Category Archives: Stillwell family

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:


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 (


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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:


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.

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.

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Gravesend Characters Past: Abraham Emmens Stillwell (1832-1905)

Happy New Year! In response to a 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 will attempt to profile some of Gravesend’s many historical “characters” by posting images and biographical excerpts here. While they might seem old hat to me, they just might be new to Gravesend’s voracious reading public. Whether or not I manage to put up something new each week remains to be seen, but consider this a start.

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. 2,1147-1148:


Abraham Emmens Stillwell (1832-1905)

The Stillwell family is an honored one in Gravesend, where some of its members have resided ever since the first settlement of the town; and all of them in some manner or other, have been identified with the progress and well-being of the place. ABRAHAM EMMENS STILLWELL is a lineal descendant, on his father’s side, of Nicholas Stillwell, an Englishman who came from Hull, by way of Leyden, somewhere about the year 1638, and settled on Manhattan Island. He remained there for some years; but finally removed to Staten Island, where he died in 1671. Mr. Stillwell’s mother was an Emmens, her grandfather being a Dutch preacher named Schoonmaker. Abraham E. Stillwell was born in Gravesend, on August 22, 1832, and attended the public school in his native village until he reached the age of fourteen years. Subsequently he was a pupil for three years at Flatbush Hall Academy. Leaving school, he made an attempt to make a living by teaching in Boston, Mass., but soon returned to Gravesend and worked for a few years on his father’s farm. With the exception of a brief interval, he attended strictly to the pursuit of agriculture until 1864. In that year he started in the second-hand and commission business on Grand street, Brooklyn, and subsequently engaged in the second-hand lumber business, on Thirty-eighth street, New York. This venture did not prove successful and once more he returned to Gravesend. he was appointed sexton of the town graveyard, and incidentally with his duties united the business of an undertaker. In 1860 he built the house where he now resides. Mr. Stillwell has been twice married, first in 1859 and again in 1887. The present Mrs. Stillwell occupies a prominent position in Gravesend society. For twenty-five years or more Mr. Stillwell has been a member of Franklin Lodge of Odd Fellows, an he also belongs to the Sheepshead Bay fire department and the John Y. McKane Association; he is now a Democrat, though formerly prominent in Republican circles.


Billhead for A.E. Stillwell, General Furnishing Undertaker, Gravesend, L.I., 1887. {Collection of Joseph Ditta.}

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