Category Archives: families

Gravesend Characters Past: “Governor of Coney Island”

Continuing the challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, I turn my attention this time to the curious stereoscopic view below. It surfaced recently, as so many fascinating treasures do, on eBay.

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E. & H.T. Anthony & Co., stereoscopic view no. 2076, recto, “A Trip to Coney Island. / Wyckoff, Governor of Coney Island,” circa 1864-1869 [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

The image side shows a seated, portly gentleman, hands clasped across his rumpled, outdated frock coat. He wears equally unfashionable ruffles at his neck, and squints at the camera with a bemused half-smile, looking for all the world like William Claude Dukenfield, despite his flowing hair.

The reverse side of this stereoview — one in the series “A Trip to Coney Island” published by E. & H.T. Anthony & Co. circa 1864-1869 — bears the cryptic caption “Wyckoff, Governor of Coney Island.”

Most internet searches on the phrase “Governor of Coney Island” return hits for Gilbert Davis, an early owner of the Pavilion, a dancing and entertainment venue at Norton’s Point (present-day Sea Gate). Davis, who died about 1870, was a wine merchant who so relished his unofficial honorific that he marked his casks “CGI” for “Governor of Coney Island.” But Davis was an upstart newcomer to Coney Island, at least in the eyes of the Wyckoff family.

Wyckoff.Governor.Coney.Island.reverse

E. & H.T. Anthony & Co., stereoscopic view no. 2076, verso, “A Trip to Coney Island. / Wyckoff, Governor of Coney Island,” circa 1864-1869 [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

The Wyckoffs were among the first permanent European settlers of Coney Island. John Wyckoff (1787-1871), a great-great-great-grandson of Wyckoff family progenitor Pieter Claesen (died 1694), opened a seaside hotel, the eponymous Wyckoff House, in the 1840s. By the time the Anthonys issued their stereoview, Wyckoff’s son, John Jr. (1809-1873), had become proprietor.

Although the Wyckoffs are one of the best-documented families in the world, the Coney Island branch seems to have fallen through the cracks. Published information is sketchy or outright wrong. The standard genealogy of the Wyckoff family states that John Jr. died in 1868. He did not. He passed away December 8, 1873. His funeral took place three days later at the Wyckoff House, and he was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Flatbush. A subsequent notice in the Sag Harbor Corrector positively identifies him as the man in the stereoview:


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Gravesend Characters Past: “Betsey” (c. 1726-1843)

Continuing the challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, I turn my attention this time to a Gravesend woman for whom the barest traces survive. Scraps, really; but taken together, they provide a glimpse into her long life of servitude.

She first appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper, of all places. The National Gazette of Tuesday 8 March 1831 (p. 3) did not name her, but focused on the fact which made her a curiosity: her great age.

Longevity.–There is now in the family of Mrs. Stillwell, in Gravesend, a colored woman, who has attained the age of 103 years. She came into the family when she was 28 years of age, and has remained in the same house since that time. She is industrious, milks the cows, and does the washing for a family of ten persons, and will not suffer others to assist her. Her faculties are all good, and particularly her eyesight. [1831 – 103 = a birth year of c. 1828]

Similar accounts ran in New England papers in the following weeks. She remained nameless, and her age varied slightly–102 instead of 103 (which calculates to a birth year of c. 1729)–but the recitation was verbatim.

1840.census.Stillwell.Maria - Copy

Detail of page for 1840 U.S. census, Gravesend, Kings County, N.Y., showing household of Maria Stillwell and the tick mark for her servant who was upwards of 100-years-old.

She was still alive nine years later, on 1 June 1840, when the federal census enumerator stopped into the residence of Maria Stillwell to count her household. Again, the National Gazette and Literary Register of Philadelphia tells the story (Tuesday 1 September 1840, p. 2):

The officer, employed to take the census of King’s [sic] county, N.Y., met at the residence of Maria Stillwell, at Gravesend, a colored woman at the advanced age of 113 years. She appears to be in perfect health, eats, drinks, and sleeps well, and performs her duty as a domestic with astonishing energy and activity. She says she can milk the cows as readily as she could a hundred years ago. [1840 – 113 = a birth year of c. 1727]

Before 1850, the decennial United States federal census did not record the names of every member of every household. Only the head of the family was listed; everyone else was entered by tick marks or numbers in columns describing their status, sex, and age. In Maria Stillwell’s household, under the column headed “Free Colored Persons / Females / 100 and upwards” is a lone scratch of the pen, nearly off the page, for her 113-year-old servant.

Remarkably, she lived nearly another three years, until March 1843. In death, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Wednesday 8 March 1843, p. 2) finally gives her name:

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Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Wednesday 8 March 1843, p. 2. [Note: 1843 – 117 = a birth year of c. 1726. “Saturday last” = 4 March 1843.]

A briefer notice, in the Christian Intelligencer of the Reformed Dutch Church for Saturday 11 March 1843 spells her name “Betsey” and pushes her death back to Friday the 3rd.

And what have we learned from these bits and pieces? That an African-American woman named “Betty” or “Betsey,” born between 1726 and 1729, entered the service of the Stillwell family at age 28, sometime between the years 1754 and 1757 — when she would certainly have been enslaved — and continued to do their laundry and milking for the better part of a century, until her death at the supposed great age of 117.


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Gravesend Characters Past: Charles R. Stillwell (1854-1920)

Continuing the challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, here is a profile of Charles Rushmore Stillwell, transcribed from Peter Ross, LL. D., A History of Long Island From its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, vol. 2 (New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1902), 111:

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Charles R. Stillwell (1854-1920)

Charles R. Stillwell, an esteemed resident of Gravesend, was born October 13, 1854, at Gravesend, in a house which is still standing. His ancestors were among a company of thirty-nine people who received grants of land from Lady Moody in 1643, and one purchased a plantation, thus becoming the owner of a portion of Coney Island. His father was Jacques R. Stillwell and his grandfather was Richard I. Stillwell. The former was born at Gravesend. Representatives of the family have long been associated with things which have formed the history of this portion of the Empire state, for the family was founded on Long Island in 1638 and has been identified with Gravesend since 1643, Nicholas Stillwell being the first to locate at that place. In 1640 he was associated with Governor Stuyvesant in fighting the Indians. Richard I. Stillwell, the grandfather, was a very powerful man, noted for the strength in all the athletic contests throughout the region around. Jacques R. Stillwell was a farmer by occupation, providing for his family by agricultural pursuits. His was a noble nature, his life being characterized by benevolence and charity. he married Miss Cornelia Stryker, a daughter of Samuel G. Stryker, of Gravesend, and both died in the year 1898. They had two children, Charles R. and Frederick, the latter a resident of Hackensack, New Jersey.

Charles R. Stillwell mastered the branches of English learning taught in the schools of Gravesend, New Jersey, and in Brooklyn, but at the age of fourteen he put aside his text-books and took his place upon the farm and for some time he was associated with the work of developing and improving the fields. For thirteen years he was engaged in the cultivation and sale of flowers, and as a florist carried on a successful business. He is now quite extensively engaged in the raising of fancy fruit, and in this enterprise is meeting with well deserved success. Industry and careful management have always characterized his work, and as the result of his diligence and perseverance he has acquired a comfortable competence. In connection with his other business affairs he is now engaged in speculating and his keen discernment, sagacity and foresight enables him to place his money so that it brings a good return.

Stillwell.Charles.R.poultry.farm.1911

Advertisement from the souvenir program of the fair of the wives and daughters of the members of Franklin Lodge, No. 182, I.O.O.F., at Sheepshead Bay, 26-28 April 1911. [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

In public affairs Mr. Stillwell has been quite prominent, having been called upon to fill a number of positions of trust and responsibility. In politics he is an independent Republican. He served as postmaster at Gravesend from 1890 until 1894, resigning his position in the latter year. He was then appointed shore inspector and acted in that capacity until 1898. He was also deputy inspector of the New York harbor from 1895 until 1898. He belongs to the Odd Fellows fraternity, which is his only lodge connection. On the 23d of October, 1879, occurred the marriage of Mr. Stillwell and Miss Elizabeth Voorhies, a daughter of John L. Voorhies, who for many years served as town clerk of Gravesend. They have three children: Walter E., Elizabeth J. and Cornelia E., and their home is upon a part of the original grant of 1643. Coming of a family of prominence, Mr. Stillwell’s record has cast no shadow upon the untarnished name and he is widely known as one of the leading, honorable and substantial citizens of his community.


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Gravesend Characters Past: Thomas Ferguson (1845-1903)

Continuing the challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, here is a profile of Thomas Ferguson, transcribed from Peter Ross and William S. Pelletreau, A History of Long Island From its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (New York and Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1905), vol. 3, pp. 136-7:

Thomas Ferguson (1845-1903)

Thomas Ferguson (1845-1903)

Thomas Ferguson, deceased, for many years a foremost citizen of Brooklyn, known for his success in commercial affairs and for his intelligent enterprise in promoting community interests, as well as for his lovable personal traits of character, was of Scotch ancestry and birth, coming from the same sturdy stock which contributed so largely to the settlement of New York and the contiguous region, and which bore so useful a part in the founding of religious and educational institutions in the new world.

He was born in Scotland in June, 1845. He acquired a broad and liberal education, being predisposed to a ministerial life, a calling from which he turned aside on account of threatened ill health which promised to impair his usefulness as a clergyman. But the moral qualities which had impelled him to look to the ministry were deeply planted and governed his conduct throughout his entire life, and were the inspiration which lay at the bottom of his every act, whether in business or social life.

In 1866, having reached the years of manhood, Mr. Ferguson came to Brooklyn, New York, and became associated in business with his uncle, John F. Phillips, who was extensively engaged in the whiting business in Brooklyn. The firm conducted business with marked success, and was known to the mercantile world as the largest importers of whiting in the country.

During these years, Mr. Ferguson was also busied with important enterprises which were at once profitable to himself and of marked advantage to the community. With characteristic foresight and excellent business judgment, he made early and large investments in Gravesend real estate, and for some years prior to his death he was known as one of the most extensive individual property holders in that beautiful suburb. He was for many years a commissioner of common lands of Coney Island. He was a leader in a few of the most prominent clubs–the Amaranth Club, of which he was president for two years; the Montauk Club, and the Union League Club. His connection with these was, however, only in lines of usefulness; for, while a man of excellent social traits, his great delight was in his home and family.

Mr. Ferguson was married in 1879 to Miss Lizzie C. Gibson, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a well educated lady, of cultured tastes, and in hearty accord with her husband in all his concerns, aiding him with her counsel in his many liberal benefactions to charitable institutions and to individuals, and presiding over his home with charming grace. The family residence on Ocean Parkway, one of the most beautiful in all that region, was ever open to their many friends, to whom they dispersed a generous hospitality.

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Thomas Ferguson residence as depicted in Jere. Johnson Jr., Building a Nation and Where to Build Ideal American Homes (1891). The Ferguson house stood at 1375 Ocean Parkway near the northeast corner of Avenue N.

This beautiful association was closed by the death of Mr. Ferguson on January 23, 1903. He had not yet completed his fifty-eighth year, and the end came when he was in the fulness of his mental powers, when his usefulness appeared to be of increasing worth to his fellows, and when all happiness and comfort was in his home. The sad event awakened sincere sorrow throughout the community, a sorrow which found expression among all classes. The character of Mr. Ferguson was feelingly depicted by his pastor, who referred to him as a man of sterling worth, physically strong, mentally alert, and morally sound, a sincere Christian gentleman. Those who had been associated with him in business affairs spoke in terms of unstinted praise of his strict integrity, fine sense of honor, and charitableness of disposition in all his relations, whether in business or in social life. He was a man broadly generous in all cases which appealed to him as deserving, but so modest in the bestowment of his beneficences that his good works went unknown except as they were heralded by the recipients of his bounty. And so he left to her who survived him, and to the friends at her side, the fragrance of a memory without blemish, the recollections of a beautiful life.


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Gravesend Characters Past: John L. Voorhies (1832-1898)

Continuing the challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, here is a profile of John L. Voorhies from The Eagle and Brooklyn: The Record of the Progress of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Issued in Commemoration of its Semi-Centennial and Occupancy of its New Building; Together With the History of the City of Brooklyn From its Settlement to the Present Time, edited by Henry W. B. Howard (Brooklyn, N.Y.: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1893), vol. 2, 1141:

John L. Voorhies (1832-1898)

John L. Voorhies (1832-1898)

For fifteen years JOHN L. VOORHIES has been town clerk of Gravesend, and for seven years he has filled the responsible post of commissioner of investment. He was born at Gravesend, on January 21, 1832. At the little red schoolhouse on Gravesend Neck road he received such instruction as was generally imparted in those days, and early in his teens engaged in the pursuit of farming. In 1877 he was elected town clerk; he ran as an independent candidate, but received the votes of both Democrats and Republicans. The term of office was then only one year, and he was re-elected each succeeding year, until 1880, when the term was increased to three years. In January, 1885, he was appointed to serve an unexpired term of two years as commissioner of investments for the monies derived from the sales of common lands at Gravesend. Upon the expiration of the term mentioned, the supervisors appointed Mr. Voorhies to the position of town treasurer and town clerk, the term expiring on June 19, 1893. he is a staunch Democrat, and serves his party well by serving the community well, but does not affiliate with any political organization.

Invitation to the tenth wedding anniversary celebration of John L. and Frances E. (Hicks) Voorhies, 22 November 1887. Frances was the second Mrs. Voorhies; the first -- Ellen Ann (Johnson) Voorhies -- died in 1875. [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

Invitation to the tenth wedding anniversary celebration of John L. and Frances E. (Hicks) Voorhies, 22 November 1887. Frances was the second Mrs. Voorhies; the first — Ellen Ann (Johnson) Voorhies — died in 1875. [Collection of Joseph Ditta]


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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