Mespachtes” evolved into the Dutch pronunciation
    “Mespat” and later the English “Maspeth.”
           The Dutch government maintained this land as vacant property until 1642 when one of the New
    England Pilgrim fathers fled his Massachusetts Colony in order to benefit from the relaxed attitude
    of the Dutch towards religious thought. The Reverend Francis Doughty arrived with his wife,
    children and a few followers to settle in New Netherland. Director William Kieft of New Netherland
    granted Reverend Doughty 13,332 acres of land on Long Island in the area that the Indians called
    Mespachtes. Reverend Doughty accepted the land, named it Middleburgh, and settled down with his
    to a life of quiet farming and freethinking.
           However, Director Kieft’s Indian policies were quite explosive. He had a policy of raiding and
    slaughtering Indian villages within his jurisdiction. Eventually, the Indians would retaliate. Shortly
    after Reverend Doughty’s settlement was established, it was totally destroyed by an Indian raid.
    Homes and fields were burned, settlers were killed and scalped and survivors fled in terror.
    However, after peace was secured, they did return to rebuild their town.
           Others came to settle within the section of Long Island that would later become Newtown. In
    1643, the Dutch clergyman Dominie Bogardus owned a piece of land near the River called Dominie’s
    Hook. That land later became Hunter’s Point, named after the Hunter family. In 1652, a settler
    from Dorsetshire, England was granted land for farming. He was William Hallet and he was granted
    a piece of coastal area that he called Hallet’s Cove. Later, his land became known as Astoria.
    Other English settlers drifted into the Dutch domain and brought their British ways of building,
    customs and speech with them until the western section of Long Island appeared to be an English
    colony instead of a Dutch possession. The British noted this and, after an aggressive campaign, the
    Colony of Connecticut annexed Newtown to its own Colony in 1662, naming the Middleburgh area
    Hastings. At that time, the Middleburgh settlement was composed of the villages that are now
    Elmhurst, Corona, Woodside and Winfield.
           This land was soon retrieved by the Dutch and again forfeited when the British acquired all
    Dutch land in 1664. King Charles II approved the name of New town for the Middleburgh area and
    that name applied until each village of Queens emerged with its own distinction.
    Life in the 17th century in Newtown was a curious combination of contentment and
    harshness. There were quiet works of planting, growing crops and building. The homes were basic
    thatched-roof cottages that contained few luxuries. There was oak and walnut furniture, pewter and
    earthenware service and pots, and wampum, Indian shell money, as major currency.
           The town had a doctor, James Clark, in the Maspeth area as early as 1645 and by the middle of
    the century, there were two tailors and other craftsmen such as a carpenter, mason, blacksmith and
    cooper. However, along with signs of civility, there were areas of cruelty and harshness not
    uncommon during the early years of colonial America. There was no jail until 1670, so all criminals
    were sent to New Amsterdam for incarceration. Whipping was a common punishment. In fact, there
    was a public official who was the “whipper” and would execute this punishment to those who were
    sentenced to be lashed in public.
           Slavery was also in practice during these years. The first black slaves were introduced on Long
    Island in 1660. Slaves and indentured servants were needed for cheap labor. Although slaves could
    testify against their owners and were given a chance to obtain their freedom under certain
    circumstances, they were still overworked, hunted when they escaped, whipped, and, at times, burnt
    at the stake. The shameful possession of slavery continued in Newtown for many decades to come.
           The Newtown residents had other concerns during the later part of the century. In 1675,
    unwelcome Quakers appeared in Newtown with their images of a peaceful and harmonious
    settlement in mind. At the same time, however, the New England Indian War brought fear and panic
    to Newtown residents. They gathered from every portion of the township, leaving their farms to build
    a heavy stockade around the meeting house in preparation for an Indian attack. But the attack
    never came and the presence of the Quakers was accepted.
           The first taste of industrialization arrived when the farmers saw the need for a fulling mill, a
    place where they could treat their wool. First, however, they needed more sheep to produce the wool.
    This meant the task of ridding their township of the numerous wolves that preyed on cattle, sheep
    and occasionally the farmers.
           In 1693, a reward of 20 shillings per head was offered for anyone who would hunt and kill the
    wolves of Newtown. The plan must have worked. In 1693, the first county fair in the United States
    was held in Queens, which was apparently free of wolves.
    The township of Newtown drifted into the next century unaware of the turmoil that was to take place
    during the Revolution. In 1711, there were 1,003 contented inhabitants working the land and mills in
    Newtown. The Quakers built another meeting house in 1720 and by 1723, all available land in the
    township was being used. The crops were mostly wheat, rye, barley, corn, hemp and flax also in
           There were many varieties of vegetables and fruit, probably including the peach, a fruit
    introduced to America by Dutch Director Peter Stuyvesant. The colonists were also experimenting
    with a new crop, the potato. Of great importance at this time was the “pippin,” a special apple
    developed in Newtown and grown and bred to receive a notable amount of acclaim.
           Cultural strides were also made at this time. In 1721, the first school was opened in Long
    Island City on Old Newtown Road. In 1758, a purse of 10 Pounds was offered at the Newtown Race
    Track for the best three one-mile stretches. The entrance fee was $1.
    However, life in Newtown was not without its cruelties and bleak moments. By the year 1755, there
    were 163 slaves above the age of 14 at work in fields and mills throughout the township. There were
    tragedies such as drowning and a destructive tornado that blew across the township from Hellgate,
    leveling fields, barns and homes.
           At the arrival of the Revolution, Newtown was politically divided between loyalty to the crown of
    England and patriotic zeal and nationalism. In 1776, Patriot forces suffered a great defeat in the
    battle of Long Island and many residents of Newtown were thoroughly pleased. British forces moved
    into the township and quartered 10,000 men in Newtown along Middleburgh Avenue from the
    Heights of Blissville to Woodside.
           Quartered in Newtown during the British occupation were Hessian troops, the Royal Highland
    Regiment and Delancey’s Brigade, grenadiers who were called “macaroni’s” due to their impeccable
    dress and dashing appearance. It was a time of contrast for Newtown. Officers strutted through the
    township, charming the young women and pleasing the Tories who were loyal to the King. However,
    there was also an undercurrent of tremendous unrest.
           Raids were a common occurrence as Yankee whaleboats made their way across Long Island
    Sound and plundered from the loyalists, often lynching or kidnapping them for prisoner exchanges.
    With the multitude of armed men in the area, there were incidents of horse theft, fights and
    destruction of local property. There were certain areas that contained buried wooden barrels where
    stolen goods could be quickly placed and stored.
           Slaves saw an opportunity to escape during the general turmoil, so there were advertised hunts
    for runaways as well as sales of slaves to officers who were stationed in the area. Desertions, of
    course, were also common. If deserters were not caught by the army, they were often shot by
    residents when caught stealing from the barns or homes.
           The common soldiers suffered during their stay. They lived in open huts with thatched roofs
    that were often as long as 50 feet. In the summer, they were quartered in tents. Wintertime might
    mean quartering in a kitchen. However, cramped conditions prevailed with 10 to 20 men quartered
    in one home. They would sleep in a three tier fashion on makeshift hammocks made from wood that
    they gathered from outbuildings or fences. Firewood was a precious item in Newtown and each family
    was permitted the use of only one fireplace.
           During the occupation, however, there were a few exotic occurrences that broke the monotony,
    A Newtown patriot was caught and accused of being a spy appointed by the Revolutionary forces to
    hunt and murder Major Andre of the British Army. Major Andre was visiting in Oyster Bay and
    later was executed as a spy. Also, never recovered was the ‘loot’ from the Hussar frigate that
    crashed upon the rocks and sunk in the Hellgate in 1780. Many of her crew drowned as well as the
    reported pay for the British Army.
           The upheaval and division of loyalties continued until the evacuation of the British Army from
    Newtown in late 1783. The British were slow to evacuate their forces. They stalled in order to permit
    the loyalist factions of Newtown a chance to flee under their protection to areas where British rule
    prevailed. Eventually, however, the forces slowly moved toward Bushwick, defeated, tired and
    longing to return home. In the end, the soldiers were given one half guinea each to drink to the
    king. Many a Newtown tavern has not had a toast to the King of England since then.
           The year 1790 ushered in the close of another century for Newtown. There were approximately
    3,000 inhabitants of the township when President George Washington passed through on his tour of
    Long Island. “The road is very fine,” said President Washington of the countryside. “And the county
    in higher state of cultivation and vegetation, of grass and grain than any place I had seen,
    occasioned in a great degree by the manure drawn from the City of New York.”
           The first president saw a township capable of ingenuity. Newtown had the ability to work not
    only with what they themselves possessed, but also by what they could utilize from the areas around
    them, from the other farms in the east, as well as from the growing city to the west.
    Immediately after the Revolution, the township was estimated to encompass 16,800 acres out of
    which 11,000 were arable. Peat bogs were a valuable commodity and the Newtown Creek was
    developing into more than just a simple waterway during the next century.
           The early 19th century saw the growth of dairy farms, toll roads and a stage coach route that
    ran from Newtown to Brooklyn three times a week. By 1816, the Williamsburg turnpike permitted
    traffic to run from Newtown to the New York ferries, cutting the journey to Manhattan by one half
    the previous effort.
           The residents of Newtown had recovered from one war with England when they were witness to
    another frightening escapade. In September of 1813, Newtown folk could stand on their shores and
    cheer as 30 United States gunboats passed through Hellgate in order to pursue British vessels. The
    British vessels had found their way into Long Island Sound and were menacing commercial ships
    that traveled those waters.
           However, the strain of another war soon passed as did many other undesirable practices.
    Slavery was totally abolished by July 4, 1827 and the last of the public whippings occurred in 1810. In
    fact, the township became so civilized that DeWitt Clinton, former Mayor of New York City,
    Governor of New York State and builder of the Erie Canal, established a country home in Maspeth
    in the mid-l9th century. On the corner of Flushing and Maspeth Avenues, he rested from political
    pressures, planted trees on his property and walked along the byways of the growing township.
           By the middle of the century, the map of Queens distinguished many villages within the
    Newtown township - Charlottville, Woodside, Berlin, Laurel Hill, Winfield, Corona, Maspeth,
    Glendale, Ridgewood, Hopedale, Elmhurst, Newtown and Richmond Hill. Most were involved in
    industrial growth by this time, such as the area of Astoria.
           In 1839, the area founded by William Hallet, renamed Astoria after John Jacob Astor, pledged
    support to the building of a girl’s school in that area. By this time, Astoria had developed into an
    industrial center that included a carpet factory, chair factory, bellows factory and chemical works. A
    great American seeds man, Grant Thorburn, established his nurseries here. It was a typical Newtown
    success story, one that explains why by 1870 the population of Newtown had grown to more than
    20,000 inhabitants.
           There was no curtailing industry by the middle of the 19th century.  Newtown Creek became an
    important waterway for delivering manufactured goods to Manhattan’s piers as well as for bringing
    in supplies for local manufacturing. The Long Island Railroad moved its main terminus from
    Brooklyn to Hunter’s Point. Steinway and Sons began their famous piano factory. Empire and
    Standard Oil works were built on Newtown Creek and, in 1872, Long Island City was made the
    county seat of Queens. At that time, most of the area was saturated with factories, offices and
    warehouses due to the great labor force and proximity to New York City.
           When the industrialization became too much for residents, a voice could be heard in their
    behalf from the person of Patrick J. Gleason. Gleason was elected Mayor of Long Island City with a
    background of political and financial ups and downs. However, the Irish immigrant did fight for his
    town. First, he established schools, a better water system, and a fire department. He lowered taxes
    while wiping out the city debt.
           Then, he took on the industrial giants, the telephone company, Telegraph Company, Standard
    Oil and the ferries who he forced to reduce their rates by one penny. His biggest nemesis was the
    Long Island Rail Road. He despised the railroad for closing streets and constructing countless sheds
    and work items that he considered to be eyesores. As Mayor, Gleason tore down many such
    obstructions with his own hands and attempted to qualify the flowing rush of industrialization and
    growth in his town.
           In 1899, Queens County lost the three towns of Oyster Bay, North Hempstead and Hempstead
    (to form Nassau County) when Queens County became a borough of New York City. The population
    of Newtown was approaching 300,000 inhabitants with a large portion dwelling within Long Island
    City. The rush of immigrants found their way into the various villages of the township and local
    color was enhanced by such peculiarities as Astoria’s Champion Soccer team in 1915 or the informal
    drinking societies of Maspeth’s German and Irish inhabitants who also promoted illegal cock fights.
    The 1909 construction of the Queensborough Bridge was a monumental connection with Manhattan
    and before World War I, Newtown Creek’s four mile stretch was dealing with more freight yearly
    than was the Mississippi River.
           The township continued to grow and develop well into the 20th century. Now, the Indian words
    and Dutch names are commonplace and roll easily off the tongue. There are no longer any sizable
    portions of land available and all real estate is at a premium.
           Somehow, the old history of Newtown has become like a fairytale, being somewhat foreign and
    incredible, yet familiar. But for the inhabitants of this unique section of Queens, the strange and
    exotic history of Newtown is theirs to possess, a thought as simple as sheep grazing in a meadow or
    Indian dugouts drifting along Newtown Creek.

first published in Long Island Heritage