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Islanders Under English Rule

Footnotes to Long Island History

Islanders Under English Rule

by

Thomas R. Bayles


The year 1664 was the commencement of a new era which burst upon the oppressed English towns on the western part of Long Island like the light of better days to come. One may imagine the glow of rising hope that flashed across the worn faces of those pioneers when they received the welcome tidings that the scepter of New Netherlands had been surrendered to the Duke of York.

The English towns under the Dutch had held a mass meeting at Jamaica in November of the year previous, to devise, if possible, some means of relief from the harsh rule of the Dutch government. This meeting seems to have been without any good results.

On march 12th 1664, King Charles II of England, by virtue of his claim to this part of the American continent, made a grant of land to his brother James, Duke of York, including within its boundaries the territory the occupied by the Dutch at New Amsterdam, together with the whole of Long Island.

 The Duke immediately fitted out an expedition to take possession of the field covered by this patent. Richard Nicolls was commissioned deputy governor of this colony and Robert Carr, George Cartwright, and Samuel Maverick were appointed to associate with him in governing the colony. Under their command four ships were sent, carrying nearly one hundred and fifty guns and some six hundred men, arriving in New York in August, 1664.

Col. Nicolls sent word to governor Peter Stuyvesant, demanding his surrender. After several days delay Stuyvesant was forced to yield to the popular sediment, and agreed to a surrender. About this time Col. Nicolls and his associates issued a proclamation in which they promised to those who should submit to his majesty’s government, the peaceable enjoyment of whatever gods blessing and their honest industry have furnished them with and all other privileges with his majesty’s English subjects. By this means the people were led to suppose that a government was to be established in which they would be allowed to participate through their chosen representatives, and this they hailed with gladness.

 It was with much unwillingness that the formerly independent English towns on the eastern part of long island consented to the transfer of their connections with Connecticut, the Dukes government. Governor Winthrop of Connecticut, however, endeavored to reconcile both parties to the change. Governor Nicolls and his associates called together a few representatives from Connecticut and long island in November 1664 and decided that Long island Sound should be the boundary between Connecticut and the colony, or province of New York. The colonial deputies, having no choice in the matter, agreed to this, and for the first time Long Island came completely under the rule of English Royalty.

 In February 1665 in order to establish the government uniformly in the towns, a proclamation was issued by Governor Nicolls directing the people of each town on the island to send two deputies to a meeting to be held at Hempstead on the first of march. When the deputies assembled they were so much pleased with the prospect of better things then they had before enjoyed, that they drew up and signed a memorial of gratitude and loyalty, addressed, to “his royal highness the Duke of York” In this the signers expressed their humble acknowledgement of the honor bestowed upon them, in being made the subjects of his majesty’s government, and pledged themselves and their constituents to respect and obedience to all such laws and should be made by virtue of his majesty’s authority and prayed for his speedy consideration of their “poverties and necessities in this wilderness country”

This expression of the deputies appeared all very well at the time, but developments which immediately followed proved it to have been premature. It soon became apparent that the people were not to have a voice in the government of the colonies or the privilege of electing their own magistrates. When these facts became known to the people, they censured their deputies with great severity for signing the address to his royal highness. At the Hempstead convention the boundaries of the towns were settled more definitely and the governor furnished the deputies with copies of a code of laws which had been compiled at his own dictation, and by which the colony was to be governed. These laws were called “The Dukes laws.” and contained many of the regulations for the suppression of Sabbath breaking drunkenness, profanity and slander which were common among the English towns of Suffolk county before the conquest. The towns of long Island were constituted, in connection with Staten island and Westchester, a political division of the government called Yorkshire.

This was again subdivided into three parts called “ridings”. The east riding compromised the territory now occupied by Suffolk County. These were established principally for the accommodation of courts, and for convince in assessing taxes. Each town had a justice of the peace appointed by the governor, and several overseers and a constable elected by the people, who were charged with the duty of assessing taxes, holding town courts, and other matters of minor importance that were not provided for by the orders of the governor. The court of assize was the nominal head of the government, legislative and judicial but in reality it was nothing more than a cloak for the governor, undercover of which he issued whatever regulations his judgment or fancy dictated. All its members held their positions during his pleasure, and were no doubt obliged to sanction his views. The political situation was therefore but little better than before, and many of the laws and orders enacted by the governor in the name of the court of assize, were arbitrary and oppressive to the people.

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