Photo: Two restored structures on the grounds of Historic Richmond Town: a relocated c. 1860 outhouse or privy, and a c. 1830-1860 Carpenter Shop reconstruction. Photographer: wikipedia username: GK tramrunner, 2006, (own work) [cc-3.0]; accessed October, 2022.
The Richmond Town Historic District [†] (also known as Richmondtown Restoration) is located within what is now the neighborhood of Richmondtown, in the approximate geographic center of Staten Island. Staten Island (also known as Richmond County) is one of the five boroughs of New York City. It is located immediately south of Brooklyn and Manhattan, separated by the waters of Upper and Lower New York Bay. It is separated from the State of New Jersey by the Arthur Kill and Kill Van Kull waterways.
The earliest inhabitants of the district were Indian/Tribal Nations. The area is part of the homelands of the Lenapehoking of the Lenape people, which means "True" or "Original People." There were at least three dialects of the Lenape language, including Munsee, Unami, and Rennelu. There was no singular "Lenape Nation;" the Lenape historically comprised many dispersed and related communities which shared many cultural traits, beliefs, and kinship ties. Archaeological evidence of encampments and burial sites suggests that Native Americans hunted, gathered, and harvested shellfish in waterfront areas in western and northern Staten Island. The first European colonizers of Staten Island were the Dutch, who, in 1639, first attempted to settle on Lenape-occupied land under Captain David Pietersen DeVries of the Dutch West India Company. The failed settlement was thought to be at Arrochar or near Fort Wadsworth. Violent conflicts with the Tribal Nations prevented these attempted settlements from taking root until a peace agreement was forged between the Tribal Nations and the Dutch in 1660. Subsequently, nineteen Dutch and French Huguenot settlers established the first permanent community on the island, along Old Town Road, near present- day South Beach. The site was chosen for its agricultural merits and for the presence of a creek connecting with the Lower Bay, allowing access to New Amsterdam and fishing grounds. Samuel Drisius, a pastor of the Dutch Church in New Netherland, made periodic trips from Manhattan to the settlement to preach.
In 1666, the British gained control of New Netherlands, thenceforth to be known as the colony of New York. Yorkshire, consisting of Long Island, Westchester, and Staten Island, was divided into three districts or "ridings." Staten Island was part of the West Riding, and the hamlet on Staten Island was renamed Dover. Before the Dutch briefly regained control of the area, the English Governor, Francis Lovelace, "purchased" Staten Island from the Native Americans in 1670, although the two parties had different understandings of land use and ownership. In 1674, the British government regained control of New York for the remainder of the colonial period. Under the new English governor, Sir Edmond Andros, Staten Island was surveyed and divided into one hundred patents. In 1683, the entire island became Richmond County, named after the dukedom of Richmond in Yorkshire, England. Thomas Dongan, the governor who presided over this development, took possession of a large swath of land on the island, which he called the Manor of Cassiltowne. Like many colonial settlements in the Northeast, Staten Island's early development relied on the forced labor of enslaved people. African people were enslaved in New Netherland beginning in the second quarter of the seventeenth century and populations of both Free Black people and enslaved individuals of African descent existed through the Dutch and English colonial periods and beyond.
The first European-driven settlement in what is now Richmondtown occurred in the late seventeenth century. Three land grants of the 1680s, known as the Rider, Hubbard, and Prall patents, encompassed the area. The location attracted settlement because several major roadways intersected in the area and because it bordered the southern reach of Fresh Kills, one of the largest estuaries on Staten Island, which was navigable by boat during this period and terminated with a pond. The settlement was originally known as Coccle's Town or Cocklestown by the early European settlers, possibly a reference to the shellfish in the creek. The Dutch church established a presence in the village in the 1690s due to its central location. A minister originally traveled periodically to Staten Island from Brooklyn to preach. In 1696, the church constructed a house for the voorlezer (a teacher who was authorized to read religious texts between the minister's visits) in Richmond Town. Other early buildings in the settlement included a blacksmith shop run by William Fitchett and Louis DuBois (no longer extant) and the building now known as the Treasure House, ca. 1700, which still stands in its original location. Four roads passed through the village by the early eighteenth century, including Arthur Kill Road (originally known as Fresh Kill Road), which was opened in 1694; Richmond Road, laid out in 1701; the road to Stony Brook (no longer extant), laid out in 1705; and Old Mill Road, laid out in 1709. Most of these roads remain within the historic district and are in approximately the same configurations as they were in the eighteenth century.
The original Richmond County seat was located at Stony Brook, later known as Egbertville, about a mile northeast of Richmond Town. However, in ca. 1710, a county jail was constructed in the village of Richmond due to its location at the junction of important roadways and its proximity to navigable water. In 1728, the county court in Stony Brook was closed and a new court building was constructed in Richmond Town on the south side of Richmond Creek. The next year, in 1729, Richmond was designated the new county seat and the name of the village became Richmond or "Richmond Town.". The first building of the Church of St. Andrew, an Episcopal church, was completed in Richmond Town in 1712. By 1730, there were ten to twelve houses and at least one tavern in the village.
The British military occupied Staten Island during the American Revolution. British soldiers were quartered in houses in Richmond Town and a redoubt and camp were built overlooking the town on Richmond Hill. Several skirmishes were ought near Richmond Town between the British troops and raiding American forces. The British burned the courthouse and Dutch church before leaving. The village resumed its function as county seat after the war, now as part of an independent republic. In 1788, the state legislature divided the island into four towns: Castleton, Northfield, Westfield, and Southfield. Richmond Town was part of the town of Southfield. In 1794, a new court house was built in Richmond Town to replace the one that had been destroyed during the war.
Staten Island remained largely rural in character throughout the colonial period and into the nineteenth century. The early settlers were predominantly of Dutch descent and lived on small farms called bouweries, which primarily produced cattle, pigs, grain, and fruits and vegetables. Fishing and harvesting shellfish were also important parts of Staten Island's economy. Like many areas influenced by a Dutch colonial presence, many farm households included enslaved individuals of African descent. Richmond County had one of New York's highest populations of enslaved people in the early nineteenth century. While additional research and archaeology is needed to better understand the physical living conditions of enslaved people in New York, it is believed that many lived under the same roof as their enslavers, in kitchens, attics, and wings. Enslaved people of African descent performed farm work and domestic chores and worked on fishing vessels on Staten Island until slavery was abolished in 1827. Additional research would be necessary to elucidate the presence of enslaved and free individuals of African descent who lived in what is now Historic Richmond Town; however, it is almost certain that some of the early households in the historic district included enslaved individuals. After emancipation, many formerly enslaved people on Staten Island established their own houses elsewhere on the island or relocated to Manhattan. New communities of free African Americans from the South were also established on Staten Island following emancipation, such as Sandy Ground, not far from Richmond Town, which was settled in the 1830s by oystermen from the mid-Atlantic states.
In 1823, Richmond was incorporated as a village within the Town of Southfield (these townships remained official entities until Richmond County was consolidated as part of Greater New York City in 1898). The first county clerk's and surrogate's offices were built in 1828 and Richmond County Hall, a famous hotel and political gathering-place, was built in 1829. The town's first public school opened the following year. Henry I. Seaman, a New York merchant and shareholder in the company that operated the plank road now known as Richmond Avenue, sought to take advantage of the development potential of the village. He purchased ninety acres of farmland east of the Richmond Town center in 1836 and laid out Center Street and Court Place with small building lots. He built several homes, now known as "Seaman Cottages," and sold other lots for development. The third county courthouse building was developed on a larger lot in 1837. The village continued to expand in the 1840s after the construction of a new stone bridge over Fresh Kills Creek. The Washington Hotel was built in 1840 and in 1845, Isaac Marsh constructed a carriage factory across from the hotel. A new county clerk's and surrogate's office was built in 1848 and a new jail was built in 1860. St. Patrick's Church was completed in 1862 and the Church of St. Andrew was rebuilt in 1872 following a fire. In 1860, the Staten Island Railroad opened along the eastern shore of Staten Island. The railroad increased accessibility to Richmond Town but bypassed the town center, with the closest station located at Oakwood Heights.
In 1898, Staten Island officially became part of the City of New York as the five counties of Kings, Queens, New York, Bronx, and Richmond joined to form the five boroughs. Following consolidation, county functions were gradually moved to St. George to be closer to Manhattan, and the former Town of Richmond became a primarily residential neighborhood. By 1919, the last county functions had moved from the area and the former government buildings were left vacant. The neighborhood of Richmondtown was in a period of relative decline.
Meanwhile, the economy and character of Staten Island were rapidly changing, due in large part to the rise of the automobile. The Outerbridge Crossing opened in 1928, directly connecting Perth Amboy, New Jersey, to Staten Island just north of Richmond Valley. The Bayonne Bridge connected the Mariners Harbor area of Staten Island to Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1931. These surface connections to New Jersey resulted in increased residential development on Staten Island; however, housing construction paused during the Great Depression and World War II. The completion of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1964 and the construction of interstate highways, however, ushered in development that would dramatically change Staten Island's character. Rapid population growth, suburban residential development, and expanding networks of parkways and parks occurred throughout the island. Every year between 1967 and 1979, approximately 2,500 housing units (mostly single-family houses) were constructed on the island, resulting in a population increase of 130,000 over those two decades. In tandem with the rapid suburban development, several shopping centers opened in the 1960s and the Staten Island Mall opened in 1973, changing the relationship between residents and the small village centers and historic commercial corridors.
† Adapted from: Molly McDonald, AKRF, Inc., (edited by Linda Mackey, New York SHPO) Richmond Town Historic District, no,ination document, 2022, draft, parks.ny.gov, accessed October, 2022.
Arthur Kill Road • Center Street • Richmond Road • Saint Patricks Place • Tysen Court