The Town of Hempstead is the largest township in the United States, encompassing over 142 square miles, with a population of approximately 770,000 people. Within the Town there are 34 unincorporated areas and 22 incorporated villages, over 65 parks and marinas, and 2,500 miles of city, county, state, and federal roads. The records in the holdings of the Town of Hempstead Archives portray events and transactions that impacted on the management, physical development, and governance of the Town of Hempstead.
The history of the Town of Hempstead really begins prior to its official inception in 1644. In 1636, settlers from the Plymouth, Massachusetts Colony established the towns of Hartford, Windsor and Wethersfield (called Watertown) in Connecticut. From Wethersfield, a handful of people journeyed along the Long Island Sound and established Stamford, Connecticut. This group included the Reverend Richard Denton and his four sons. In 1643, two emissaries ― Robert Fordham and John Carman, Fordham's son-in-law ― were sent across the Long Island Sound to the Dutch-held westerly part of Long Island to obtain town rights from William Kieft (Director General) and to purchase title from the Indians. In December of 1643, Carman and Fordham met with tribal representation of the Reuckowacky, the Merockes, Matinecock, and Massapequas and a land deed was negotiated on December 13, 1643. The deed failed to specify boundaries of the vast land tract that was to become Hempstead. Nor did it mention any form of compensation for the tribes. The Deed that Fordham and Carman had concluded with the Indians in 1643 was not confirmed until July 4, 1657.
Although colonists began to come over to what is present day Hempstead [the name Hempstead seems to derive from Hemel-Hempstead, in Great Britain, which means town spot.], it was not until November of 1644 that Dutch Director General William Kieft issued the patent granting the settlers rights and title [Kieft Patent].
During the early years, the decisions that came out of the Town of Hempstead Annual and Special Meetings formed the basis for local government and community living. Primarily, these decisions, often termed as "orders," dealt with the community land and the enforcement of local laws. The following excerpts provide a flavor of these early Town Meetings:
May 2, 1654 - It is ordered by all the inhabitants that hath any right in the work shall sufficiently make up either his or their proportion of fence at or before the 15th day of May next ensuing the date hereof stilo nova and every person or persons that is found negligent in so doing, shall pay for every rod defective two shillings and sixpence.(1)
May 2, 1658 - At a town meeting this present day, it is ordered that every inhabitant within this town of Hempstead shall within five days, after the date hereof, give in to be enlisted by the Town Clerk, all lands that was ploughed, and reaped and gathered viz. hollows, uplands, homelots, excepting one hollands acre by patent allowed, for each inhabitant, allowance whereby our tithe may be paid unto the Governor according to our agreement, being one hundred shocks of wheat.(2)
July 10, 1658 - It is ordered and agreede by general vote ye Mr. Richard Gildersleve, according to appointment is to go to Mannatens to agree with ye Governor concerning the tytles and therein is ordered not to exceede one hundred scheepels [sic] of wheate (and if required) it is to be delivered at the towne habour and the charge of his journey is to be defrayed by the towne.(3)
During the 20 years under Dutch rule, the Town of Hempstead had a good measure of self-rule. Elections were allowed for magistrates, a clerk, five townsmen, a pounder, cattle keepers, hay warden, and other local officials. Following the British taking of New York from the Dutch, the Duke's Law Convention was held in Hempstead in February, 1665. The purpose of the Convention was to adopt basic principles of law, local government, and approve a constitution. The following towns sent delegates: Southampton, Seatalcott (Brookhaven), Huntington, Oyster Bay, Hempstead, Jamaica, Gravesend, Newtown, Flushing, Brooklyn, Bushwick, Flatbush, New Utrecht, and from the mainland, Westchester. Hempstead sent John Hicks and Robert Jackson.
In 1683, the New York Colony divided into 12 counties, and Hempstead became part of Queens County. At the April 1, 1684 Town Meeting:
it is agreed upon by majority vote that all and every person that have had grants of home lots are obliged, either to fence, build upon or improve them within three years and one day's time, or if they do not improve the same Lotts according to ye above written agreement in the time specified, then the said home lotts belonging to the persons they were given to, are to return to the towne again...(4)
With the British back in charge, and Hempstead under British rule, the Town patent was again revised [Dongan Patent] in 1686.
As the Town continued to grow, record keeping and accounting was becoming more and more important, as is illustrated by the following excerpt:
At a general Town Meeting held at Hempstead the 22nd day of May 1711 it was voted by a major vote that every freeholder on the township of Hempstead shall give an account of what lands he hold in the township of Hempstead, and by what right he holds it by... (5)
By the mid-to-late 1700s, Town governance was becoming more complex and more detailed:
Town Meeting - the 30th day of March 1752. It was voted and agreed by the major vote of the tenants in common of Hempstead plains that the plains should be divided to every person that hath any right to the same according to every persons right in the patent with respect of quality the one part with the other after the deduction of former divisions, grants, hollows & highways.(6)
Town Meeting - the 14th day of April 1755, it was by the majority of the freeholders and tenants in common of the town voted and agreed upon to fence the plains belonging to this town off from the adjacent towns...(7)
Town Meeting - 19th day of April 1771 pursuant to a warrant granted for that purpose was then voted by a majority of the freeholders and inhabitants then assembled that the committee lately appointed to erect buildings to accommodate the poor belonging to this town be empowered and they are by the said town of Hempstead empowered to purchase land to erect the said buildings...(8)
Town Meeting - April 6, 1773 - At the same town meeting it was voted that the same persons that was appointed to build a poor [house] should erect a building nigh the same as a place of confinement and that the trustees pay them the expense of the same out of the public money in their hands.(9)
During the American Revolutionary War, settlers on the south shore of Hempstead were aligned with the British cause, and those on the north shore with the Revolutionary cause. So severe was this division that it lead to the formation, in 1784, of the separate Towns of South Hempstead and North Hempstead. The Town Records fail to indicate any reason whatsoever for the division and the only notation of a division is found in the following excerpt:
At a Town meeting held Hempstead according to adjournment the 15th day of April 1784 and the Town being then divided into two towns and after the town officers for South Hempstead were chosen the Town meeting chose by major vote John Hendrickson Senior and Nathaniel Seaman as a committee to associate with a committee to be chosen by the Town of North Hempstead for the purposes of dividing the poor and poor house of the two townships.(10)
During the 1800s, South Hempstead, which became known as Hempstead, continued to grow steadily. The population was 4,141 in 1800; by 1810 it was 5,084; and by 1830 it has grown to over 6,200. By 1855 it was the most populous town in Queens County with just under 10,500 people. Within 35 years the population more than doubled to just under 24,000 in 1900. Long Island was also growing during this period. The Long Island Telegraph was first published in the Village of Hempstead in 1830 (became the Hempstead Inquirer in 1831). The Long Island Railroad (chartered in 1834), decided that the line would be extended to Hempstead in 1836.
The Civil War, notated as the War of Rebellion in Town Records, did impact on the Town to an extent. In 1861, Camp Winfield Scott was set up on the Hempstead Plains by the Federal Government. At a Special Town Meeting on August 27, 1862 the following Resolutions were endorsed and adopted.
Resolved that to make ample provisions for the comfort of any who shall volunteer, and for their families in their absence this meeting of the citizens of the Town of Hempstead recommend that seventy five dollars bounty be given to each volunteer for the war, and, we also pledge ourselves to aid and protect the families of such during their absence.
Resolved, that to make provision for the payment of this bounty and having full confidence in the liberal policy and honor of the citizens of town, to sanction the same in special town meeting. This meeting respectfully and earnestly request Robert Cornwell Esq our supervisor, to borrow on the credit of the Town such sums as may be necessary, the aggregate of which shall not exceed twenty five thousand dollars, and that he pay to each volunteer enlisting the sum of seventy five dollars, on the presentation of proper vouchers of his enlistment from the Town of Hempstead and acceptance by the appointed officers of the Government.
Therefore Resolved by the legal voters of the Town of Hempstead in Special Town Meeting assembled, August 27th 1862 that the foregoing resolutions, be, and the same are hereby endorsed and adopted as the action of this Special Town Meeting.
Resolved, by the legal voters of the Town of Hempstead in Special Town Meeting assembled, that there be assessed and collected on the taxable real and personal property of said Town the sum not exceeding twenty five thousand dollars to be apportioned by the Supervisor of said Town in the payment of bounties to such persons who since the 13th day of August 1862, have enlisted or who may hereafter enlist in the volunteer service of the United States, pursuant to the proclamations of the President thereof.(11)
By the Annual Town Meeting of 1866, there was no mention whatsoever about the past war. The Meeting dealt with the election of officials and the following resolutions: raising over $80,000 to support the poor of the Town for the ensuing year; appointment of a Sexton; setting of times for the cutting of grass on the common marshes and beaches; fines for cutting before specified time; conveyance of a deed of land (forty acres) to the Queens County Agricultural Society for the promotion of agriculture; the entire $700+ in the Relief Fund be appropriated to the support of the Town poor; and the setting of the next annual meeting.(12)
Up until the mid-1870s, the Annual or Special Town Meetings were held at different locations. At the Town Meeting on April 7, 1874, it was "resolved that the sum of five thousand two hundred and fifty dollars ($5250) be appropriated by the board of Auditors from the surplus funds of the Town arising from the sale of the Hempstead Plains for the purpose of purchasing Washington Hall for the use of the Town."(13)
The late 1800s were relatively undisturbed times for Hempstead. The population growth was under 10,000 between 1880 and 1900. The Town, along with the rest of Long Island, supplied the Greater Metropolitan area with a multitude of farm products (dairy, produce, and livestock) and provided abundant recreational opportunities. Summer resorts (cottages, hotels, beach & boat clubs) abounded on the South Shore. Fox hunting was available in Westbury, East Williston, and Cedarhurst, and polo was played in Westbury. Horse racing, which dates back over 300 years, continued to enjoy a great deal of interest.
"On January 1, 1898, Chapter 378, of the Laws of 1897, went into effect, creating The (Greater) City of New York which included that part of Queens County known as the Towns of Jamaica, Newtown, Flushing and the Westerly Part of Hempstead. (The Rockaway.)" (14) "By Chapter 588, Laws of 1898, passed April 27, 1898, the County of Nassau was created, which included the Towns of Oyster Bay, North Hempstead, and that part of Hempstead not already incorporated into New York City."(15) At the December 28, 1898 Town Board Meeting it was "Resolved, That the Town Clerk be and is hereby authorized to procure a Seal of the Town changing the word Queens to Nassau County and have the same for use by January 1st 1899."(16)
By the turn of the century, Hempstead had a population of just over 27,000. The early 1900s saw the introduction of the trolley, which soon linked Mineola, Freeport, Hempstead, and Valley Stream. Also during the early 1900s Hempstead became the center of activity for aviation. In 1909, Glen Curtis flew his "Gold Bug" out of Mineola, followed in 1911 by the first air mail delivery to Washington, D.C., the flight of the dirigible (blimp) R-34 in 1919, and the famous Lindberg flight in 1927.
In 1917, a proposition was voted on for a Town Hall. It read "Shall the sum of Seventy-five thousand Dollars ($75,000) be raised by tax upon the taxable property of the Town of Hempstead, for the purpose of building a Town House in the Village and Town of Hempstead." Total ballots cast & counted: 3,849; Total YES - 1,899; Total NO - 1,772; Total Blank or Defective - 178.(17)
By 1930, the population of Hempstead grew to just over 186,000. After the Second World War, returning GIs and their families expanded the population from just over 265,000 in 1940 to 448,000 in 1950. Levittown serves as but one example of the suburban growth in the Town. Further population growth and development after the Korean War boosted the population to over 765,000 by 1960. The population peaked at just over 800,000 in 1970, and leveled at approximately 725,000 by the 1990s.