What is an island but a continent in disguise?
From the Poem “Staten Island”
By Kenneth Van Name
When the William and Richard Merrill families arrived on Staten Island, they came to a land that was beautiful and isolated. European involvement with the island had begun when Henry Hudson sailed past it in 1609 on his exploration down the Hudson River. His first mate said of the area: “… the land is very pleasant and high …”. “New Netherlands”, as the area where the Dutch claimed jurisdictional ownership was called, was limited in scope to the lands adjacent to the Hudson River. The two largest and oldest established areas were up river at Albany and Manhattan Island near to the river’s mouth. Other places like the New Jersey coast and Staten Island were slowly occupied. Once the Dutch began to settle the area around the southern end the Hudson River, Staten Island was seen as place rich with trees and pasture land of almost sixty square miles. The island was named to honor the governing body of the Netherlands – the Staten General. In 1630, Peter Minuit (the Director General of New Netherlands) bought the island from the Delaware Indians for “duffels, kittles, axes, hoes, wampum, drilling awls, Jews harps, and diverse other small wares”.
The Dutch had difficulty in establishing settlements on Staten Island. At first there were few people who wanted to move to the isolated area. One person who did was Dutch adventurer David de Vries. In 1641, his plantation was attacked by the Raritan Indian tribe. Four people in the Dutch contingent were killed. This ended what up to then had been peaceful relations between the Dutch and the Indians. Other problems included the fact that the British had large claims to the North in New England and to the South in Virginia. New Netherlands was squarely in the way.
In 1655, Indian unrest in the New Netherlands area was increased when a Hendrick Van Dyke shot a native woman stealing peaches from his orchard. As a result of the subsequent “Peach Tree War”, a colony on Staten Island that was headed by Captain Adrain Post was completely destroyed by the Indians. This occurred on September 15, 1655. Twenty-three white people were killed and sixty-seven more were taken prisoner. In the negotiations between the Indians and the Dutch, the prisoners were freed in exchange for gun powder and lead. Afterwards, the remaining settlers on Staten Island (less than ten people) demanded a fort be built and staffed for protection. This proved too costly to pursue. The attempt to settle Staten Island by individual enterprise had failed.
Staten Island was purchased by the Dutch West India Company. On August 22, 1661, nineteen people petitioned for tracts of land on the south side of the Island and established a village. This became the first permanent settlement on the Island and was named “Oude Dorp” (Old Town). The settlers were primarily Dutch Walloon and French Huguenot families. Both sects were persecuted in their European homelands for their religious beliefs being contrary to the Puritanism movement.
The sparring between The Netherlands and Britain over the Dutch holdings in America resulted in a period of fighting and negotiating that led to the Dutch cession of its North American lands to England. The Treaty of Breda established the new English colony of New York, with Staten Island being a part of it. Local legend states that Staten Island was associated with New York instead of New Jersey due to the outcome of a wager on a sailing race around the island. In 1670, the British forced the Indians to give up all claims to Staten Island in a deed to Governor Francis Lovelace. The following year, encouragement was provided to expand the Dutch settlement on the Island. Old Town was re-surveyed and new lots were added along the south shore. This new area was settle mostly by people of Dutch heritage and became known as Nieuwe Dorp (meaning New Town). This was later to become anglicized as New Dorp. The island was renamed Richmond County by King Charles II to honor his newly born illegitimate son, Charles Lennox, who was granted the title Duke of Richmond.
Northeastern America in 1650
Around 1680, the Merrills came to New York. Whether it was their intention to settle on Staten Island or not cannot be determined. That they did is a fact. There is some speculation that Richard’s brother-in-law, Phillip Welles, a surveyor, preceded the Merrills and had land picked out on Staten Island for them. In July, 1682, Richard and Sarah had another son, named Richard. This was followed by the birth of another son, Thomas in 1686. In 1686, Richard received a land grant near Smoking Point, just west of the modern town of Rossville.
On November 24, 1687, "William Merrill of Staten Island" bought from Richard Stout Jr. and his wife Frances of Monmouth County, New Jersey, 120 acres in Middletown, New Jersey. Thus began the close association between the Merrill and the Stout families which continued for several generations. William and Grace Merrill lived in Middletown until 1704, when they joined a group of families led by Jonathan Stout and moved to Hopewell, then on the frontier of settlement in western New Jersey. There will be more about William in the next chapter.
1777 Staten Island
Richard Merrill’s family continued to increase in number. The new children were John (1688), Charity and Susannah (1692) and Elizabeth (1695). On July 4, 1699, Richard was elected as one of the assessors for the Northern Division of Staten Island. Around 1700, son Richard Merrill married Elsie Dorlandt of Brooklyn, bringing the Dutch influence on the Merrills.
Richard Merrill, the father, continued to be involved with local politics. In both 1703 and 1704 he was elected as a supervisor of the Northern District. In 1705, Susannah’s brother Phillip died, and Richard was named the administrator of his estate. A census of Staten Island taken in 1706 listed the Merrill family as Richard (head of household, age 63), and sons Phillip (28), Richard (26), John (21), and Thomas (17). Apparently women were not counted.
The British government established by law that the Church of England was the official state church. This remained in effect until after the American Revolution. In Queen Anne’s charter for the Church of St. Andrews, built in 1713, Richard Merrill is mentioned as one of the eleven freeholders and petitioners. A tax of 40 pounds a year was levied for support of the minister. The church still exists today with an old cemetery dating from the 17th century.
Richard and Susannah lived out the rest of their lives on Staten Island. Susannah died on October 21, 1722 at age 71. Richard left this earthly world on May 12, 1727. He was 85 years old at the time of his death. Their son William started a lineage of Merrills in Maryland. Sons Phillip, Richard, and Thomas all stayed settled on Staten Island.
There were many Merrill descendants that continued to populate Staten Island. During the Revolutionary War, Staten Island was under British control from the beginning. While there is no direct evidence of the situation in which the Merrills found themselves, it is likely they had to abandon or hide their farms and homes. Some of the British treated the local non-Tory population with barbaric behaviour, including the wanton raping of girls and women. Others respected the area and its people. A British officer wrote in 1776 about Staten Island: "Surely this country is the Paradise of the world...the inhabitants of this Island are tall, thin, narrow shouldered people, very simple in their manners, know neither Poverty nor Riches, each house has a good farm, and every man a trade, they know no distinction of Persons, and I am sure must have lived very happily till these troubles."
In July, 1776, Lord Howe arrived in New York harbor and stationed 32,000 troops on Staten Island. At that time, there were about 3,000 settlers there. On August 22, 1776, the British sent 15,000 men across to the mainland. They crossed at a point called “The Narrows” near what is now the site of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Once onshore, they quickly routed the rebels from Long Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. Washington’s army just barely escaped north to avoid a complete disaster. The entire area of New York City became a British bastion for the remainder of the war.
After the defeat of Washington in New York City, the British convened a “Peace” conference at Staten Island. The Continental Congress sent Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge to it. The British were prepared to cede almost anything to stop the rebellion, but demanded the revocation of the Declaration of Independence. The American delegation politely refused. This was the last best chance to preserve England’s ownership of the American colonies. The date of the conference was to become infamous: September 11th.
The Staten Island Peace Conference
September 11, 1776
Throughout the rebellion, the colonials harassed the compounds on Staten Island with quick raids and forays. This was done to inflict damages, spy on the enemy and secure provisions. Staten Island also became a hotbed of spying and counter-spying. Hanging of suspected spies was commonplace.
The one known for certain Merrill that fought in the Revolutionary War was Lambert Merrill. He was the great-great grandson of the original Richard Merrill that came from England. He was born January 11, 1712 to Richard Merrill and Eve Bennett. His grave is located at Asbury Methodist Church on Staten Island.
On the other side of the coin, there is documentation that indicates that a Thomas Merrill of Richmond County, New York, fled with other British loyalists to Nova Scotia after the war was over. Most suspected British sympathizers were harassed, some hanged, and others encouraged to vacate the area when the British pulled out. This Thomas Merrill could have been the grandson of Richard and Susannah because he fits the correct age. He was born to Thomas and Jenne (Gewen) Merrill on April 19, 1732 in Staten Island, and reported died May 12, 1798, place unknown.
On December 5, 1783, the last British troop ship departed the newly formed United States from Staten Island. Crowds gathered to jeer the departing warships as they passed through the Narrows. The last shot of the Revolutionary War was fired from a departing British vessel at the Staten Islanders. By the end of the war Staten Island was almost completely deforested to supply fuel for British army campfires.
Surveys of some of the older cemeteries on Staten Island have been completed and the Merrills who were found include:
The children of Richard and Susannah that remained on Staten Island included Phillip (1679-1739), Richard (1682-1760), and Thomas (1684-1773).
Richard and his wife Elsie Dorlandt had five children, all of whom lived in Staten Island. These include John (1700-1730), Elsie (1708-1756, married Matthew Decker), Richard (1711-1797), Susannah (<1720>-1754), and Lambert (1721-1755). From these offspring many Merrill descendants are still living and thriving in Staten Island today.
In the United States Census of 1790, there were twelve heads of household with the Merrill surname. The 1800 census listed fifteen households, 1820 had twelve, and by 1840 there were 22. In the census of 1930 there were 124 persons listed with the last name Merrill. From a population of 3,000, Staten had grown to almost 500,000 by the year 2005.
1790 United States Census Data
All of the Merrills in the 1790 census were listed in the Northfield section of Richmond County. This area is centered around the present-day city of Bloomfield. Up until the mid-1800s, the town there was called Merrill Town. Even today there exists a Merrill Avenue in Bloomfield and the old abandoned Merrill Cemetery is located on this street.
Over the years, more and different immigrants moved onto Staten Island. Italian and Irish descendents accounted for nearly half of the population in 2005. Some Merrills continue to live there. In the 1890s, a Merrill was listed as an officer in the Oysterman’s Association. A great honor was earned by Private Joseph F. Merrill, who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroic deeds performed during World War II. Near Lohe, Germany in April, 1945, he made a one-man attack on superior force of Germans. He killed 21 German soldiers and destroyed two machine gun nests before being shot and killed. He was further honored when a Staten Island Ferryboat was named for him.
Photographs of Merrill Cemetery on Staten Island:
In contrast to other abandoned cemeteries on Staten Island, Merrill Cemetery, on Merrill Avenue near Richmond Avenue, has held up pretty well, since it's protected by a chain link fence that's locked part of the time. All photos are © by forgotten-ny.com.