The History of Richmond town

The History of Richmond Town, Staten Island,
and Development of the Museum

In the heart of Staten Island, there is a place where the past can still be experienced with all your senses. The story of Richmond Town reveals layers of the past, and the lives of ordinary people connected to each other in many ways. From its beginning as a rural crossroad, through its development as county seat, to its place as a rustic outpost within New York City, this has been a community of people living and working together.

Staten Island is located at the entrance of New York Harbor, one of the world’s greatest natural ports. Algonquin Indians of the Lenape culture inhabited the island when it was sighted by Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524. During the 1600s, a few settlements were formed on Staten Island when the Dutch colonized the region, seeking wealth from its natural resources. Staten Island was named in honor of the governing body of the Netherlands, the States General, but in 1664 the British took control. Staten Island became part of the colony of New York and was designated the County of Richmond.

Map

The town of Richmond was first established as a crossroads settlement among the scattered farms of Staten Island. It was not the first village; but because of its central location, the Dutch Reformed congregation chose this place for its religious activities. They built a combined meeting house and home for their lay minister and teacher. His name was Hendrick Kroesen, and he lived here with his family from about 1696 to 1701.

In the 1700s, the town of Richmond began to take shape as the government center of Richmond County. Most of the people who chose to live at Richmond in the early period were of Dutch, English, or French ancestry. There were blacksmiths, shoemakers, and other craftsmen. A storekeeper and a doctor lived in town. Mills processed grain from local farms. At least some residents owned African slaves, who were laborers or skilled apprentices.

During the American Revolution, British troops were stationed here, sleeping in the homes and barns of Richmond’s families. A church and an early courthouse were destroyed.

In the early 1800s, the young nation was flourishing. As Manhattan became increasingly crowded, Staten Island emerged as a popular retreat. Wealthy city residents built estates and resorts on Staten Island’s hilltops and near its shores. Towns popped up around new industries which produced goods for the growing metropolis. Other communities centered upon maritime trades–like Sandy Ground, which was founded by African American oystermen.

As more people came to live on Staten Island, the business of the county grew, and the tiny hamlet of Richmond grew as well. The Greek Revival style courthouse building was erected in 1837, giving the whole town a heightened air of prominence. On land surrounding the courthouse, a small residential development was created. This new civic center on the hill overlooked the older section of town, just a few hundred yards away. Richmond Town was a bustling neighborhood and a meeting place for people who came to town to appear at court, attend church or school, or stop in a tavern. Local businesses prospered. Third County Courthouse, built 1837Third County Court House, built 1837
But by the end of the 1800s, growth at Richmond had slowed. When court was not in session, the town center had a sleepy quality.

There were still enterprising business people here, like Solomon Rosenberg, who operated the Richmond Road House. Sarah Black and her sisters ran their family’s general store for many years. But the town’s development did not keep pace with Staten Island as a whole. Towns along the island’s shores, like Tompkinsville and Port Richmond, had become more important centers of commerce, partly because they had better access to transportation. One hundred years ago, Richmond Town was already known as an old-fashioned place.

Sarah Black, Mary Black, and Josephine Black
Sarah Black, Mary Black, and Josephine Black

When Staten Island became a borough of New York City in 1898, some county functions were gradually absorbed by the city government and a new government center was built at St. George, the island’s closest point to Manhattan.

Richmond continued as a residential neighborhood, but the loss of the county seat was a severe blow to local businesses.

Development of the Museum

Although Richmond was no longer the government center of Staten Island, it soon became the center of the local preservation movement. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, an idea arose from the local community. Volunteers from the Staten Island Historical Society, which had been founded in 1856, shared a vision of what Richmond Town could become. As a volunteer organization determined to preserve an entire village, their activities were unprecedented. Led by William T. Davis and Loring McMillen, these early preservationists believed that saving evidence of the past could connect all of us to the real people who lived before us.

The former County Clerk’s and Surrogate’s Office was transformed into the first museum facility at Richmond Town, with the help of government grants from the Works Progress Administration. Staten Islanders donated artifacts, along with the books and archives that are used to document local history. Although many early buildings had already been lost, the Voorlezer’s House was rediscovered after centuries of obscurity–still standing, though barely recognizable. It was quickly restored and opened to the public with rousing celebrations of civic pride.

County Clerk's andSurrogate's Office, built 1848
County Clerk’s and
Surrogate’s Office, built 1848

Making Barrels

Churning Butter

In the 1950s the Historical Society signed a contract with the City of New York, promising to maintain and develop Historic Richmond Town as a museum village. The purpose was not to freeze a single moment in time, but to create a journey through time, so that we can witness the evolution of the town, meeting people along the way.

The Historical Society moved additional buildings to Richmond Town to help tell the story of Staten Island’s past. These buildings would not have survived had they remained on their original sites.

Today, the restoration, collecting, and research continues. A professional staff works with the help of many community volunteers to preserve the magic that will keep history alive at Richmond Town for generations to come.

Your Visit to Historic Richmond Town

Today there are 27 buildings within the museum village, many of which have been restored and are open for touring. You can see furnished interiors, formal exhibitions, and demonstrations of daily activities of early Staten Islanders on a seasonal, scheduled basis. Your journey through time can take you to the home of Hendrick Kroesen, the Dutch Voorlezer in the 1690s.

Candle Making

You’ll pass through time to rural Staten Island of the 1820s and visit the farmhouse where Elizabeth Lake Tysen was born and later raised 10 children of her own. Closer to the Courthouse, you’ll see the buildings of the town center, including the home and general store owned by Stephen D. Stephens in the 1860s. You can return all through the year to enjoy a variety of special programs.

 

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