Staten Island history

Staten Island’s historical evolution

Staten Island history, often overshadowed by other New York City boroughs, is rich and significant. Staten Island, the third-largest borough of New York City by land area, spans approximately 59 square miles. Despite its size, it is the least densely populated borough, providing a more suburban atmosphere. Frequently referred to as a ‘bedroom community,’ many residents commute to work in other parts of the city. From 1960 to 2000, the borough’s population doubled, and its growth rate has since aligned with the citywide rate of 8 percent.

Staten Island’s history is rich but not as well-known as other boroughs. Initially inhabited by the Lenape people, it later saw Dutch settlers establish the first European settlement. It was known as the Borough of Richmond until 1975 when it was renamed the Borough of Staten Island.

The island is about 13.9 miles long and 7.3 miles wide, located closer to New Jersey than to the rest of New York City. The Arthur Kill separates it from New Jersey, and three bridges—the Bayonne Bridge, the Outerbridge Crossing, and the Goethals Bridge—connect it to New Jersey. The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connects Staten Island to Brooklyn, leading to the Bay Ridge area.

Indigenous Inhabitants

Staten Island’s history of human habitation dates back to the Clovis culture around 14,000 years ago, with evidence found in the Charleston section. The Lenape, specifically the Raritan band, inhabited the island at European contact. The Raritan band occupied the territory along the Raritan River in New Jersey, while the Unami was a large branch of the Lenape people who inhabited a vast area including central and southern New Jersey​.

Named Aquehonga Manacknong in Lenape, the island featured trails and seasonal camps. The Lenape practiced slash-and-burn agriculture and relied on shellfish, particularly oysters, with evidence seen in shell middens. Burial Ridge in Tottenville, the largest pre-European burial ground in NYC, remains a significant site, with bodies unearthed since 1858 and studied by George H. Pepper for the American Museum of Natural History.

Early European Exploration and Settlement

In 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano became the first European to discover Staten Island. The Raritan and Unami Native American tribes were the primary inhabitants of the region. In 1624, the first European settlers, Walloons from Belgium, arrived on Staten Island. However, due to multiple conflicts with Native American tribes, they soon relocated to New Amsterdam (present-day Manhattan). The Dutch purchased Staten Island from the Unami Indians of the Delaware tribe in 1630 and named it “Staaten Eylandt” after the Staten-Generaal, the governing body of the Netherlands​​.

However, they encountered resistance from the local tribes, leading to conflicts such as the Pig War in 1640 and the Peach War in 1655. In 1661, after these conflicts settled down, the Dutch built a settlement called Oude Dorp, or Old Town, near the South Beach area. When the English took over in 1664, they renamed it after the Duke of Richmond. By the late 1600s, around a thousand people, mainly English, French, and Dutch settlers, called Staten Island home​.

Colonial Era Developments

The Dutch named the island Staaten Eylandt after the Staten Generaal. Despite several failed attempts by Cornelis Melyn and David de Vries to establish a settlement due to conflicts, the first permanent settlement was established in 1661 at Oude Dorp by Dutch, Walloon, and French Huguenot families.

French Huguenots, refugees from religious wars in France, significantly influenced the early population. Native American attacks during Kieft’s War led to significant bloodshed. In 1657, Native Americans signed a deed for the island’s land, which was later annulled.

Role in the Revolutionary War

Staten Islanders were predominantly loyal to the Crown during the American Revolutionary War, with General George Washington referring to them as “our most inveterate enemies.” The island did not send representatives to the First Continental Congress, resulting in economic boycotts from nearby New Jersey towns.

In the summer of 1776, General Howe arrived in New York City after leaving Boston and landed at the Watering Place, now known as Tompkinsville, on Staten Island. This location became a key strategic point for British forces to establish their presence and prepare for the Battle of Long Island. Over 140 British ships and 30,000 soldiers, including Hessian mercenaries, anchored off Staten Island.

The Billopp House, also known as the Conference House, served as the British headquarters. The island hosted significant events, such as the Battle of Staten Island and the Conference House negotiations.

Following the war, many of Staten Island’s wealthiest and most influential citizens who remained loyal to the British Crown fled to Canada. Their abandoned estates were confiscated, divided, and sold by the state of New York. The British occupation led to deforestation and the destruction of buildings for resources. Staten Island was the last part of the Thirteen Colonies to be evacuated by British forces in December 1783.

Legal Battle Over Ownership

There was a legal dispute between New York and New Jersey over the ownership of Staten Island. Initially, New Jersey argued that they owned Staten Island based on an old land grant, which gave them rights to the middle of the Narrows. However, New York claimed authority over the waters up to the low watermark on the Jersey shore.

The disagreement dragged on for almost two centuries until 1833 when both states settled their borders. New York secured Staten Island and the Lower New York Bay down to the northern tip of Sandy Hook, while New Jersey gained control over the water on the island’s west side up to Woodbridge Creek near the Rossville neighborhood.

Growth and Integration into NYC

After the American Revolution, Staten Island saw continued growth and development. In 1898, it was consolidated with New York City following a strong local vote in favor of consolidation (5,531 to 1,505). Although Brooklyn’s residents were divided on the issue, the New York State Legislature ultimately approved the merger despite objections from the mayor at the time.

This period also saw significant infrastructure advancements, including roads and sewers. However, the extent of these improvements and the reliance on septic systems in certain areas can be debated. The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and the Staten Island Ferry remain the primary transportation links between Staten Island and the other boroughs.

Staten Island’s Rumblings of Secession

The Fresh Kills Landfill significantly fueled the desire for more autonomy among some Staten Islanders, who felt it represented a lack of control over their environment. Assemblyman Edmund Radigan’s 1947 secession bill in response to the landfill’s development highlights this frustration. However, the roots of the Staten Island secession movement go deeper, with a history of discontent over issues like representation and infrastructure predating the landfill.

A History of Feeling Neglected

A source of long-standing tension between Staten Island and New York City was the seizure of land in 1799 to build a quarantine station. This action, coupled with the burning of the station by Staten Islanders in 1858 (known as the Quarantine War), highlights the historical friction surrounding the island’s role within the city.

Importance of Representation

The Board of Estimate’s structure, where each borough president had an equal vote regardless of population, gave Staten Island less influence on city decisions compared to more populous boroughs. This was challenged in court, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that it violated the Equal Protection Clause. Consequently, the Board was dissolved, and the city charter was amended.

Staten Island’s current representation in the City Council is 3 out of 51 members. The perception of decreased influence due to the Board of Estimate likely contributed to some Staten Islanders’ desire for secession.

Considering Secession

Faced with these challenges, Staten Islanders viewed secession as a means to take control of their future. In 1989, the state legislature authorized a study on secession, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters the following year (83%). Governor Mario Cuomo subsequently established a commission to examine the legal aspects of separation.

Referendum and Political Change

In 1993, a referendum on Staten Island’s secession succeeded, with the majority supporting a new city charter that would establish Staten Island as an independent city. However, the movement’s progress shifted with the election of Rudy Giuliani as Mayor.

Giuliani, who campaigned on addressing Staten Island’s concerns, garnered significant backing from the borough. He fulfilled two crucial promises: closing the Fresh Kills Landfill and making the Staten Island Ferry free. These actions, combined with obstacles in gaining approval from the state legislature, ultimately halted the secession drive.

Secession Ambitions Paused

Although the secession movement hasn’t gained the same traction since the 1990s, some Staten Islanders still wish for a stronger voice and more control over local issues.

Infrastructure Developments

Staten Island’s infrastructure saw significant developments, particularly with the construction of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in the 1960s. This bridge connected Staten Island to Brooklyn, greatly improving transportation and accessibility. Another key mode of transportation is the Staten Island Ferry, which provides a vital link between Staten Island and Manhattan.

These infrastructure projects have been crucial in integrating Staten Island more closely with the rest of New York City, facilitating both daily commutes and economic growth.

Historical Districts

Staten Island is home to several significant historical districts. The St. George Historic District is known for its collection of 19th and early 20th-century architecture. Another notable area is the St. Paul’s Avenue-Stapleton Heights Historic District, which features a variety of architectural styles and reflects the borough’s historical development.

These districts help preserve Staten Island’s rich architectural and cultural heritage, offering a glimpse into the island’s past while contributing to its unique character and identity.


We encourage you, our readers, to explore and learn more about Staten Island’s rich and diverse history. From its early indigenous inhabitants and colonial developments to its significant roles in wartime and its unique historical districts, Staten Island offers a wealth of historical insights. Its contributions to New York City’s history are significant and engaging. By delving into Staten Island’s past, you will discover the vibrant stories that make this borough as interesting and important as any other in New York City.

Key Takeaways

  • Staten Island was first settled by Dutch colonists in 1661.
  • Home to the Lenape people, specifically the Raritan band.
  • Transitioned from Dutch to English control in 1667.
  • Played a significant role in the American Revolutionary War.
  • Consolidated with New York City in 1898 following a strong local vote.
  • Infrastructure developments include the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and Staten Island Ferry.
  • Known for its historical districts, such as St. George and St. Paul’s Avenue-Stapleton Heights.
  • Experienced long-standing tension and efforts for greater autonomy, including secession movements.
  • Representation changes in the City Council addressed historical issues of influence.